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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Learning Classical Chinese I - 蒙學漢文初階

First of all I have to thank Kuiwon, for letting me know of this wonderful book in beginning Classical or Literary Chinese.  For this I am indebted to him.  Although it is a primer written for Koreans, it is nevertheless a most precious resource.  

Upon reading the first lesson, there is no problem for me to understand the text.  As such, I embarked on the idea of translating the entire book into English.  Each lesson is short and gives an insight to cultural, historical and traditional thought. The book was written in the first year of the Korean Emperor Lung Hsi (隆熈) or the 33rd year of Kwang Hsu (光緒) Era in China.  In other words, 1907).  There are 203 lessons in total.  For sure, there will be many new words, terms and concepts.  It will be a great way to improve my Chinese.

Since each lesson is short, I shall post fifty lessons together each time.  All footnotes and commentaries will appear at the end of each passage.  A word by word English translation is given first and then followed by a polished version. If there are mistakes, please let me know.  Thanks!

In some cases where there are many meanings to a character, I shall give the most appropriate one for the context.  In cases where a single translated word cannot be used because of the terseness of the language, the English term shall contain words separated by the underscore. A second repeated word means that both words are used as a compound and cannot be used singly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

蒙學漢文初階 第一之課

Lesson 1

天地之間有人焉,  heaven earth {pp} space/span have man from
有萬物焉.             have ten_thousand things from
萬物之眾              ten_thousand things {pp} populace
最貴者,                 most precious  thing
以其有五倫也.      by which this has five relationships.

Between Heaven and earth where man had come from; where a myriad of things had sprung forth, the most precious of all these are those that posses the Five Relationships.


1.   is the possessive particle [pp].  It functions like the apostrophe 's' or the possessive "of" in English.

2.   is a particle describing "the thing which has", "the one who is".

3.  has many meanings.  Depending on context, it can mean this, his, hers, theirs etc. 

4.   in classical is an emphasis particle.  The emphasized words are in bold or underlined.

5.   has many meanings. The basic meaning of the word is "befuddled", "misty" and extended to mean "ignorant", "naïve" or "uncultured".  I suspect that it is a short for some longer phrase.  I could not find any evidence to support my suspicion.  Obviously it cannot mean "befuddled knowledge", or "ignorant study".  Some dictionaries give "to initiate" as one of its meanings.  With this, clue, the term means to fill emptiness with  knowledge.  In another words, to teach the young and uninitiated.

Thus蒙學 can be translated as the "to elucidate the uninitiated" or "the school for the uninitiated".  However, to free the clutter of title of these pedantic details, "beginning" is the best term to use.

For a complete listing of the meanings of this word, see

Included here are some definitions for easy reference and interest.

「易·蒙卦」:“匪我求童蒙,童蒙求我 指蒙昧的人求我不断解决疑难。後来用蒙求做啓蒙的書名。如唐代李翰有《蒙求》,宋朝周守忠有《歷代名医蒙求》,清朝王筠有《文字蒙求》

幼稚, 暗昧不明

stupid, lack of knowledge e.g., 蒙昧, ,

蒙士 (蒙昧無知,学識淺薄的人)
蒙幼 (不懂事的幼童; 蒙昧幼稚的儿童);
蒙師(蒙的老師, 教育孩童的老師
蒙塾// (traditional private elementary school) 舊時指對兒童進行啓蒙教育的私塾 
same as . Also to mean the homework of the initiated children. 也指学童啓蒙的功課
蒙師 First teacher启蒙的老师;教育孩童的老師
蒙童 ignorant children i.e. children without schooling

蒙昧 Uncultured, barbaric; uncivilized, illiterate指未开化的原始状态蒙昧时代 愚昧,不通事理 蒙昧无知

Some other interesting meanings

To suffer
a. go into exile; the sufferance of imperial or high ranking officials when their power was lost. 舊指帝后流亡在外, 蒙受灰塵.
 E.g.主上蒙塵, 「三國志, 諸葛亮傳」靖康年間金人圍困汴梁, 二帝蒙塵北, 一時后妃公主被去甚多「初刻拍案驚奇」 
b.  non-visibility due to dust etc.
蒙垢 - to be humiliated.
蒙難to meet with disaster /killed/in the clutches of the enemy/to fall foul of/in danger
c. To receive
蒙幸/幸蒙 (幸运地受到);
承蒙 to be indebted to someone
d.  Ether: 蒙气 (古指包围地球外面的大气
e.  Honest & tolerant; sincere and kind 忠厚老实

Lesson 2

五倫者,      five Relationships thing-{tp}
父子有親,  father son have affection,
君臣有義,  ruler subject have righteousness
夫妻有别,  husband wife have differences
長幼有序,  old young have order
朋友有信.  Friends have trust.

