Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine

old-Literary Chinese

Classical Chinese resources for the busy practitioner.

夫經方之難精,由來尚矣。
The reason why the methods in the classics are so difficult to grasp in their essence is that they come from such a lofty origin.
— Sun Simiao 孫思邈, Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方 I.2

A collection of introductory resources (online, software, and books) for the study of classical Chinese, aimed at busy practitioners with a desire to acquire rudimentary language skills to gain access to the Chinese medical classics.

On this page, I am collecting and sharing resources, digital and in print, on the classical Chinese language, from very basic to a bit more advanced. Please note that this website is created not for the sinology graduate student or academic researcher but primarily for Chinese medicine students and practitioners who want to learn some classical Chinese to improve their understanding of the medical classics by looking at the Chinese alongside solid English translations. Below, you find lists of

  1. Digital dictionaries

  2. Software and applications

  3. Databases

  4. Books.

My particular take on this huge (and seemingly overwhelming) subject has grown out of my experience teaching classical Chinese to practitioners and students of Chinese medicine, as a private mentor, in seminars, and in many courses at the School of Classical Chinese Medicine (National College of Natural Medicine, Portland OR) in the "Classical Texts" series. While it may appear completely foolhardy and preposterous to any serious sinologist, it has been my experience, validated again and again in each course I teach, that Chinese medicine practitioners benefit immensely from even the most rudimentary access to the Chinese classical literature in the original language. As a professional translator with a PhD in sinology and decades of education and practice that have given me fluency in classical and modern Chinese language, I am keenly aware of the difficulty of acquiring the skills necessary to fully comprehend all the layers of meaning any line of classical Chinese may or may not have contained. Scholars in the Tang dynasty couldn't even agree on what a text from the Han dynasty meant. I embrace this challenge for me personally as a lifelong quest and am the first to humbly confess the limitations of my own efforts, such as in my project of translating Sun Simiao's 孫思邈 Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方, or much more so for a text like the Huang Di Nei Jing 黃帝內經 ("Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic"), which I try to avoid making conclusive statements about. In my experience and opinion, it is impossible to fully express the different layers of meaning inherent in any classical Chinese text in a translation into a modern language. I justify my activity of publishing bilingual English translations because it is a small step in the direction of accessing the original source. Yes, it is impossible to learn enough classical Chinese in a couple of years of part-time (or even full-time) study to completely decipher the ancient literature. BUT... the experience of studying the very basics of classical Chinese can allow the motivated student to then look at the original sources under the guidance of a more experienced teacher, whether in a class or even just by sitting down with one or preferably several high-quality bilingual publications with textual notes and commentary. And this practice, embraced as a process of life-long learning, WILL make all the difference in the world in understanding the content of this literature, whether you are looking at Confucius' sayings, obscure self-cultivation literature, or seemingly straight-forward formula texts like the Shang Han Lun 傷寒論 ("Treatise on Cold Damage"). It is a great challenge, slightly insane and not for the faint-of-heart, but the joy and inspiration you may find in it might make it all worth it. Watch out for some blog posts on this topic in the coming months, as I am currently deeply involved in the preparation of a whole new curriculum for the 9-course 3-year Classical Texts series that will be part of our long-anticipated clinical doctorate program (DAOM) at the National College of Natural Medicine. In the list below, the titles of the resources are active links that will take you to the relevant page or site.

 

Introduction

"Digital Resources for Sinologists"

Published May 27, 2014 by Holger Schneider and Jeffrey Tharsen, this article is NOT a database but a wonderful introduction to the topic of lexicography and its particular significance in the Chinese context, as well as a comprehensive list and discussion of the most relevant digital dictionaries. It certainly contains all the digital dictionaries I ever use at this moment in time. Below, I offer my favorites, research tools that I use on a fairly regular basis or recommend to students because previous students have found them helpful.

 

1. Digital Dictionaries

ZDIC.NET

This is hands-down the single most useful and comprehensive free online dictionary, which I use on a daily basis. Some of its distinguishing features:

  • short summary list of basic meanings: 基本解释
  • expanded explanations with nuanced definitions and a profusion of classical quotations: 详细解释
  • links to the full entry in the Kang Xi Zi Dian (康熙字典) and Shuo Wen Jie Zi (说文解字)
  • different versions of the character (seal writing, Japanese/Korean, alternate forms...): 字源字形
  • written in simplified Chinese but can be searched in traditional characters as well.

