How I Write Blog Posts on Classical Chinese

Post 04172014

I have been asked a few times about how I have found the source material for my blog. With this post, I hope to demystify this blog, and at the same time attempt to systematize my technique and make it more consistent. The basic method is: (1) obtain the original text, (2) translate from the original, (3) check with the Korean translation, (4) add annotations, and lastly (5) find allusions.

1. Obtaining the Original Text

There are a few ways I obtain the original text for my posts. Although I have a number of books in Korean on Classical Chinese, I get all my original text for the blog online. It cannot be stressed enough that there are plenty of Korean blogs that do what I do. Most, but not all, of the blog posts here have Korean translations somewhere online. The quickest and simplest way to find these blogs is to run a search on Google or Naver either on their general search page or encyclopedia. For search terms, I usually enter a topic that I am looking for plus the words “한시” (Classical Chinese poetry) or “한문” (Classical Chinese prose). There are also other Korean websites I search to find original texts:

I prefer Classical Chinese texts that have Korean translations for checking purposes. On occasions when I do feel ambitious, I use text that do not have Korean translations obtained from the Database of Korean Classics.

2. Translating from the Original

After having obtained the original text, I read the text and then proceed to translate. My philosophy in translating Classical Chinese into English is to translate as literally as is idiomatically possible. Even if the translation appears awkward or clunky, as long as it is comprehensible, I do not mind. If there is any information that is necessary to the full appreciation of the text, I add annotations. I believe that this method is the most suited for the purposes of learning another language. This closely approximates how most Korean translations present Classical Chinese texts.

3. Checking with Korean Translation

If there are any Korean translations available, I then check my English translation with that of the Korean. There are some instances where I think the Korean translation is a bit too loosely translated, and do not follow them. For the most time, however, I defer to the Korean translator, whom I assume — with good reason — that they are more knowledgeable at interpreting Classical Chinese texts than I am.

4. Adding Annotations 

Next, I add annotations to assist the reader — including myself — in being able to appreciating the text. These are typically idioms and references to history or to other classics. Most Korean translations are annotated already; however, there are some idioms and references not explained in the annotations. This is because they might be considered common knowledge among Korean readers. I thus add more annotations to tailor them to a Western or non-Korean audience. Idioms can be typically found on Naver’s Hanja Dictionary. Finding allusions to history or other classics is a bit more difficult.

5. Finding Allusions 

Some Korean poets are known for their esoteric allusions to Korean and Chinese history and classics. Fortunately, there are resources online for finding such references, especially on the Korean blogosphere. I typically search either on Google or Naver using the original text plus the Korean pronunciation as the search terms. Sometimes, I prefer to get the original text of what is being alluded to, and also check the following sources to obtain those texts:


  1. gbevers said:

    Another good post, Kuiwon. Your posts always seem to be quite thoughtful, explaining things many bloggers would probably not take the time to explain. I like that, which is one of the reasons I like reading your blog.

    I notice that you first try to translate the Chinese yourself before checking it with the translations of others. Though I think that is a good study method, I am either too impatient or lack the skills to do that, so when there is a translation, I will usually start by comparing the translation with the original, making sure I understand how the translator arrived at his translation. If his translation does not make sense to me, then I get suspicious and start considering translations that make sense to me, even if no one else seems to translate it the way I do. In other words, it is hard for me to defer to someone if that person’s translation does not make sense to me. I can give you an example.

    Recently I read that Mencius said the following:

    孟子曰:“君子所以異於人者, 以其存心也。君子以仁存心, 以禮存心.

    The famous scholar James Legg translated it as follows:

    “Mencius said, ‘That whereby the superior man is distinguished from other men is what he preserves in his heart – namely, benevolence and propriety.'”

    For some reason that translation seems too forced, so I decided to translate it in a what that makes sense to me.

    I have learned that 以 can mean “with,” “by,” “to take,” “to use,” “in order to,” and “because.” I also know that 所以 can be translated as “that by which.” Here Legg seems to have translated 所以 as “that whereby,” but that does not make sense to me because 其 (it) appears in the next clause, so instead of translating 所以 as “that by which,” I decided to translated it as “what (所) [the superior man] takes (以).” Here is how I would translate the sentence.

    Mencius (孟子) said (曰) : “What the superior man takes (君子所以) is different (異) than (於) others (人者) because (以) it (其) is stored (存) [in] his heart (心也). The superior man (君子) takes (以) benevolence (仁) [and] stores (存) [it in] his heart (心), [he] takes (以) propriety (禮) [and] stores (存) [it in] his heart (心).”

    I think sometimes people defer too much to conventional translations, so I like to experiment until I get a translation that satisfies my understanding, not the understanding of others. Maybe I am wrong, but hopefully it stimulates debate.

    By the way, I have just recently learned that “The Annals of King Taejo” has been translated into English, which interests me because I had recently started trying to translate that, as well. His translation is very enlightening. You seem to enjoy translating poetry, but I enjoy translating history.