The so called Five Relationships are:

There is affection between father and son.
Righteousness between the ruler and subjects
Differences between the husband and wife
There is order between the old and the young
And trustworthiness among friends.

Lesson 3

五倫之中    Inside the Five Relationships
有三綱         Have Three Principles
君為臣綱    The ruler for his subjects
父為子綱    The father for his sons
夫為妻綱    The husband for his wives.

Within the Five Relationships, there are three Principles,
The responsibility of the ruler to his subjects.
The responsibility of the father to his sons.
The responsibility of the husband to his wives.

Note the use singular and plural nouns.

Lesson 4

.                   Man
非父不生,        not father not born
非君不食,        not ruler not eat
非師不知,        not teacher not know
故曰                 so said
君師父一体也  ruler teacher father one body

Man. Without the father, there is no life. Without the ruler, there is no food. Without the teacher, there is no knowledge.
So it is thus said,
"The ruler, the teacher and the father is of one body!"

Lesson 5

同受父母之遺體以為人者, same receive parents' body remnants to become human
兄弟也,                               [to become] brothers
故曰                                    thus said
兄弟同氣也,                        brothers same breath
手足也                                 hands feet

We are made from the material of our parents. With other issues, brethren unto to each other. Thus it is said,

"Brethren share the same breath [as our parents]. Hence we are considered that we are the hands and feet [of our parents].

Cultural Notes:  "Hands and feet" thus become the idiom to mean "brotherly love". Ancient Chinese culture from the time of Confucius onwards had been brainwashed to change from a matriarchal society into a patriarchal one.

Lesson 6

朋友.                           Friends
有責善之道故取友,    have responsibility good at the way/path thus take friends.
必端人.                       must be orthodox/proper/upright man.
擇友必勝己                 choose friends must superior [than] myself
沒有不湏友而成者也. Not yet, no need friend and success/become those

On Friends. Those who are well versed in the path of righteousness will make friends who, themselves are upright too. When selecting friends, the chosen ones will be superior than oneself. If there is no need for friends, how can one consider oneself a success?


1.   Literary Chinese does not possess much grammar niceties due to the preference of brevity.  Hence this influences the thought of Chinese writing to become reader responsible.  This is unlike English where it is the writer's responsibility to make things clear. 

2.    is an ancient variation of.

3.  The most difficult to understand is the last line. Parsing term by term can lead to a different outcome. This is also due to the character, .

As a verb, this can mean "to become", "to be transformed". In this way, the line becomes "When you don't have any friend, there is no need to have/become one".

Does not make any sense. However, if you treat this as an adjective to mean "success", it becomes, "When you don't have any friend, there is no need to become a successful one."

Still there is something intuitively wrong with this interpretation in a moral lesson. This sort of interpretation is understandable due to the lack of grammatical niceties. This sentence is a rhetoric; best translated in English as a question.

Lesson 7

有夫婦然後有父子.  Have husband and wife, then have father and son.
夫婦人道之始也.      Husband and wife principle's start
故聖人,                     Thus a saint
重婚姻之禮.              Attach importance to marriage's ritual.

Husband and wife relationship comes before a father-and-son's. This is the primordial principle between husband and wife. Thus to be a saintly person, Importance is placed upon marriage.

Lesson 8

人受天地之愛 man receives Heaven and Earth's love
力而生故,        by all means and beget thus
愛家族,            love family clan
愛社会,            love society collective
愛國家.            love country family
本然之義         ought to be  propriety
務也                 duty

Man is favoured by Heaven and Earth. Thus by all means go forth and multiply. Love thy clan, love thy society and love thy country. It's not only propriety but duty!

Lesson 9

六十分為一時.          Sixty minutes become one hour.
二十四時為一日.      Twenty four hours become one day.
三百六十日為一歲.  Three hundred and sixty days become one year.
歲我不延人生.          Years I not prolong life.
當識分陰.                 Ought know distinguish darkness.

Sixty minutes is one hour. Twenty-four hours is one day. Three hundred and sixty days is one year.  Life is short. Spend your time wisely.


1.   The lunar calendar has 360 days.

2.  The last two lines are the most difficult to translate and because of the terseness of literary Chinese, a direct translation will not make sense to a non-Chinese reader.  Even for those Chinese who have not exposed to literary Chinese will not understand the last line.  Here is short for 光陰 (light and darkness) to denote the passage of time going from light to dark and vice versa.

Lesson 10

百草之中,         Hundred grasses {pp} within
穀植最貴者.     Grain plants most precious thing
為其養人命也. As its sustain human lives
眾木之中           Populace trees {pp} within
松柏者最貴.     Pines and cypress those most precious.
為其有材用也 As they have material/wood to use.

Of the myriad grasses, grains are the most precious as they sustain human life.  Of all the trees, the most precious are the pine and cypress for their timber is useful.

Notes: The modern meaning of is wood.  In Classical Chinese, it means tree just like the Japanese following this convention.  means wood/timber or even ability.

