In the 1920s in China, a legend was born, opposing a new form of written language, known as baihua, considered modern and « spoken », particularly because it accompanied the development of a standard national language, to classical or literary Chinese (wenyan), presented as ancient and therefore an obstacle to the progress of history. However, classical Chinese, in its various forms, has shown to this day a great capacity for resilience, and demonstrates to what extent this opposition is largely a matter of discourse.

Before the “victory” of baihua, classical Chinese was presented as a vector of literary and intellectual modernity, particularly by translations, or for a time was seen as embodying a cultural and moral “Renaissance” before the May Fourth Movement; event after this date, and beyond the 1950s, the authors, writers, poets, philosophers, academics and intellectuals, could choose to write in classical Chinese (in a more or less reinvented version of it), regardless of their political or ideological opinions. There is of course a complicated intra-literary relationship between Chinese literature in so-called modern language and the corpus, style and classical literary aesthetics. But more than that, classical Chinese literature is even reappearing in the most contemporary para-literature – and of course in the on-screen dialogues. As for translations, while translators at the beginning of the 20th century considered classical Chinese as « the » written language of reference, today the use or not of classical is a recurring question that translators ask themselves especially when they translate ancient works.

This program examines the meanings of the uses and practices of writing in classical Chinese in the modern period:

  • In what way could it have fulfilled a function of modernisation, assimilation, possibly counter-modernity, or a « conservative » project? What does it say about the different roles or positions of the modern author or intellectual? Is it the perpetuation of a literary practice, or is it simply natural for authors who were trained in classical Chinese in their childhood?
  • Beyond a possible ideological assertion, a taste, or for example a marginal or contesting position within the Chinese literary polysystem, isn’t the use of classical Chinese sometimes a measure of caution required by the art of writing in the Straussian sense?
  • One still wonders about the function of strangeness of the classical Chinese for a modern Chinese reader, particularly in the case of translation. The questioning focuses on the creative and renewing (or not) capacities of the classical in the age of westernised globalisation, and on these questions: who writes in classical, how, why, and with what effects?

The project will focus on the interconnected fields of literature, poetics, philosophy, history of ideas, history of language, and the translations studies. If we consider that there are two distinct forms of writing, or at least two regimes that tend to differ, the « modern » and the « classical », even if very often their use can be merged, it will be a question of studying texts written in a language that differs unambiguously from the modern « baihua« , but also of questioning this boundary. The reflection follows that initiated by the previous program « Chinese and Contemporary Literature: Genre Practices and the Literary Canon », but this time from the opposite perspective.

Scientific output and planned activities

  • Organisation of workshops, which includes the invitation of colleagues working on Japan. The first of these workshops is planned for the end of October 2021, dealing with the question of linguistic experiments at the turn of the Qing Dynasty and the Republican period.
  • Symposiums: an international symposium will conclude the program. Moreover, at the international symposium “Guo Moruo and the Creation Society: between China and the West, Tradition and Modernity”, organised in November 2018 by the UFR LCAO (U Paris), the CRCAO, and Guo Moruo International Institute (China/Japan), several contributions approched these questions.
  • Publication of the proceedings, and critical translations of modern classical texts.



translation studies history of language history of ideas literature philosophy poetry



Victor Vuilleumier 宇乐文 (Inalco)
Florence Xiangyun Zhang (Université Paris Cité)

CRCAO members

Full members
Florence Xiangyun Zhang (Université Paris Cité)
Stéphane Feuillas (Université Paris Cité)
Rainier Lanselle (École Pratique des Hautes Études)

Associated members
Victor Vuilleumier 宇乐文 (Inalco)

Doctoral students
Anna Maria Cavalletti (Université Paris Cité)

Outside Participants

Nicolas Zufferey (University of Geneva)
Yinde Zhang (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3)
Georges Bê Duc (University of Picardie)
Sandrine Marchand (University of Artois)
Joachim Boitout (PhD candidate, EHESS/ENS)