Why Chinese is so damn hard

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.

Click to read the rest.


4 thoughts on “Why Chinese is so damn hard”

  1. It’s not always that frustrating, but it’s comforting to know that when I’m suffering at least I’m not alone! All’s well here, hope you are, too.

  2. “A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. ”

    That statement is just totally untrue.

    Well, I agree Classic Chinese is damn hard,(But why learn it? Since nobody use it anymore.) Classic Chinese does take a long time even for sinologists to understand the full meaning of a sentence.

    And Modern Chinese is just EASY compare to English, no grammer, no plural or non-plurals, no present or past tense difference, no -ing, no -ly, no loopy and wiggy tongues. Only thing is hard is to memorize the characters, but since Mao’s cultural revolution have banished most of the hard, complex ones.

    Go find an article called “English is a crazy language.”

  3. Fair enough. The issue he raises about allusions to earlier literature exists in English literature as well (most commonly with references to Shakespeare and the Bible). Still, I get the impression that classical Chinese takes this to an entirely different level and presupposes a great deal more knowledge.

    I will not disagree that English is hard. I would hate to learn it as a second language. Given its many parents, it’s not surprising that it’s full of inconsistencies.

    “English is a crazy language” is actually the introduction of a book called “Crazy English” that I loved when I was growing up. Thanks for your comment, and for reminding me of a fun book!

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