Lesson 11

一梨皮色甚美.        one pear skin color very pretty
 張生謂其味必佳.   Chang Mr. says its taste must good
趙生曰否.               Chao Mr., says, "not"
外美必有內惡.        outside beauty must have inside bad
張生食之.                Mr. Chang eat it.
果然味惡.                The_result taste (noun) bad.

There was a pear in which its skin looks pretty.  Mr. Chang said, "Its taste must be great".  Mr. Chao replied, "Not so.  Outside beauty does not mean that it will be pretty inside".  Mr. Chang ate it.  Indeed, its taste was not good.


1.  What you have seen here is the result of my parsing of the text.  In its original form, there is no punctuation at all.  One has to make sense from the context!  For example, 張生 can also mean to grow!  has to different tones to indicate the difference in meaning.  Thus, 一梨皮色甚美張生, as we first scanned from left to right becomes, "There is a pear growing with a lovely skin appearance"

2.  has several meanings of which "born" is the main one.  Hence extended to "life".  先生, "to be born early" means a teacher who in Sinicized cultures is an older person and thus has respect.  On the other hand, 後生 means a young person. It does not mean a student as no respect is accorded to a learner since he has not earned it. 書生 is a scholar, being born to the books.  衛生 born to guard/protect/defend is a relative modern term to mean "hygiene".

3. here is not the possessive particle.  The meaning here means "it", a pronoun.

4. in modern usage it means evil/fierce/vicious/ugly/coarse/to harm and as a verb "to hate", "to loathe", "to be ashamed", "to fear",  "to slander" and fierce.  In literary usage, it means "bad" as in 善惡, the good and the bad.

5.  The last line can be also translated as "The resultant taste is bad".  This is more precise.  However, the nuance in the original is not as severe as the English version.  This is mainly due to cultural differences.

Lesson 12

人之有衣,                    man [state indicator] has clothing
猶鳥獸之有毛羽也.     like birds animals [state indicator] have fur feather
鳥獸有毛羽然不製服. birds animals have fur feather thus [negation] make clothes.
人能製服故.                man able to make clothes reason/thus
雖無毛羽而不偎寒      although/since no fur feather and not afraid cold.

Man thus has clothing, like birds and animals having feathers and fur.  As such, they  need no clothing. Man is able to make clothing.  Though having neither fur nor feathers, he is unafraid of the cold.


1.   之 here is an indicator of action or a state.

2.  猶 has other meanings, "as if", "still", "yet"

Lesson 13

某生家貧為木工  Certain young_person family/house poor become wood work
性好學,                nature love/like learning
稍暇則獨習書算. somewhat leisure then alone learn books calculation
聞者歎曰              heard those sigh say
無師也.                 no teacher!
尚能勤學              still able diligent/constant study/learn
况有師者乎          moreover have teacher ?

A certain young man whose family was poor and had to become a carpenter.  However, he had an innate love to study.  Somewhat, when he has leisure, he would study the Classics and mathematics.  Those who heard of him would sigh and say, "Alas! No teacher and still so diligent in the pursuit of his learning.  What would the result be if he has a teacher?


1.  as a noun means books.  Here it is referring to the Four Books of Confucius.  Korea is a Confucian society.

2.  is to calculate or to predict.  Here it is referring to mathematics.  Short for 算學, the study of calculations.

3. is a final particle in literary Chinese to denote a question.  Its function is very similar to the modern forms of , and .  Another use is similar to , another particle to mean in/ at/from/because/than

Lesson 14

一兒至人家.    One child approach man house
見一河池.        saw one river pond
池中多魚         pond in many fish
往來遊行.        towards come wander walk
兒喜玩不已.    child joy play not stop.

A child was approaching a house and saw a pond formed by a river.  In it, were many fish swimming around.  The child was overjoyed without bound.


1.  人家 = human abode.  Thus a house.  Only humans build houses.  So translating into English is redundant and unnatural.

2.  遊行 in modern meanings are "to tour", "to parade", "to march" (as in a demonstration).  Since it referring to the fish, even the literal meanings cannot be translated directly into English as walking to and fro.

Lesson 15

一兒兄出外         One child older_brother go_out side
至夕不回             towards sunset not return
兒大哭至門前     child big cry towards door front
則兄與友人         then big_brother and friend person
已同行而回         already same walk and returned.

A boy's older brother went out.  Evening came and still has not returned.  The boy wept and went to the front door.  Then saw the older brother and friend were already walking together towards home.

Lesson 16

兒問其父曰          Son asks his father said
筆以何物所製      pen with what thing from made
答曰                     reply said
黄者黄鼠毛          yellow thing yellow rat hair
青者青鼠毛          black thing black rat hair
白者羊毛或獐也 white thing goat hair or roe_deer

The child asked his father, "What is the brush made from?".  The father replied, "The yellow hair is made from the hair of the brown squirrel.  The black ones are from the black squirrel and the white ones are from goat or roe deer hair.

