First Person Pronouns
First person pronouns (一人稱代名詞, 1인칭대명사) are those pronouns that refer to the oneself. Examples in English include, “I”, “me”, “my,” “we”, “us”, “our”, et cetera. In Classical Chinese, first personal pronouns can be roughly broken down into three categories: (1) general use; (2) self-deprecatory; and (3) archaic.
General Use First Person Pronouns
The four representative first person pronouns are: 我(아), 吾(오), 予(여), and 余(여). There are some minimal differences in use among these pronouns. Juxtaposing 我 and 吾, the pronoun 我 is often used emphatically and in contrast to 吾. Additionally, 我 is more often used as the subject (“I”) of the sentence and 吾 is more often used as the possessive (“my”), but there are plenty of counterexamples. Both 我 and 吾 can be depending on the context singular (“I”) or plural (“we”). In contrast, 予(여) and 余(여) are always singular.
孟孫問孝於我, 我對曰: “無違”
맹손문효어아, 아대왈: “무위”
Mengsun (孟孫, 맹손, Maengson) asked about filial piety to me, and I replied, “Do not disobey.”
► Analects (論語, 논어), Wei Zheng (爲政, 위정, Wijeong).
鼎有實, 慎所之也. 我仇有疾, 終无尤也.
정유실, 신소지야. 아구유질, 종무우야.
In the cauldron, there is substance. Be careful where one goes. My enemies have an illness but in the end do not have fault.
► Book of Changes (易經, 역경), Cauldron of Fire and Wind (火風鼎, 화풍정).
曾子曰: “吾日三省吾身, 爲人謀而不忠乎? 與朋友交而不信乎? 傳不習乎?”
증자왈: “오삼일성오신, 위인모이불충호? 여붕우교이불신호? 전불습호?”
Master Zeng said, “I daily three times examine my body: whether for others I plan but am not faithful? And with my friends interact but not trust? And whether I have transmitted and not practiced [what I have learned]?”
► Analects (論語, 논어), Xue Er (學而, 학이, Hak’i).
吾友柳君惠風, 博學工詩, 嫺於掌故.
오우류군혜풍, 박학공시, 윤어장고.
My friend, Yu Hyepung (柳惠風, 유혜풍,1748-?), was well learned and mastered poetry, and was more elegant than the coming of age rites (掌故, 장고)
► Preface of the Balhaego (渤海考, 발해고) by Pak Jega (朴齊家, 박제가, 1750-1805).
I, because of this, am ashamed, and have newly created twenty-eight letters.
► Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음, Hunminjeongeum) by King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450).
余初餌栢子, 後食松脂, 遍體瘡瘍, 腸中痛楚.
여초이백자, 후식송지, 편체창양, 장중통초.
I first consumed nut pine seeds, and afterward ate pine tree’s juice. All over my body, abscesses [formed]. In my innards, there was harsh agony.
► Dao Yin Er Jun (陶尹二君, 도윤이군, Do Yun I Gun).
I know [these] words. I nourish well my vast, great spirit.
► Mencius (孟子, 맹자, Maengja), Gong Sun Chou Part I (公孫丑上, 공손축상, Gongsunchuksang).
China has called our country “the country that knows rites” and our sovereign “the sovereign that knows rites.”
► Royal Annals of the Chosun Dynasty (朝鮮王朝實錄, 조선왕조실록) during the reign of King Taejong (太宗, 태종, 1367-1442, r. 1400-1418) on August 12, 1409.
顏淵死, 子曰: “天喪予.” 子路死, 子曰: “天祝予.” 西狩獲麟, 曰: “吾道窮.”
안연사, 자왈: “천상여.” 자로사, 자왈: “천축여.” 서수획린, 왈: “오동궁.”
When Yan Yuan (顏淵, 안연, An Yeon, 521-481 BC) passed away, Confucius said, “Heaven has forsaken me.” When Zilu (子路, 자로, Jaro, 542-480 BC) passed away, Confucius said, “Heaven has blessed me.” When he hunted and captured a Qilin (麒麟, 기린), he said, “My way has been exhausted.”
► Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋繁露, 춘추번로, Chunchubeonro), attributed to Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒, 동중서, Dong Jungseo, 176-104BC).
To make these first person pronouns explicitly plural, the characters 等(등), 儕(제), 輩(배), 屬(속), 曹(조) are postfixed to 我 or 吾. These constructions are more common in later Classical Chinese.
吾等爲王養士, 畫其策謀, 有利於國, 而王故伐楚.
오등위왕양사, 화기책모, 유리어국, 이왕고벌초.
We have for the King cultivated the ministers, drew their plans and strategies, profited the country, and the King thus attacked the Chu State (楚, 초, Cho).
► Annals of the Spring and Autumn Period of the Wu and Yue States (吳越春秋, 오월춘추, O Weol Chun Chu).
在天我儕父, 祝爾聖名芳 … 我儕今爾祈, 賜我以日糧.
재천아제부, 축이성명방 … 아제금이기, 사아이일량.
In heaven is Our Father. Blessed be your holy name … We now pray that You give us with daily subsistence.
