Ancient China Language

The first written texts in Ancient China appeared during the Shang dynasty, over 3,000 years ago. The spoken language existed long before that, and it was far from uniform in whole China.

In fact, languages of remote cities, as well as the languages that ruling dynasties used through ages, were sometimes unintelligible to each other.

The language that is now recognized as the predecessor of modern standard Chinese appeared some 1,000 years ago.

Old Chinese

  • The language that was found on oracle bone texts from the late Shang dynasty (around 1250 BCE) was the old Chinese or archaic Chinese.This language was also spoken during the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE).In addition to oracle bones, researchers found various inscriptions on different bronze artifacts.The inscriptions contained fragments of the Classic of Poetry, I Ching, and the Book of Documents.
  • The written form of the old Chinese was different from the later Chinese script. In old Chinese, each character represented a monosyllabic word.Even though this writing system was not phonetic, each character was adapted to match a similar-sounding word.
  • Although due to massive changes in language and script, no one knows exactly how the old Chinese language sounded in speech, researchers who focused on the rhyming practice in ancient poetry managed to reconstruct some of its phonology.Unlike modern Chinese variants, such as mandarin, old Chinese was probably a language without tones.

Range of Chinese dialect groups according to the Language Atlas of China

Middle Chinese

  • Middle Chinese was in use in 6th through 10th centuries CE, during Northern and Southern dynasties as well as the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties. Linguists divided middle Chinese into periods, such as an early and a late period.
  • An example of the early period in the development of middle Chinese is the Qieyun rime book, which was published around 601 CE.
  • The late period refers to the language that was used in the 10th The Yunjing and other rhyme tables serve as an example of the late period.
  • The so-called rhyme tables are an amazing resource for modern researchers because they provide a thorough phonological analysis of the previous, early middle Chinese language system that was reflected in the Qieyun.The authors of rhyme tables such as the Yunjing used the Late Middle Chinese dialect, and they tried to interpret the former phonological system that was so much different from their own. So they performed a detailed analysis of the older language.

Classical Chinese

  • Classical Chinese language was the first standardized language in ancient China. The varieties of the spoken Chinese language had been through a lot of changes, while the written form remained virtually unchanged for a long time.While the people spoke different varieties of middle Chinese, the written form of the old Chinese language was preserved thanks to influential classical works of literature that were written in Old Chinese.
  • Classical Chinese literary works that were created from the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period to the end of the Han dynasty served as the model for the classical Chinese language.Even though the language they spoke was different, newer authors tried to resemble the style of famous masters. The evolution of Chinese script continued as well, but the classical Chinese remained the only literary language.
  • Classical Chinese and various spoken dialects had just as much in common as Medieval Latin and the Romance languages of Europe.The elites knew the classical form, read and wrote in it – yet no one spoke it anymore. With slight changes, classical Chinese was in use until the early XX century.


What is the language of the inscriptions found on oracle bones in ancient China?

It was the old Chinese.

How was middle Chinese divided?

It was divided into early and late middle Chinese.

What is the most valuable source of information about the phonetics of early middle Chinese?

Those were rhyme tables, and they were created in late middle Chinese.

What is the link and difference between the old and classical Chinese?

Classical Chinese was based on the language of literary masterpieces created in old Chinese.