1.   in modern usage means pen, a writing instrument.  However, in this context it means the Chinese writing brush.

2.   There are several color meanings of .  It ranges from black to blue!  The modern meaning is "green" while in classical Chinese, it is either blue or green.  
Here's the general rule.

a.  green, if about grass, plants, mountains etc.
b.  blue if sky, stones, ceramics etc.
c.   black if, clothing, hair, etc.

Lesson 17

菜園中                    vegetable garden in
有小鷄一群             have small chicken one group
其毛不一                 its fur not one
有黑有白有黄          have black have white have yellow
與母鷄同在草地      with mother chicken same/together on grass ground
爭食其葉                  vie_for eat this leaf

In the vegetable garden, there is a group of little chicks.  Their feathers are different from each other.  There were black, white and yellow.  Together with the mother hen on the grass patch, fighting over which grass blade to eat.

Lesson 18

人力小                     man strength little
牛馬之力大              cow horse [pp] strength great
然不能與人爭          still not able with man vie_with
以人知學                  because man knows knowledge
牛馬不知學              cow horse not know knowledge
人知群,                     man knows group
牛馬不知群耳           cow horse not know group this_is_all.

Man's strength is little.  The strength of cattle and horses are great.  Still they are unable to vie with Man.  This is because Man knows knowledge and they don't.  Man understands the concept to work in groups.  Cattle and horses don't.  This is all to it.


1.  as a verb means "to study".  As a noun, it is "study/learning".  Hence knowledge.

2. is a classical particle to mean, "this is all", "this is it", "end of story", "the end" etc.

Lesson 19

早飯之後                           early cooked_rice [pp] after
有一老人                           have one old man
長鬚白髮                           long beard white hair
披風帽戴眼鏡                   draped wind hat wearing eye mirror
引二兒入室                       lead two children enter room
祖父呼孫                           ancestor father call_out grandson
拜之曰                               pray him said
此我之好友, 李丈              this my [pp] good friend, Lee Chang(yard, measurement)
彼二兒                               these two children
此丈之孫也                       These Chang [pp] grandsons

After breakfast, a bespectacled old man with long beard and white hair wearing a hat to ward off the winds, led two children into the room.  The grandfather called out to his grandson.  After the children paid their respect, he said,

"These two are my good friend's; Li Chang's grandchildren."


1.   風帽 is a kind of ancient hat with a long back (a ducktail) to ward off the winds.  Nowadays, it is a hood where it may be attacked to the jacket used for the same purpose.

2.  means to pray.  However, if you don't know Chinese culture, you will be mystified.  Filial piety demands the younger generation pay full respect by prostration and do the necessary kowtows.  In the old days, children are expected to pay their respects to the parents every morning.  This is called 請安 or "inviting peace".  This sort of custom is unfortunately no longer in vogue in modern society except perhaps on grand occasions such as a traditional wedding.  This is still followed in South East Asian Chinese societies.  After the kowtowing, the bride and groom receive red packets containing lucky amounts of money for good luck.

3.  is a Chinese last name, also used by Koreans. here refers to a person's name.  Remember this classical Chinese primer is written for Koreans.

Cultural note:  

Traditional Chinese families like to have the entire clan living under one roof. To be able to have five generations living together is the greatest honour most cannot have. Longevity is an honour and is a big motive in Chinese arts being represented by cranes, peaches etc.  There are a thousand ways to write the character for "longevity" .

Here's an abridged story… When the Ch'ing Dynasty Emperor Ch'ien Lung (亁隆) while travelling incognito, he saw on a door, a horizontal plaque saying "Under Heaven, The First Family" (天下第一家). The Emperor was visibly annoyed for his should be the one. Therefore this plaque is treasonous and the entire family can be executed. However, he was curious and went in to ask. The explanation given was that even the current monarch cannot lay claim to have five generations living under the same roof! (五代同堂, five generations in the same hall)

Another slightly different version can be found at

Another totally different version of the story but involving the same Emperor can be found at

Personally I think this story is rather contrived.

Lesson 20

祖父問二兒               ancestor father ask two children
予兄讀書已二年矣    my older brother read books already two years ah
我年幼尚未讀書也    my age young yet not_yet read books

The  grandfather asked the second boy. [He replied,]

"Ah, my older brother has been studying for two years already.  I am still small, not yet started on any study."

Notes: In classical Chinese doubles as either two or second.  The context will resolve this issue.  Thus unlike English, can be puzzling on the first reading.

 Lesson 21

小兒問其兄曰     small kid asks his older_brother said
禽何善飛              birds why good fly?
獸何善走              beasts why good run?
禽有兩翼故善飛    birds have two wings hence good fly
獸有四足故善走    beasts have four legs hence good run

A small kid asked his older brother,

"Why are birds good at flying and animals good at running?"

