It is possible to learn Classical Chinese without first learning Mandarin or having high standards in it. There are several resources for the English speaker to get started.
The characters used are similar to the traditional characters currently used, but may have meant something different in the past. The biggest change is the grammar, so Mandarin speakers unaccustomed to Classical Chinese would also struggle with making sense of the language.
The advantage to learning Classical Chinese is that you’ll finally understand Chinese Phrases like the infamous ‘feng he re li’. It’ll also help you with advanced Mandarin because certain sentence structures are still in use today.
Early Literary Chinese
For the absolute beginner to Chinese, I highly recommend:
- Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners. Dr Bryan Van Norden is well known in the Chinese Philosophy community, and he explains Chinese to the English speaker extremely well. This resource was made to help non-Chinese speakers appreciate Classical Chinese and better understanding Classical Chinese.
After gaining some ability with Chinese, I recommend one of:
- A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese by Paul Rouzer. Less emphasis on Grammar, and only assumes you know how Chinese characters work. Every character is explained to you.
- An Introduction to Literary Chinese by Michael Fuller. More of an emphasis on Grammar. I didn’t use this book, but it has been used as the go-to introduction for many years.
- Introduction to Classical Chinese by Kai Vogelsang. A comprehensive textbook on Classical Chinese. Teaches you the ins and outs of Classical Chinese Grammar
- Free resource: Chinese Philosophical Texts by Mark Lewis.
Separately from Early Literary Chinese above, you can also just start with Medieval Chinese without knowledge of Mandarin.
- Chinese Buddhist Texts: An Introductory Reader by Graham Lock and Gary S. Linebarger. This resource uses selections from different Chinese Buddhist sutras.
- Free resource: A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings by John Kieschnick. This resource uses one sutra throughout all 3 parts.
Again, you don’t need to know any Chinese to enjoy some Chinese poetry, which you can find in the book below.
You can’t go wrong with the Chinese Text Project. If you click the blue arrow pointing right that can be found on the left of the passages, you can access the mouse-over dictionary function.
Whether you’re learning Classical Literary Chinese or Buddhist Chinese, I highly recommend you download the Pleco app and buy the A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese add on. The link I’ve given is for the physical book, but it’s on Pleco and easier to access.