David Moser, of the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, has written a wonderful article entitled “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. A short excerpt on learning classical Chinese:
“Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads.”
Moser does a great job of communicating the frustrations of studying Chinese (it takes a “kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective”), and wins bonus points for describing the guilty, if intensely satisfying, pleasure of seeing a Chinese person unable to remember a character for a common word.