[The older boy] replied,

"Birds have two wings and thus able to fly well. Animals have four legs and so they run better."


1. Originally means wild animals that can fly. This includes snakes for their fast actions that made them look like they can fly. However, nowadays, it is restricted to birds only.

2. means to walk in modern Mandarin. In literary Chinese, Japanese and dialects such as Cantonese, it retain the original meaning, "to run". However, one has to be very careful in interpreting this character for there are vestiges of its original meaning in common expressions such as…

a. 走狗 - running dogs to mean traitors.

b. 走馬灯 - running horses lanterns, a type of lanterns when lit will produce a moving pictures, a kind of a zoetrope.

c. 走火 - running fire to mean, "to go off accidentally" or "to catch fire". The more famous expression is走火入魔 - to catch on fire and enter the demonic realm. This phrase is usually found in Chinese martial arts story where it is a condition that during higher levels of mastering a technique, if one is accidentally not in concentration enough, will cause great damage to one's body and even death can occur. Thus nowadays, it can mean that if one is not paying attention enough to a job, disaster will result.

d. 走水 - running water. This is even trickier. It is a palace taboo wood. During the imperial days, lightning strikes can cause the palace to catch fire. This is because the buildings are made of wood and the palace is the highest structure in a vast open space area. To avoid the word "fire", water is used instead. Another way of looking at it is that great cisterns were placed in strategic locations to store water. So you can imagine how buckets of water go "running" through the lines eunuchs to bring them to the burning area.

e. 飛簷走壁 - flying on eaves and running along the walls. Another martial arts setting phrase to mean a highly skilled practitioner.

f. 遠走高飛 - far fleeing and high flying - to mean "escape by fleeing". In the same vein, 偷走- steal and run. To translate as "walking" is definitely wrong!

g. 不脛而走 - no calves and run (ie even without calves, one can still get away so fast) "to get around fast" or to "spread like wild fire".

Lesson 22

有不能則當學      have not then ought learn
有不知則當問      have not know then ought ask
是曰學問              is said learn study
學問多者其才大   learn study many those his talent great
學問少者其才小   learn study little those his talent small

Those without ability then, should learn. Those without knowing, then ought to ask.  Hence learn-and-study is known as knowledge.  Those who asked frequently, their abilities will be become great.  Those who asked little, their abilities remain miniscule.

Lesson 23

人之所居           man's [pp] place live
有平屋               has flat houses
有樓屋               has tower houses
皆有門與窓       all have doors and windows.
有門則可出入    has door then can exit enter
有窓則放光        has window then release light

Man's abode can are single and multiple storied.  However, all have doors and windows.  With a door, one can enter and leave.  With windows, light can be let in.

is a variant form for , chiefly used in Japan and Korea.

Lesson 24

河水淺              river water shallow
江水深              large_river water deep
海水最深          sea water most deep
洋則尤深而大  ocean then especially deep and large
水之源泉         water's [pp] source spring
乃一勺之多也  therefore one unit_of_volume many [emphasis particle]

The waters of a river are shallow.  The waters of a large one are deep. But most of all, the deepest are those of the sea.  An ocean's is especially deep and vast.  The source of the all waters is but of only a centilitre!


1.   is river.  is stream.  is larger than

2. is a unit of volume about 10 centiliters. It is 100th of a , the modern equivalent to a litre.

Lesson 25

人有過已改之   man has wrongs afterwards change it
人有善已從之   man has goodness afterwards obey it
故曰                  hence said
三人行              three man walk
必有我師焉       must have my teacher

When a man has wrongs, change them.  When a man has good, follow them.  Hence said, "Three men walking, surely one a master from which I can learn from".


The last two lines come from the Analects.  The full version says that when three persons are walking together, there is one from which I can call a teacher, whom I can learn from his good.  If there is any fault, then he shall act as a mirror so that I can avoid them.

Lesson 26

用心則心強     use heart then heart strong
用身則身強     use body then body strong
身心俱弱         body heart both weak
為物且不能存 as thing/object yet not able survive
而况人乎         and moreover man?
故曰                 thus said
弱肉強食         weak meat strong eat

Train thy heart and it will become strong.  Train thy body and it will become robust. If both the heart and body is weak, as something alive, it will not survive.  Moreover, a human being?  Hence said, "The weak will be preyed upon!"


The last line is an idiom which literally means, "the strong will eat the weaker flesh".  The last line can also be translated as the "law of the jungle".  This translation is too figurative for my taste, in this context of learning Classical Chinese.

Lesson 27

鑛物有珠玉         mining things have gems jade
有銅鐵                 have copper iron
珠與玉其物貴     gems and jade its thing precious
銅與鐵其用廣     copper and iron its use widespread

There are gems and jade; copper and iron from the mines. Gems and jade are precious. [However, ] Copper and iron, [though not precious, ] their uses are wide spread.


