Introduction to Classical/Literary Chinese – Outlier Linguistics

Intro to Literary/Classical Chinese (文言文)

Intro to Literary/Classical Chinese (文言文)

A 16-week guided introduction to reading Classical Chinese. Intended for lower intermediate Chinese learners and above, following Michael Fuller's Introduction to Literary Chinese.

This is equivalent to a semester-long university-level course, But unlike a university course, this one is self-paced! You also get access to regular live Q&A sessions.

By the end, you'll have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of reading classical Chinese, and will be able to read basic texts yourself (and know which resources to use if you get stuck).

Comprehensive Online Course, just $299!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Rated 4.8/5 by hundreds of Chinese learners


Comprehensive Online Course starting in August, just $299!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Rated 4.8/5 by hundreds of Chinese learners

A 16-week guided introduction to reading Classical Chinese. Intended for lower intermediate Chinese learners and above, following Michael Fuller's Introduction to Literary Chinese.

The live course began on 1 August, 2022 and will finish in mid November. You can enroll at any time, and either go at your own pace or catch up with us and join the live sessions. By the end, you'll have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of reading classical Chinese, and will be able to read basic texts yourself (and know which resources to use if you get stuck).

Student Testimonials


Netherlands (living in NZ)

Taiwan (living in Australia)

USA (living in China)

USA (living in Finland)


For All Learners

Anyone who wants to reach a high level in Chinese will benefit from this course. Modern formal writing (newspapers, contracts, professional and academic documents, etc.) draws heavily from Classical Chinese, so it's not just for historians!

For Non-Natives

The way a non-native should go about learning Classical/Literary Chinese is very different from the way a native speaker should. It's very difficult to find instruction in Classical Chinese for non-natives without enrolling in university courses—until now!

Lifetime Access

Lessons will take place over a 16-week period, but like all of our courses, you'll be able to access all of the materials after it's finished. No need to stress about keeping up—you'll be able to go at a slower pace if you want!

Benefits of Learning Classical Chinese

  • Access the rich 3000+ year literary history of the Chinese language
  • Improve your modern Chinese (the more formal a text in modern Chinese, the more it resembles Literary Chinese)
  • Understand the abbreviations used in newspapers—many of them are derived from Literary Chinese
  • Be able to read Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu/Laozi, Sun Tzu/Sunzi and more in the original
  • Unlock the language of the Four Classic Chinese Novels (which are part-literary, part-vernacular in style)
  • Appreciate poetry from the Tang and Song dynasties, one of the world's literary treasures

Part I: Basic Grammar

  • Lesson 1: Nominal and Verbal Sentences (論語・困學)
  • Lesson 2: Parts of Speech (韓非子・宋國富人)
  • Lesson 3: Coordinate Verbs (韓非子・守株待兔)
  • Lesson 4: The Modifier 所 and Nominalized Verbs (呂氏春秋・刻舟求劍)
  • Lesson 5: Negatives (韓非子・矛盾)
  • Lesson 6: Pivot Verbs, Auxiliary Verbs, and Classical Commentary (列子・楊布)
  • Lesson 7: Coverbs (戰國策・狐假虎威)
  • Lesson 8: Embedded Sentences (孟子・揠苗)

Part II: Intermediate Texts

  • Lesson 9: 說苑・晉平公問於師曠
  • Lesson 10: 新序・兩頭蛇
  • Lesson 11: 戰國策・曾參殺人
  • Lesson 12: 說苑・趙簡子問子貢
  • Lesson 13: 戰國策・趙簡子舉兵攻齊
  • Lesson 14: 莊子・鵷鶵
  • Lesson 15: 莊子・曳尾於塗中
  • Lesson 16: 史記・石奢

This course is self-paced. The videos consist of a combination of lectures and recorded Q&A. We'll also hold regular office hours via Zoom. Exams will be given at the end of each unit, and a passing score at the end earns you a Certificate of Completion, which will serve as fulfillment of prerequisites for future courses!

It's structured like a university-level Intro to Classical Chinese course aimed at non-native speakers. By the end of the course you'll be able to approach basic texts in classical Chinese on your own, and you'll have the tools and skills to be able to read them for yourself, and to know where to look for help when you get stuck. You'll also be qualified to join the Outlier Classical Chinese Reading Group (when it opens), where we'll have weekly readings in Classical/Literary Chinese of all periods!

Can I go at my own pace? Will I be able to access the course once I've finished it?

Yes! You get lifetime access, so we'll keep everything available online so that you can go through it at your own pace and review it whenever you want to!

How much Chinese do I need to know to take this course?