Unfortunately, it will only prove helpful to people with a fairly solid background in Chinese, as it is in Chinese only. Here is a serious reason to learn Chinese, just to be able to use this amazing resource!

 

Zhong Wen Da Ci Dian 中文大辭典

In spite of its English title ("Encyclopedia Dictionary of the Chinese Language"), this is yet another Chinese-only resource. But it could be much worse... and actually was, in its original version as Tetsuji Morohashi's Dai Kan Wa Ji Ten 大漢和辭典, a Chinese-Japanese dictionary published in 1960. In my early years of graduate school, I spent innumerable painful hours if not days looking up a single character and deciphering its meaning from the Japanese explanations! The on-line version is based on the Chinese translation, published as Zhong Wen Da Ci Dian 中文大辭典.

  • search for single characters or for character combinations, an invaluable improvement over the printed edition!
  • searchable by character, by pronunciation (but you'll have to know bopomofo), and by radical
  • perhaps more purely classical than zdic.net, and quite likely one of the key sources for zdic
  • replaces an entire bookshelf of the printed version (12 giant volumes and an index)

 

MDBG English to Chinese Dictionary

I personally don't use on-line English to Chinese dictionaries, mostly because they are all of limited use for classical literature, but this is a good one for beginners.

  • Chinese to English AND English to Chinese
  • searchable by English word, Chinese character or Chinese word (typed into the search box in Chinese or by pinyin sound, with or without tones, or by radical and stroke number, all in a single search box.
  • includes learning tools such as stroke animations, color-coded tones, flashcards, vocabulary web feeds, and quizzes
  • downloadable off-line version for Mac and PC
  • even has a German version!

 

Zhongwen.com

This is another popular modern Chinese online dictionary, often recommended by my students. Created by Rick Harbaugh in 1996-2011, this online Chinese-English dictionary is designed specifically as a tool for Chinese language learners, based on his published book Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary. Like the MDBG dictionary, it is a resource for MODERN CHINESE and therefore has serious limitations for classical Chinese.

  • arranged graphically on the basis of character etymology, to show the layers of meanings in each character and interconnections between different characters with shared components
  • gives the etymology of each character in English
  • pronunciation, English, and stroke count indexes
  • limited to about 4,000 characters or 12,000 words, so not that comprehensive

 

ChineseEtymology.org

This website is dedicated to providing information on the various early forms of Chinese characters, in an easily searchable format. Note that you can only search by typing or pasting in the Chinese character, however. The site also provides a basic English meaning in the side bar, but the English etymology explanation that is announced on the website is not finished yet, as of May 2014. Created by Richard Sears and last updated in 2013. An app for this website is also available.

 

Digital Dictionary of Buddhism

An invaluable resource for anybody working with Buddhist literature or wondering whether a phrase or character in medical, Daoist, or other literature may be influenced by Buddhist connotations in a certain context. Contains indexes for technical terms, texts, persons, temples, schools, places, and names. The explanations under individual entries are quite comprehensive and include the Sanskrit terms, wherever applicable. The first ten searches in any 24-hour period are free. How I wish I had had this resource during my years in graduate school!

 

2. Software and Applications

Wenlin

In spite of its considerable price tag ($99 in May '14) and its focus on modern Chinese, I highly recommend this trusted computer software to all of my students who are serious about studying Chinese and reading Chinese texts. Wenlin is the main reason why I provide clean digital versions for any texts I teach or work. Anybody who describes learning Chinese as a "glorious experience" gets my support. The way I use this marvelous tool is by copying and pasting a Chinese text (anything from a line to an entire book) into Wenlin. The "instant look-up" feature, which is activated by simply scrolling over any character with the mouse, provides basic information (pronunciation, simplified and traditional forms, and a basic range of meanings and compounds). If that is not enough, you can click on the character to get a full page of information.

  • "Wenlin is designed to help make learning Chinese more interesting, enjoyable, and successful. It’s also intended, in a small way, to help bring about peace, understanding, and appreciation for linguistic diversity."
  • modern Chinese so beware especially of compound definitions, which tend to be misleading and nonsensical in classical contexts
  • The newest version has a link to the Chinese definition from the Shuo Wen Jie Zi 說文解字, and more or less helpful explanations of character etymology. But Wenlin is not your ideal tool for etymological research
  • gives pronunciation, stroke count, radical, and lists of characters that contain your searched character as a component, of words that contain your character, and of words that start with your character.
  • provides the numbers for looking the character up in Karlgren, Han Yu Da Ci Dian, and, most notably, Mathews
  • flashcards, handwriting recognition, dictionary, and text editor
  • dictionary entries are user-modifiable, which is a surprisingly useful feature
  • wonderful introduction to Chinese language and writing on their website!