1.   can also mean to use bronze.  古銅 usually mean ancient bronzes of the Shang and Chou Dynasties.  Nowadays bronze are called 青銅.  From the context, it can only mean copper since bronze is manmade.  Copper is an element.

2.  means pearls or precious beads.  However, in this context it means gems that are to be fashioned into beads.

3.  The last two sentences have an identical structure.  I chose to translate using different structures but having the same meaning to make the English version more natural and true to its intent.  Without the implied words in the square brackets, the nuance is lost.

Lesson 28

一兒渴甚          one child thirsty very
欲取冷茶飲之   want take cold tea drink it
其兄曰              his older brother said
不可飲之          no can drink it
必有腹疾          must have stomach disease
兒不聽              kid no listen
後果病              after result sick

One child was very thirsty.  He wanted to drink some cold tea.  His older brother cautioned, "Do not drink it for it will cause you stomach problems". 
The child did not listen.  In the end, the result was that he got sick.

Lesson 29

貓似虎而小              cat like tiger but small
鯨名魚而有乳          whale named fish but has milk
雞有翼而不能高飛   chicken has wings but not able high fly

The cat is like a tiger but small. The whale is named as a fish but gives milk. The chicken has wings but unable to fly high.

Lesson 30

凡物熱則化          all things hot then melt
冷則凝                  cold then gel
故夜寒則露結霜   hence night cold then dew harden frost
日出則霜融          sun out then frost melts
冬寒則水結冰      winter cold then water harden ice
春暖則冰解          spring warmth then ice melts

All things when heated melt, when cold, they gel.  Hence the cold of the night turns dew into frost and when the sun comes out, it melts.  The cold of winter solidifies water into ice.  The warmth of spring melts it.

Lesson 31

窓外有蘠薇架    Window outside has rambler rose frame
其花如玫瑰         Its flower like rose
蝴蝶飛其上         butterfly butterfly fly its top
怡然有自得意     joyfully have self gain complacency

There is a rambler rose frame outside the window.  Its flowers are like those of roses.  Butterflies hovering on top of them in joy and complacency.


蘠薇 = rosa multiflora

Lesson 32

牧丹與海棠盛開  peony and crabapple vigorous open
其色甚美             its color very beautiful
有人倚欄干而觀  have person lean fence trunk view
花與人面相暎      flower and person face mutual reflection

The peonies and crabapples are blooming in vigor.  Their colors are very beautiful.  There is a person leaning against the fence viewing them.  Man and flowers reflecting in each other.

1.   海棠 = malus spectabilis (crabapple), begonia or Chaenomeles speciosa (flowering quince)

2.   = variant form of .

Lesson 33

或問李童             or ask Li (last name) child
天寒何不飲酒     sky cold why not drink wine
童曰                    child said
父親謂年幼之人 father dear said year/age young's [pp] man
不當飲酒             not ought drink wine
飲則傷身             drink then harm body
父命安何違乎     father command where how violate ?
On asking the child of Li,

"When the sky is cold, why not have some wine?"

The child replied,

"My father said that young ones ought not to drink it. If so, thus harm to health. How could one violate the orders of one's father?"


1. 或問 literally means "or asking". It is a literary style in which a point is expounded and clarified through a dialogue. The point discussed here is the principle of obeisance towards one's elders as they have more experience.

2. 安 here is used as an interrogative particle and not the noun for the more common meaning for "peace", "tranquility" etc. It can mean either "where" or "how" depending on context.

而今安在? And where is it now?

As answering a question with another question meaning how…

不及虎穴, 安得虎子?   To fall short of the tiger's lair, how to get its cub?  The more common idiom is 不入虎穴, 焉得虎子 "By not entering the tiger's lair, from whence its cub be gotten/gained?" or "By not entering the tiger's lair, how can its cub be gotten/gained?"

安能若无其事  "How can it be as if nothing had happened?"

Lesson 34

一日秋風涼爽            one day autumn wind cool comfortable
夕陽欲下                    setting sun want down
王生與李生乘馬而行 Wang Mr. and Li Mister ride horse and move
見數鴉                        saw number crows
待群鴉盡歸                 wait group crows all return
乃共入巢                     then together enter nest

One autumn's day, the breeze was cool and comfortable; the sun was setting, Mr. Wang and Mr. Li were riding their horses.  They saw a flock of crows.  They were in wait until all had returned before entering the nest together.


Most of these short lessons tell of a moral on how humans should act and behave.  You just have to read deeper into its meanings.  If lowly animals can do it, as higher forms, why can't humans be the same, having courtesy to one another?

