This article is just so depressingly true. An anecdote that hit a little too close for comfort:
Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It’s truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging.
“Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?” You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible “grass-style” calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.
“Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you what it says,” you stammer. “I think it’s about a phoenix or something.”
“Oh, I thought you knew Chinese,” says your friend, returning to their menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.
Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads that say things like: “Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”
In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming the English channel in a straitjacket.