Sunday, February 08, 2015

What am I doing these days?

I am almost finished writing a book that teaches Chinese characters by simultaneously teaching how to read Literary Chinese (한문). It is for English-speaking, Korean language learners who can read 한글 and who also want to learn Chinese characters (한자) and Chinese sentences (한문). Chapter One starts with some of the basic characters, such as numbers and colors, used in simple Chinese sentences to teach basic grammar rules, and the other chapters build from there. Each chapter introduces about 15 new characters and new grammar and has a number of sentences that practice the different meanings of the characters and their grammar functions, if any.

Only the new characters in the lesson being studied and characters previous studied are used in the chapter's example sentences so as to keep the focus on the new characters and to review characters already studied. Here is an eample sentence from one of the chapters:
The Master (子) said (曰), “At thirty (三十而), [I] was established [in society] (立). At forty (四十而), [I was] without (不) doubts (惑).”
The above sentence talks only about when "the Master" (Confucius) was 30 and 40 years old because the point of these sentences is NOT to teach the whole passage, but rather to teach the new character 惑 (혹) and to teach a new grammar point related to 而 (에). The other characters in the sentence have already been learned in previous chapters. By the time readers finish all 41 chapters in the book, they will have learned more than 600 of the most commonly used Chinese characters and much of the grammar related to literary Chinese.

The book avoids using the names of people and places because those characters are usually the less common characters that a beginning student can put off learning until later.

The first volume will deal mainly with classical Chinese, but a second volume will deal more with the literary Chinese used in China in the 1800s, building on what has already been learned in Volume One. Volume Two will teach another 600 new characters.

I just pulled the above sentence out of the book to show people that learning literary Chinese (한문) is not as difficult as they may think. Also, it is much easier to learn Chinese characters (한자) by reading and writing them in sentences (한문) than it is to memorize individual characters or words.

I started writing the book because I got frustrated with the books that taught literary Chinese with Chinese pronunciations and with the purpose of being used in a classroom with an instructor rather than for self study. I wanted to write a book that would allow English-speaking, Korean language learners to teach themselves literary Chinese. That is the reason I try to translate every character used in the Chinese sentences instead of just writing a Chinese sentence with the English translation below it, which could leave questions in the minds of students who might not see how parts of the translation were achieved. A Chinese sentence with a an English translation below it might be all right if you have a teacher to explain it to you, but not if you are trying to learn it on your own.

Korea has some good books on this subject, but people have to be pretty fluent in Korean to understand them. Also, I think it is easier to learn Literary Chinese in an English textbook because Chinese and English sentence structures are more alike than Korean. Both Chinese and English, for example, use the Subject-Verb-Object structure, which makes a Chinese sentence easier to read and translate into English. Where it is easier to understand the Chinese sentence with Korean sentence structure, such as the 而 in the above sentence or Chinese relative clauses, which are similar to Korean style relative clauses, I point that out in my notes.

I have spent the past five years or more learning 한문 and the past three years writing this book, though the writing process has been interrupted with many breaks. I hope to have the first volume finished within a month and the second volume a few months after that.


  1. Hi Gerry, Congratulations for nearing the end of your project. I am interested in acquiring this book when it comes out. Could you please keep me in your list of prospective buyers and update me? Regards, Sylvain

  2. Great! I look forward to this.

  3. Uh-oh! I am starting to feel the pressure to finally get this done. Thanks, Kuiwon.

  4. Hi ! I wish you the best on your project, I also wish we could have enough motivation to study these stuff. What I mean is that, some people are busy enough studying Modern Korean alone, I'm worried if they would have some time to study Classical Chinese, and if they do, to what end ?

  5. By the way, I know that you know this also, but there are thousands of (useful) 4-character Chinese-based idioms out there. It would be nice of you if you could have some time to post some popular ones.

  6. Hello, is there any news about your book? I would be very interested in getting a copy as well.

  7. Thank you, Kafka. I am still playing with the book, but I am getting closer. Now I am going through and adding more Korean, something I had not originally played to do. I have found that knowing the Korean translation often helps with understanding. I am not translating every sentence into Korean, just the ones I think help with understanding. Also, some of my explanations are a little wordy, so I am trying to decide if I should shorten them or not. For example, here is a short Chinese sentence with a very long explanation, partly because I am introducing a new grammar item, but mainly because I am trying to anticipate the questions of some beginners.

    1. 其所言, 有信者, 有不信者 (기소언, 유신자, 유불신자).

    [As for] what he said (其所言), there were (有) those who believed (信者), [and] there were (有) those who did not believe (不信者).


    1. 所 generally means “place” or “thing,” but it also has a relative object pronoun function that results in translations such as “the place that,” “the thing that,” or “that which.” Here, for example, 所言 translates as “the thing that (所) was said (言)” or “that which (所) was said (言),” which means 所 is considered the object of the verb 言. When there is no subject mentioned in an English sentence, the clause will normally be translated in the passive voice, which means the object of the verb is moved to the subject position in front of the verb and a “be” verb is added. That is what happens in the translation “the thing that (所) was said (言).” In Korean it translates quite easily as “말한 것을.”

    However, when there is a subject, the clause is translated in the active voice. In this sentence, 其 acts as the subject pronoun “he,” so 其所言 translates as “the thing that he said” or “that which he said,” or “what he said.” Notice that when translated into English “the thing that” comes before the subject pronoun “he,” so it does not translate smoothly, meaning it does not translate in sequence. This can be explained by the fact that 其 does not really mean “he,” but rather “his.”

    As we have already learned, 其 was originally used as a third-person, possessive adjective meaning either “his,” “her,” or “their.” That means 其所言 would more literally translate as “his (其) words that were spoken (所言)” or “his spoken words,” but that seems a little too awkward for a good English translation.

    Though I see no problem with translating 其所言 as “the thing that he said” or “the words that he said,” it is still important to remember the literal meaning because it will help you understand why the possessive 之 often follows a subject noun in such clauses. For example, you might see 王之所言 (왕지소언), which would translate as “the king’s (王之) spoken words.” (You will see another example of this in Sentence 9.7.) Even if “之” does not appear in such a clause, one should still assume it is there.

    In Korean, 其 translates as “그의,” so 其所言 would translate as “그의 (其) 말한 것을 (所言)” or “그의 한 말을,” which is a sentence that seems perfectly natural to most Koreans.

    Also, in this sentence, 其所言 was moved to the front of the full sentence to emphasize it and make it the topic of the sentence, which is why “as for” was added to the translation, to help show it was meant as the topic.

    As for 信者, remember that 者 translates as “one who” or “those who,” so 信者 translates as “those who believe,” but such short phrases can often be simplified to just one word. For example, 信者 can be translated simply as “believers,” and 不信者 as “non-believers.”

    In Korean, the whole sentence would translate as follows: “그의 (其) 말한 것을 (所言), 믿는 사람이 있었고 (有信者), 안 믿는 사람이 있었다 (有不信者).”


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