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Classical Chinese

The four uses of 之 in Literary Chinese

If you look at a Literary Chinese text, you’ll almost certainly see the character 之 (zhī) all over the place. This character has four main functions in the classical language.

1. As a particle to mark modifiers

This if just a fancy way of saying that 之 is a possessive particle. If you’re familiar with modern Mandarin, then you can understand the literary 之 in exactly the same way as the modern 的 (de). Remembering the key rule of “what precedes modifies what follows”, have a look at these examples:

  • 孔子*之*道 (kǒng zǐ zhī dào) [confucius - ’s - way]
    • Here, 之 is acting like apostrophe s in English: “Confucius’ Way”, or “The Way of Confucius”.
  • 明教*之*猶 (míng jiào zhī yóu) [understand - education - ’s - strategy/path]
    • Again 之works like “of” in English with the positions reversed: “The overall aim of understanding education”.
  • 2. As a direct object pronoun

    The second most common use of 之 in Literary Chinese is as a generic direct object pronoun, i.e. things like “it”, “him”, “her” and “them” in English. Examples:

  • (shí zhī) [eat - it]
    • This is a straightforward verb plus pronoun construction. As Weird Al said, “Eat it”.
  • 學而時習 (xué ér shí xí zhī) [study - and - timely - familiar - it]
    • Here 之 is the object of the sentence, taking the action of the verb: “To study and in time master it”.
  • 3. As a demonstrative pronoun

    This is almost the same as function #2: 之 can express meanings like “this”, “these” and “those”. Some examples:

  • (shí zhī) [eat - *this*]
    • We can actually re-use this example, as it’s a bit ambiguous. It could also mean “Eat this”.
  • *之*國之王 (zhī guó zhī wáng) [*this* - country - 's - king]
    • Two examples in one! Here, the first 之 is a demonstrative pronoun, and the second is a particle. The phrase reads “The king of this country”.
  • 4. As a verb meaning “go to”

    A slightly more unusual use of 之 is as a verb. It always means to go to a location or arrive somewhere; it can’t express “ to leave” or “going away”.

  • *之*國見王 (zhī guó jiàn wáng) [go to - capital - see - king]
    • This phrase could be translated as “to go to the capital to see the king”.
  • Other resources

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