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”.
- 食之 (shí zhī) [eat - it]
- This is a straightforward verb plus pronoun construction. As Weird Al said, “Eat it”.
- 學而時習之 (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”.
- 食之 (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”.
- *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”.
- Chinese Text Project entry for 之 - many good examples but little direct explanation
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:
3. As a demonstrative pronoun
This is almost the same as function #2: 之 can express meanings like “this”, “these” and “those”. Some examples:
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”.