►Translation of Pater Noster (天主經, 천주경) by John Wu Ching Hsiung (吳經熊, 오경웅, O Gyeong’ung, 1899-1986).
The wife and children cried, saying, “How do we clothe [ourselves] and live?”
► Important Parts of the History of Goryeo (高麗史節要, 고려사절요).
Without Duke Zhen (陳, 진, Jin), how will we be?
► An Essay on Governing the People (牧民心書, 목민심서, Mokminshimseo) by Jeong Yakyong (丁若鏞, 정약용, 1762-1836).
Self-Deprecatory First Person Pronouns
Self-deprecatory pronouns are pronouns that refer to oneself in the third person. One commonly seen type are those prefixed with the character 小(소), meaning “mean” or “vulgar,” such as: “小子(소자), meaning “mean child,” used by a child to his parents; and 小妾(소첩), meaning “mean concubine” or “vulgar wife,” used by a concubine or wife to her husband. Similarly related pronouns are: 寡人(과인), meaning “a lacking person,” used by Kings to refer to themselves; and 不肖(불초), meaning “unworthy,” used between a child and his parents. Other examples include: 孤(고), meaning “alone,” used to refer to oneself while grieving; 愚(우), meaning “foolish”; 身(신), meaning “this body”; 僕(복), meaning “servant,” used by a servant to his master; and 臣(신), meaning “minister,” used by a minister to a King. It should be noted that these words can be used to refer to someone else besides oneself. Whether the word is interpreted as a noun referring to someone else or a self-deprecatory first person pronoun will be highly dependent on the context.
The body of me, the mean child is like an arrow, and only commands will be verily followed.
► A Letter to the General Meeting Guests (與客將書, 여객장서) by Choi Chiweon (崔致遠, 최치원, 857-?).
昔管敬仲有言, 小妾聞之, 曰: “畏威如疾, 民之上也. 從懷如流, 民之下也.”
석관경중유언, 소첩문지, 왈: “외위여질, 민지상야. 종덕여류, 민지하야.”
Sometime ago, Guan Jingzhong (管敬仲, 관경중, Gwan Gyeongjung) had some words. I, your wife, heard this, and he said, “If one fears the awe [of Heaven] as if it were an epidemic, the people are [regarded as being] above. If one follows appeasement as if [following] a flowing stream, then people are [regarded as being] below.”
► Discourses of the States (國語, 국어, Guk’eo), Fourth Chapter on the Discourses of the Jin State (晉語四, 진국사, Jin’guksa).
梁惠王曰: “寡人之於國也, 盡心焉耳矣.”
량혜왕왈: “과인지어국야, 진심언이의.”
King Hui (惠王, 혜왕) of the Liang State (梁, 양) said, “I, the King, with regard to the [governance of the] kingdom have only exerted my mind.”
► Mencius (孟子, 맹자), Liang Hui Wang I (梁惠王上, 양혜왕상, Yanghyewangsang).
僕曰: “此僕詠史詩中一篇也. 僕非自作, 未嘗筆作草.”
복왈: “차복영사시중일편야. 복비자작, 미상필작초.”
I, the servant, said: “This is one volume in this servant’s recitation of poems on history. I, the servant, did not by myself compose [it]. [I] have not yet [taken] the brush to compose in cursive.”
► The Collections of the Writings of Pahan (破閑集, 파한집), First Volume (卷上, 권상), by Yi Inro (李仁老, 이인로, 1152-1220).
Archaic First Person Pronouns
There are also a number of archaic first person pronouns that appear in early texts, such as the Classic of Documents (書經, 서경) and Classic of Poetry (詩經, 시경). These include: 台(이), 卬(앙), and 朕(짐). Out of these, only 朕 is seen in later Classical Chinese texts and it is limited to the Emperor to refer to himself. Monarchs in Korea also used this pronoun to refer to themselves, although not so often during the Chosun Period.
I fear that in future generations I will become the substance of their talking.
► Classic of History (書經, 서경), Announcement of Zhong-Hui (仲虺之誥, 중훼지고, Junghoejigo).
招招舟子, 人涉卬否 / 人涉卬否, 卬須我友.
초초주자, 인섭앙부 / 인섭앙부, 앙수아우.
Come, come, the boatman! Others cross, but I do not. / Others cross, but I do not, for I am waiting for my friend.
► Classic of Poetry (詩經, 시경), The Gourd That Has a Distressed Leaf (匏有苦葉, 포유고엽).
朕嗣无疆大歷服, 夙夜祗懼, 克勤克儉, 監于成憲, 其永无愆.
짐아무강대력복, 숙야지구, 극근극검, 감우성헌, 기영무연.
I, the Emperor, have received the boundless, grand work. During mornings and nights, I was only afraid, and was thrifty and frugal. I took inspiration from those who have achieved order and have now for awhile eliminated my faults.
► Royal Annals of the Chosun Dynasty (朝鮮王朝實錄, 조선왕조실록) during the reign of Emperor Gojong (高宗, 고종, 1852-1919, r. 1863-1897) on February 19, 1901.