Lesson 35

一夕月色糢糊      one night moon color blur muddle
半夜睡醒              half night sleep awake
聞窓外雨聲淅瀝   hear window outside rain sound [onomatopoeia "c"][ onomatopoeia, "lee"]
簷馬丁東              eave horse [onomatopoeia "ding"][ onomatopoeia "dong"]

One night when the moon was hazy.  I woke up at midnight and heard from the window outside: the rain went pitter-pattering and the wind chime goes ding-ding-dong-dong.


1.   簷馬 are so called because most probably they resembled the distant sounds of ringing bells put on horses to warn people.  Wind chimes are used in ancient China to determine the wind direction and later to become musical chimes for the rich and powerful and can be made from jade!

2.   淅瀝 and丁東 (or 叮咚, 玎璫) are onomatopoeia.  This lesson teaches that if the moon is hazy, then rain will sure to follow.

Lesson 36

馬車                         horse carriage
或駕一馬或駕兩馬  or harness one horse or harness two horses
其輪或二或四          its wheels or two or four
四輪者二大二小      four wheels of two big two small
小者在前                  small one at front
大者在後                  big one at rear/behind

One or two horses are harnessed to a carriage.  Its wheels, therefore are of two or four.  Those with four wheels have two large ones and two small ones.  The small ones are in the front while the larger ones in the back.


= car in modern usage but carriage in pre-automotive days.  In Chinese chess, it is the war chariot, equivalent to the rook or castle and has a different Chinese pronunciation.

Lesson 37

某處有公井   some place have public well
數家往汲水   number family go_to/bound_for draw water
每家每日      every family ever day
約用水六桶  to_make_a_pack use water six buckets

Somewhere there was a public well in which a number of families go to draw water.  It was agreed that each family would draw six buckets of water for their daily use.

Another style,

Somewhere was a public well where a number of families go to draw water.  Each family and for each day, all had agreed to use six buckets.

Lesson 38

諸生課畢             some students lesson done
或遊園                 or tour/travel garden
或遊野                 or tour/travel wilderness/field/open_space/rural_countryside
眾人同遊則樂      group people same/together tour/travel then happy
各人獨遊則不樂  each person tour/travel then not happy

Some students on finishing their class would either go to the gardens or to the woods for fun.  If going together, then it is a joyful event.  However, if each went alone, then it would not be so.


1.  does not really mean tour or travel. In this context, it means to go and have fun.  Such are the simplistic joys of the past.

2.  has many meanings. It also includes "feral", "limit" and "boundary".  In this particular context, it means some place where no human work is at hand. Most probably by an area nearby the woods or forest.  It cannot be too far off a place since they are doing it every day.  We cannot translate "gardens" into parks because at that time, no such concept as a public park exists.

Lesson 39

洪君與客談             Hung (Last Name) master and guest converse
兒在旁默聽             child at side silent listen
客述                        guest narrate
崔姓兒入塾甫一年 Chui last_name child enter private_school just_barely one year
已能作信札演諸說 already able compose letter note practise various talk
兒聞而大羨之        child hear and great admiration him

Master Hung and a guest were conversing.  A child stood nearby and silently listened.  The guest described how the son of Mr. Chui had barely entered a private school for a year and is already able to write letters and notes, and recited various discourses.


1.   is actually a room in some scholar's house where children of those who can afford tuition are being taught.  The richer families and nobilities of course can hire a live-in teacher to teach their scions.

2.   Among the many meaning, it can also mean the bamboo slip in which ancient Chinese books are made of; or a kind of official document in the imperial days.

3.    Here it means a discourse as a dialog between the master, such as Confucius to his student, or a king to his subject.

Lesson 40

春日晴和              spring day sunny warm
楊柳曳風中           poplar willow drag wind in
溪水蕩漾               brook waters undulating rippling
客徘徊溪邊甚樂    wanderer irresolute hesitate brook side very happy

The spring day is sunny and warm.  The poplars and willows dragging in the wind;  the brook waters rippling away and the wanderer dithering along the banks in happiness.


can also mean a guest.  However from the context, a wanderer is more appropriate.

Lesson 41

長兄謂幼弟曰 older brother told young brother said
我為爾兄         I because you older_brother
爾為我弟         you because I younger_brother
我當教爾         I ought teach you
爾當聽我言     you ought listen I words

The older brother told his younger brother,
"As your older brother and you, my younger sibling, I ought to teach you and you ought to listen to my words."

Lesson 42

某兒願習字   One child willing practise words
父授一筆曰   father give one brush said
爾可以習字  you can use practise words
兒得筆甚喜  child having brush very joy

One child was willing to learn and practise his writing of characters.  The father gave him a writing brush and said,

"You now can use it to practise your writing."

The child having the brush was overjoyed.

Lesson 43

家有貓      house have cat
鼠不敢出  mouse not dare out
河有獺      river has otter
魚不敢出  fish not dare out
林有鸇      forest has sparrow_hawk
鳥不敢出  bird not dare out

The house has a cat and mice dare not come out.  The river has otters and the fish dare not come out.  The forest has sparrow hawk and birds dare not come out.