    “The Annals of King Taejo”

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for your compliments. It is also didactic to compare the translation to the text. While a little dose of skepticism is advantageous, from my experiences I’ve found that when my original translation is far off, it is because I didn’t understand the text fully.

      As for the line from Mencius, I’ve always considered 所以~者 (and 所~者 in general) constructions a bit tricky to translate. According to Korean sources, 所以~者 can be translated to “~하는 까닭” or “~하는 것.” In this case, I do think James Legge’s translation is a bit too loose: he elides the first and second sentences. It is my knowledge that when 以 is interpreted as “to take,” it is being used as a postposition.

      I prefer translating poetry because of its brevity and succinctness. In finding allusions in these poems, I also get a healthy dose of prose from a variety of sources. So, I think of it as two birds with one stone situation.

  2. gbevers said:


    以 is used like 將, which can also mean “to take.” They are used in the sense of taking something and then doing something with it. It is like the Korean phrase “을 가지고 하다.” It is often used when there is both an indirect object and a direct object. Instead of having both objects come after the verb, you can use the 以 or 將 to bring the direct object to the front of the verb, which helps avoid confusion. It is also used when the direct object consists of several characters, again, to help avoid confusion. Here is an example of 將 being used instead of 以:

    “Is there (有) anyone who can take benevolence and keep it in his heart (能將仁存於心者乎)?”

    The 者 would be translated first as “anyone,” and then “can (能) take (將) benevolence (仁) [and] store (存) [it] in (於) [his] heart (心).

    Notice the similarity between 君子”以仁存心” above and 能”將仁存於心”者 here?

    Again, I think some of the old translations of the Classics need to be reconsidered. The only reason I noticed the above pattern is that I am used to the Korean expression “을 가지고 하다.” Others who do not speak Korean have come up with other ways to explain it.

    The reasons I don’t like poetry are the reasons you like it. There are too many adjectives and adverbs and too many “esoteric allusions.”

    I have already ordered the English translation of “The Annals of King Taejo.” It is supposed to be available on June 2. I want to see how the translator dealt with all the titles of people and government institutions.

    • 歸源 said:

      I do understand that 以 and 將 can be used to mean “to take” as in “~을 가지고.” When 以 appears in the context of 所以~者, however, it should be interpreted as “~하는 까닭” or “~하는 것.” This construction is fairly common.

      As someone wishing to improve Classical Chinese abilities, you could first consider whether the conventional translations are correct, and build from there. After years of doing just that, I’m just now at a point that I can discern whether a Korean translation online is proper. I still get interpretations wrong, but if I hadn’t done so, I might be stuck at the same, lower level of understanding. There is a reason why conventional translations are conventional. What you say might be indeed grammatically correct. Natural language, however, is inherently ambiguous, and there are many grammatically valid interpretations. Experience is needed to filter out plausible from the implausible. For instance, take the English sentence “I ate rice with chopsticks.” You could interpret it as that the rice had chopsticks in it and I consumed both the rice and the chopsticks. Alternatively, you could interpret the sentence as I ate rice using chopsticks to grab the rice and bring it to my mouth. Both are grammatically correct. One, however, is implausible.

      As for the Annals, I also am interested in how they translate office titles into English, as that has been a struggle for me. Also, there is plenty of prose out there that make some “esoteric allusions.”

  3. gbevers said:

    Yes, you are right. I do need to rethink my translation. I still believe that 君子以仁存心, 以禮存心 translates as, “The superior man (君子) takes (以) benevolence (仁) [and] stores (存) [it in] his heart (心), [he] takes (以) propriety (禮) [and] stores (存) [it in] his heart (心),” but just because 以 translated as “to take” in the last part of the quote does not mean it should be translated that way in the 所以~者 clause.

    As I said in my first post above, I understand that 所以 can be translated as “that by which,” but what I do not understand is how Legge translated 以其. Can 以 be translated as “is by” instead of simply “by”? Maybe Mencius simply abbreviated the 爲 in front of 以其, in which case 以其 should be translated as “[is] by his.”

    Let’s say, for example, that we translate 所以 as “that by which” and 以其 as “is by his,” then 君子所以異於人者存心也 would translate as, “That by which a superior men (君子所以) is different (異) than (於) others (人者) [is] by his (以其) 存心也 ” That means that 存心也 needs to be translated as a noun or a noun phrase. Naver translates 存心 as “마음속의 생각, which can be translated as “beliefs.” If all the above is true, then the Mencius quote makes sense being translated as follows:

    “That by which a superior man (君子所以) is different (異) from (於) others (人者) [is] by his (以其) beliefs (存心也. The superior man (君子) takes (以) benevolence (仁) [and] stores (存) [it in] his heart (心), [he] takes (以) propriety (禮) [and] stores (存) [it in] his heart (心).”

    As for the “Annals of King Taejo,” I am sure there will be a lot of allusions. I just hope the translator takes the time to explain them with footnotes.

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