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The first usage, which is common, is as a reference to the most ancient forms of Chinese writing, namely the writing of the Shang and early Zhou dynasties, such as found on oracle bones, bronzes, or pottery. This usage can be found at least as early as Xu Shen's Han dynasty etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (Shuowen for short).
The second usage, also well known, refers to variant forms in Shuowen, which Xu Shen mistook as being ancient, but that were actually used in the eastern areas during the Warring States period, as exemplified by copies of the Zuo Zhuan and "books from within the walls" (those hidden during Qin Shihuang's book burning), which were available to Xu Shen at the time of the compilation of the Shuowen. Xu mistook these as being significantly earlier than seal script, and thus also called them guwen. That is, Xu used the term guwen to refer to two different groups of scripts, both those that were truly ancient (usage one above), and those he mistook as being ancient (eastern Warring States variant forms). It took the work of later scholars like Wang Guowei to separate and clarify Xu's ambiguous usage of the term.
The third usage is for scripts that are no longer legible to the average modern reader, including the those referred to in meaning one above (oracle bones, Shang and early Zhou bronze and pottery inscriptions, and the Zhòuwén (籀文) from the Shizhoupian compendium (traditionally dated c. 800 BCE) as partially preserved through exemplars in Shuowen) as well as the Stone Drums of Qin of the late Spring and Autumn period, other writing of the later Zhou period preserved on stone, mid to late Zhou bronzes, the Eastern Warring States writing in meaning two above, and the seal script of the late Zhou to Qin dynasty. Qiu Xigui uses the term "ancient stage" of Chinese script in this manner, such that the Qin seal script and all its aforementioned predecessors are 'ancient', in contrast to the clerical script of the late Warring States through Qin and Han dynasty, and the standard (aka regular, or kaishu) script, as both of these are legible to the modern reader of Chinese.
- 段玉裁 Duàn Yùcái (Tuan Yu-tsai; 1815). 說文解字注 Shuōwén Jĭezì Zhù (commentary on the Shuowen Jiezi), 1815. Best reprint: Taipei by Li-ming Wen-hua Co Tiangong Books, 1998. Note: this edition has the seal script characters in red ink, which is extremely handy as they are otherwise buried in the text.
- Wáng Gúowéi (王國維) 1979.〈戰國時秦用籀文六國用古文說〉，《海寧王靜安先生遺書‧觀堂集林》（台北：商務印書館，1979台二版），卷七，頁293。 ‘Warring States period Qín used Zhòuwen, while the Six States used gǔwén’, in the Collected books of Mr. Wáng Jìng-Ān of Hǎiníng (Guan Tang Ji Lin), Shāngwù Publ., Taipei reprint: Vol. 7, p. 293.
- Chén Zhāoróng (陳昭容) Research on the Qín (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing (秦系文字研究 ﹕从漢字史的角度考察) (2003). Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph (中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊). ISBN 957-671-995-X. (in Chinese)
- Qiu Xigui Chinese Writing (2000). Translation of 文字學概要 by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.