 

Pleco

I think of Pleco as the equivalent of Wenlin for tablets and smart phones. This is probably my students' favorite tool because of its versatility, fair price (the basic app is FREE!), and its features dedicated to language learning. Perhaps even more so than the more academic Wenlin, it is a hip tool for MODERN Chinese language acquisition, but it is again of limited use for reading classical texts.  As I still do my serious research and translation work on my computer, I am simply more familiar with Wenlin.

  • "the world's best dictionaries...And much more - we are Pleco Software, purveyors of ridiculously awesome Chinese language reference and learning apps for iPhone, iPad, iPod, and Android."
  • OCR and handwriting recognition allows you to instantly look up characters by pointing your device's camera at them or drawing them on the screen, even in the wrong stroke order. Also, flashcards and animated stroke order diagrams.
  • lots of downloadable dictionaries, which do come at what I consider a very fair price. Most notably for our purposes here: the Gu Hanyu Da Cidian (classical Chinese to modern Chinese) and the complete text of Wiseman's Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine, which alone makes this app an indispensable resource for any serious student of Chinese medicine.
  • the "Document Reader" allows you to read Chinese text in a way similar to Wenlin, if not quite as smoothly, by pasting text chunks into the app, or saving them in "Plain Text" format (".txt" Note: Save as "other encoding": Unicode 6.1 UTF-8 or Pleco won't open it, at least last time I checked!), opening the file, and then tapping on individual characters.
  • student pricing for optional features and dictionaries
  • Mathews number and other additional information can be activated during set-up from deep within the bowels of the system.

 

3. Databases

Chinese Text Project

According to their own website, "The Chinese Text Project is a web-based e-text system designed to present ancient Chinese texts, particularly those relating to Chinese philosophy, in a well-structured and properly cross-referenced manner, making the most of the electronic medium to aid in the study and understanding of these texts." Its core is a large database of Chinese source texts from the pre-Qin through the Han periods in searchable accurate editions, organized by philosophy (Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism...), histories, ancient classics, medicine, and the excavated manuscripts from Guodian and Mawangdui. The major texts on philosophy in particular also have English translations and expandable traditional commentaries. Other features are a dictionary, searchable parallel passages, images of source texts in published editions, and all sorts of metadata that I don't understand. And the whole website is free!

 

Chinese Ancient Texts Database Project (CHANT)

This is a Chinese database of early Chinese literature, including oracle bone writings, excavated texts on bamboo and silk from Shuihudi, Mawangdui, etc., bronze inscriptions, transmitted literature from the pre-Qin to Han periods, and miscellaneous texts up to the sixth century. This database requires a subscription, which luckily for me, the National College of Natural Medicine provides for all students and faculty.

 

4. Books

Note: The following selection is very, very basic and definitely not comprehensive! I have listed these books in the order of frequency in which I refer to them myself or recommend them to students or colleagues.

Mathews Chinese-English Dictionary

Compiled by a Presbyterian missionary and published in 1931, this book is the only existing dictionary from classical Chinese into English. For anybody who is serious about reading any Chinese literature that predates the twentieth century and who is unable to fluently read Chinese-Chinese or Chinese-Japanese resources, this good old monster is absolutely indispensable. No digital version exists, it is bad for your back to lug it around, some of the translation choices are a bit questionable, and it is arranged in Wade-Giles (an outdated system of transcribing Chinese sound that nobody uses any more), but let's face it: There simply is still no way around Mathews - at least until you have memorized the beast...

  • irreplaceable as the only existing dictionary from classical Chinese to English
  • arranged by Wade-Giles pronunciation, but with a traditional character plus stroke count index in the back, followed by a stroke-count index of characters with obscure radicals
  • contains a small but useful amount of phrases from classical literature, to indicate the range of classical meanings
  • Mathews numbers are included under the extra information in both Wenlin and Pleco (see below under "Software and Applications"

 

Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine

Nigel Wiseman and Feng Ye's masterpiece. Yes, I am aware of the continuously raging controversy over technical terminology, and yes, just like everybody else with a brain and opinion in the profession, I do have my own personal set of terms that I prefer over some of Wiseman's choices, based primarily on my classical orientation. Nevertheless, I consider this book to be the single greatest resource that has ever been created for the profession of Chinese medicine in a Western language. The only reason to not have this book on your desk anymore is that it is now available as an add-on for Pleco where it can be conveniently stored on your tablet or phone.

