Classical Chinese/Particles

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Classical Chinese makes use of various particles, ranging from those with grammatical function, to those that would be an entire phrase in English. Chinese Classical particles almost always go before what they modify. This section will cover 10 basic particles.

無 & 然

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無 corresponds to the English without, and -less, but this particle always goes before what it modifies.

(zhǔ) (wú) (shí)

The host is without food.

食, food, is what 無 modifies since it is before it.

(wáng) (wú) (quán)

The king is powerless.

This particle, 然, corresponds to the English so,, thus, -ly. It is usually found at the end of what it is modifying. 然 also usually is connected to previously mentioned information when it appears. It can also be understood to be like in some cases. This particle can also modify adjectives, augmenting them.

(hài) (dào) (bǎo)

(shàn) (bù) (wéi) (rán)

The evil steal treasures. The virtuous do not act like the evil.

(huǒ) (wèi) (zhī) (liáo) (fǎ) (liáo)
(shuǐ) (liú) (rán)

Fire blazes in an unknown method. Water flows thus.

Notice how 然 refers to the previous information established in the first sentence, the in an unknown method, and uses it to augment 流, flow.

不 & 非

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corresponds to the English "not". It simply negates verbs and adjectives.

wú zhī bù shēng ān
Ignorance does not give birth to peace.

不 always goes before the verb it is negating and after the subject.

hái bù néng wù yì
The evil are not able to understand righteousness.

Here, negates what would be considered the "auxiliary verb" in Western languages, néng "able". 不 always goes in front of the auxiliary verb, same as English. You wouldn't say "I am able not to read", you would say "I am not able to read" in modern English. Same with Classical Chinese.

Fēi 非 negates nouns. It does not have an exact correlation to any English words, but it performs a function similar to what the English "no" does in sentences like "I have no apples." There is, however, a good correlation for 非 in the German language, which is "kein", which is used exclusively to negate nouns, though it is used usually only with their verb for "have".

mián fēi quán
the royal crown is not power


the royal crown is no power

Notice how there is no exact equivalent in English for 非. Also, since many characters can be used as verbs, nouns, and adjectives, and even grammatical particles, as well, particles such as 非 help to determine or clarify what role its associated word(s) play in the sentence.

rén fēi gǎn yǐ gōng gōng
the person did not have the courage in order to accuse the duke.

Fēi negates gǎn , daring, courage, which in turn provides the context by which 以攻公, "in order to accuse the duke."

者 & 之

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The particle zhě nominalizes a verb. This commonly corresponds to "those who" in English.

wū kǎo shì qiè zhě
the shaman examined the warrior's cut

Notice here how zhě nominalizes qiè "to cut, wound" allowing it to become more obviously the direct object of kǎo "to check, examine".

dà wáng bù xìn huǎng zhě
great kings do not trust those who lie

Here zhě nominalizes huǎng "to lie", making it the direct object of xìn 信 "to trust, have confidence in", with the commonly seen "those who".

Zhī has two main uses.

Firstly, it marks grammatical subordination (possession), equivalent to the modern Mandarin Chinese de and the English ending -'s and of. In this use, it always precedes a noun. As such, when followed by a word normally used as an adjective, it indicates the adjective having been nominalized.

the current of the blue river is strong

Here zhī subordinates liú "flow, current" in relation to lánjiāng 藍江 "blue river".

your capitol city's walls are large

Secondly, it also functions as an object pronoun, corresponding to him, her, it or them in English as a direct object of a verb.

而 & 以

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而 is a particle with many meanings, some contradictory. Often, 而 is used to represent a change in state or some kind of causal relationship. More concretely, it also can correspond to "as well as", "but not", "and yet", etc..; it is a conjunction. Understanding how this particle is used in a given phrase is key to understanding it, as 而 often sets the tone for the phrase it is in as well as subsequent phrases.

(xing2) (fei3) (er2) (kong3) (yu3) (luan4) (guo2) (ye3)

To punish criminals and yet have porous prisons is to have a chaotic country.

而 acts here to provide contrast between 2 statements.

(ying1) (ku1) (er2) (hu1)

The infant cries as well as shouts.

Here, 而 is the conjunction between 哭, cry, and 呼, cry out, connecting their concepts. In this usage, it would be the opposite of the contrasting that 而 supplies in the above sentence.

This particle is used to coordinate between 2 phrases or word(s). It often corresponds to the English "by means of", "in order to", "via", and/or "therefore". It is also, depending on context, understood to mean "use", though even in those instances, it is often interchangeable with the other corresponding English words.

(zi3) (zou3) (yi3) (tui3)

The gentleman walks by means of his legs.

The particle 以 is used as in "by means of". It communicates the capacity of 腿, legs, to facilitate the gentleman's ability to walk.

(zi3) (bi4) (jiao4) (yi3) (li4)

You must call by using the horn.

The particle here is used to mean "use", but notice that it can be replaced by "by means of" or via".

未 & 莫

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This particle can also negate verbs or act like a verb, depending on usage. This character usually corresponds to the English "have not", "not yet", and "not".

(xi2) (shi4) (ren2) (wei4) (shou4)

People of past ages did not have longevity.

未 provides for the negation of 壽, longevity. Here it is used more as a verb. It is important to note that though 壽 is a noun, 非 isn't used because it is used to negate nouns that is something else. If 非 was used here, the sentence would be "people of the past were not longevity", suggesting that the people of the past could possibly somehow be longevity. 未 is more appropriate because it shows that longevity was something that they did not possess, not something that they weren't.

(lie4) (zhe3) (wei4) (qie4) (lu4)

The hunter has not yet cut the deer.

未 is used here to show that the hunter has not 'yet' cut the deer. Using 不 instead of 未 here would give the impression that the hunter did not cut the deer, and will not any time soon. The usage of 未, however, provides a possibility, signifying that the hunter did not cut the deer 'now', but it may occur in the future or that the absence of that occurrence is not permanent.

This character can be used either as a verb or part of an entire phrase, and, in some ways, as a noun. usually corresponds to "none", "no one", "do not", "none", "nothing", no", and "there are/is none who" in English.

zài xī yù mò néng dú Hàn wén
In the Western Regions, there are none who can read Chinese.


In the Western Regions, nobody can read Chinese.

Notice how acts much as a subject. Instead of stating that a specific group or person cannot read Chinese, none can. So, in a sense, can be understood to be the subject attached to the verb as an indistinct negative grouping word: nobody can, etc.

mò chū gōng zuì dà guó
Do not attack the strongest country first.