1.  can mean home or house.  In this context, a house is better a translation.

2.  Note the use of singular and plural forms.  This is because one has to take into account the solitary nature of some creatures.

Lesson 44

一兒將入塾       One child about_to enter private_school
父呼而謂之曰   father called and told him said
予無暇教汝       I no leisure teach you
命汝從師           order you obey teacher
汝當聽師言       you ought listen teacher word
如聽予言            like listen my word

A child was about to enter a private school.  The father called him and said,
"I don't have the time to teach you. I am ordering you to obey your teacher.  You ought to listen to him as if his words are mine."


1.  = private school, see Chapter 39.

2.  In ancient China, a teacher is considered like a second father and sometimes more important than the biological one.  This is because a teacher teaches not only knowledge but to live as an upright person.  Hence this rise to an idiom, 一日為師, 終身如父, One day a teacher, a father for life. From this we can see how respectful a position a teacher is, even by today's standards for a teacher.  Very much unlike the West.

Lesson 45

張童不能寫字              Chang boy not able write characters
怨筆不佳                      complain pen not good
父曰爾不能書當自怨   father said you not able write ought self complain
勿怨紙筆                      not complain paper pen

A boy named Chang was unable to write properly and complained that the brush is not good.  The father said,

"You cannot write well, you should complain about yourself, not the brush or the paper!"


1.   The translation of "不能寫字" should be "unable to write".  However, in this context it is not that the child cannot write but unable to write well.  Using a brush to write is more difficult to write with a fountain pen or a ballpoint.  The moral of this lesson is not the ability to write but the ability to have good penmanship.  Calligraphy is one of the Four Accomplishments (琴棋書畫), zither (knowledge to compose music), chess (shows analytical thinking), calligraphy (to write poetry) and painting (appreciating the arts).

2.  as a noun is "book" but as a verb "to write".  However in this context, it means 書法 or "The Law of Writing" aka Chinese calligraphy.  In Japanese, it is known as 書道, "The Way of Writing" and in Korea, 書藝, "The Art of Writing".  All these have subtle meanings and hence the way of how characters are written.

Lesson 46

筆以毛為之      brush by_means_of hair becomes it
其桿以竹為之  its pole by_means_of bamboo becomes it
執桿而寫字      grasp pole and write character
指密掌虛          fingers dense palm weak
字密行疏          characters refine column sparse

A brush is made out of hair.  Its body is made from bamboo.  Grasp its body to write.  Fingers should be firm and the palm at ease.  The written characters should be refined with plenty of columnar white space.


1.  This lesson illustrates the various meanings of .  The first one means dense and in this context to hold firmly.  The second one means refinement through meticulous work.

2.  The last line Chinese calligraphy jargon to denote a visual style.

Lesson 47

某兒讀書勤                   some child read book diligent
父以梨賞之                   father for pear bestow him
兒食其半曰                  child eat its half said
欲留其半与我妹食之   want leave its half and my sister eat it

Some child was studying diligently.  The father gave a pear to him as reward.  The child ate half and said,

"I shall leave [the other] half for my sister to eat."

Lesson 48

催生兒少傲惰        Chui (surname) Mr. son small arrogant lazy
及父死無衣食        and_when father die no clothing eat
遂為乞人                then_finally become beg man
徐君歎而謂其子曰 Yu(surname) lord sighed and said its son said
鳴呼                        cry (of animals) call_out
此傲惰之罸也         this arrogant laziness (pp) punishment emphasis_particle
吾兒汝當戒之         my son you ought guard_against it

Mr. Chui's son, when little was arrogant and lazy.  Then when his father died, no one clothed or fed him.  Finally then he was reduced to being a beggar.  Lord Yu lamented and warned his son said,

"This is the punishment for being arrogant and lazy!  My son, you ought to guard against being so."

Lesson 49

母問              mother asked
水之流何清   water's flow why clear
竿之影何直   pole's shadow why straight
兒不能答       child not able reply
母曰              mother said
源清故流清   source pure because flow clear
形直故景直   form straight because situation straight

The mother asked,
"Why is the water flowing clearly? Why is the shadow of a pole straight?"
The child could not answer.

The mother replied,

"The source is pure and hence the flow is clear.  The form is straight and hence the situation will be straight."


The moral of this lesson is to teach one to be an upright person.

Lesson 50

有物飛入室     have thing fly into room
形如鼠而有翼  shape like mouse and have wings
兒異之             child wondered it
父曰                 father said
是名蝙蝠          is name bat bat
喜食蚊              loves eat mosquitoes

Something flew into the room.  Its shape looked like a mouse but has wings.  The child wondered.  The father explained, "It is called a bat and loves to eat mosquitoes."

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