 

Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar

Written by Edwin G. Pulleyblank, this is not a beginner's guide but extremely helpful for the more serious student. Contrary to the way classical Chinese has traditionally been taught (including to myself), classical Chinese does have grammar rules, they make perfect sense and can be consistently applied, there are "right" and "wrong" ways of interpreting a phrase or sentence, and it is essential to familiarize yourself with these rules if you want to avoid making a fool of yourself, especially if you are going to publish anything you translate. The book has an index organized by pinyin that is particularly helpful for grammatical particles. To me, the best feature of the book is the numerous example sentences, culled mostly from the Confucian texts of the high classical period (Confucius to 221 BCE), which clearly demonstrate the rules. This book is a treasure in the world of classical Chinese language study.

 

An Introduction to Literary Chinese

By Michael A. Fuller. I have used this so-called "textbook for beginning students" for a few of my beginning classes at the National College of Natural Medicine, with mixed results. It is a wonderful, wonderful resource but definitely not a book for self-study or for the casual student with no background in modern Chinese. It has a great introduction and an essay on "Issues in the Linguistic Aspects of Literary Chinese" in the appendix that I highly recommend, as well as a very helpful "Glossary of Function Words." The lessons in Part One ("Texts to Introduce Basic Grammar") include grammatical overviews, short texts with glossary and notes, and practice exercises, but unfortunately pack a whole lot of challenging information into just a few pages. This book is probably perfect for the serious sinology student but may be too demanding for a busy Chinese medicine student or practitioner without the necessary time and energy who is just starting out in their studies of classical Chinese. I could definitely see its use for a Western (or even Chinese) student or practitioner of Chinese medicine who is familiar with modern Chinese language and TCM and has spent an extended period of time in China. In modern Chinese, it is easy and safe to quote the classics in publications or lectures on medicine, because you can always just use the literal citation, without having to address the painful details of grammar. Cha bu duo 差不多 is good enough. But that attitude passes less and less in a professional context in the Western world. The level of sinological scholarship among current translators of Chinese medical literature is unfortunately still often quite low, due to the fact that a true understanding of a text like the Huang Di Nei Jing 黃帝內經 would require several lifetimes of studying classical Chinese language, literature, and culture, in addition to thelifetimes necessary for clinical experience and knowledge and self-cultivation. Studying this grammar textbook may help a little.

 

Chinese Medical Chinese: Grammar and Vocabulary

Written by the authors of the Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine, Nigel Wiseman and Feng Ye, this book sees itself as "a very sophisticated and highly useful work that provides a sound basis for reading both modern and classical texts for anyone wishing to learn original Chinese medical language." I highly recommend it to any serious student, beginning or advanced, interested in reading Chinese medical literature, classic or modern, in the original language. The first 70 pages on grammar in particular are full of great example sentences and phrases that allow you to practice basic vocabulary and grammar rules in familiar contexts. My only concern would be that this book does not, and never intended to, prepare you, on its own, to fully comprehend a text from the classical period. It is an excellent comprehensive resource and introduction to grammar but does not focus on the intricacies of classical grammar in the way that Fuller, Pulleyblank, or Barnes do.

 

Chinese Through Poetry

This gem was created by Archie Barnes shortly before his death in 2002 and "was built on a lifetime of learning and teaching." It aptly describes itself as "an Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional Verse" and, while approaching classical Chinese through verse instead of prose, is a beautiful, inspiring, well-structured book that may surprise you in its usefulness. Again, not a book for self-study for the beginner, but for anybody with an appreciation for Chinese poetry (and who doesn't love Li Bai 李白?), this could be a fun and inspiring way to learn about vocabulary, sentence structures and other grammatical patterns, and classical Chinese aesthetics and culture in general. Dr. Barnes' intention was, after all to teach "Chinese through poetry," and not just to introduce students to Chinese poetry.


If you have any comments, additions, or constructive critical feedback on any of the resources listed on this page, please feel free to drop me a note by clicking the button below. I am familiar with other sources on this topic out there but have not included them in this short list because they are overpriced, full of mistakes, not useful for my intended purpose (e.g., too academic or not academic enough), or for whatever other reason not that helpful, in my humble opinion. To make this list manageable and useful, I have simply picked my personal favorites. To be notified of changes, additions, blog posts, etc., subscribe to our newsletter.