You'll need to be at a lower-intermediate level. Generally, if you're somewhere in the HSK 2-3 range, or TOCFL 2-ish, you should be fine. The course will be taught in English, and while we will use some references in Chinese, translations will be provided so that you won't get lost. If you're not sure about your level, get in touch!

How long does the course take to complete?

There are 16 lessons. We recommend doing one lesson per week if you can, but you can go at whatever pace suits you!

How much time will it require per lesson?

That will depend on your level, but probably a few hours per lesson. The course is structured like a university Classical Chinese course for non-natives, so that should give you a guideline as to how much time you'll need.

There are 2-3 videos per lesson (a combination of lecture and Q&A).You'll also get access to regular "office hours" on Zoom, so you can pop in and ask questions if you'd like. There's also a discussion forum, so if you can't make it to the office hours, you can still get your questions answered.

Will I need anything (apps, etc.) in order to take the course?

Only the textbook is required, but having access to a few other materials will be very helpful—digital versions are available for most items. You don't need more than one of the dictionaries on the list, although having more than one certainly won't hurt. The course also includes bibliographic exercises, and we'll provide photocopies when necessary.

- Introduction to Literary Chinese by Michael Fuller (required)
- Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin Pulleyblank (highly recommended)
- A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese by Paul W. Kroll (highly recommended; available in Pleco)
- 《古漢語常用字字典》 (highly recommended)
- 《古漢語大辭典》 (recommended; available in Pleco)
- 《漢語大詞典》 (recommended; available in Pleco)

What does "lifetime access" mean?

In practical terms, it means the course materials will be available online for as long as Outlier is in business. If we do ever go out of business or otherwise need to remove the course for any reason, we'll make the material available for you to download for a period of at least 6 months.

Will the course be in simplified or traditional characters?

The textbook uses traditional characters, but I'll be supplying the readings (which are public domain) in simplified characters as well. If you're only familiar with simplified, this (plus maybe jotting down simplified characters in the margins of the book where needed) should be enough, although if you'd like to also start learning traditional, maybe this would be a good time!

Can I get a refund if I decide the course isn't for me?

Yes! Our refund policy is "30 days from purchase," so if you decide you don't like the course for whatever reason, just reach out within 30 days and we'll be happy to refund you.

Will there be assignments or homework?

There are several types of exercises (grammar, translation, bibliographic, etc.) in the textbook, so we'll be doing those. I'll also be adding some additional exercises, particularly in Unit 2. We'll have a "final exam" at the end of the course, and a passing grade will get you a certificate.

Will there be other students at my level? Can we collaborate with other students or form study groups?

Definitely! There are plenty of students at all levels in the course.

And sure, working together is no problem! You'll get access to a private online community where you can work together, ask questions, share notes, etc.

I don't know Mandarin, but I know Japanese/Korean/Cantonese. Can I join?

First, take a look at this paragraph from the preface of the textbook:

"The vocabulary lists for the lessons use the pīnyīn romanization of Mandarin Chinese, a choice that deserves some comment. On the whole, given the great distance between the ancient language and the modern dialects, the modern pronunciation of the characters is of little significance. The textbook does assume some knowledge of Chinese characters as used in a modern East Asian language, but it makes no real difference if the language is Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, or Korean. Indeed, it is important to remember that the corpus of texts written in "literary Chinese" is more accurately an east Asian textual tradition and that the elites of pre-modern Korea, Japan, and Vietnam were both familiar with the authors whose works have been selected for this textbook and used literary Chinese as the primary medium for serious writing. Literary Chinese thus has a much wider audience than just speakers of modern Mandarin."

So strictly speaking, you don't need to know Mandarin in order to take the course, but it will probably require some extra effort on your part, since only Mandarin readings of the characters are given in the textbook. Also, keep in mind that when I give examples during the lectures and Q&As, I'll pronounce them in Mandarin. But if that doesn't bother you and you can follow along, filling in the pronunciation in your language of choice, then there shouldn't be any reason that you can't take the course.

Your Instructor

John Renfroe
Co-founder, Outlier Linguistics

Before co-founding Outlier, John studied Linguistics and Paleography in the Graduate Institute of Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. He co-founded and later ran the Taipei Classical Chinese Reading Group, a weekly reading group consisting mostly of graduate Sinology students from western universities. He also taught classical Chinese to members of the group who had no previous instruction in the language. His coursework and research focused on excavated Warring States bamboo texts, historical Chinese character morphology, and the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 and its commentaries and criticism.

Sign up now!

Comprehensive Online Course starting in August, just $299!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Rated 4.8/5 by hundreds of Chinese learners