In traditional Chinese lexicography, fǎnqiè or fan-chieh is a method to indicate the pronunciation of a monosyllabic character by using two other characters, one with the same initial consonant as the desired syllable and one with the same rest of the syllable (the final). The method was introduced in the 3rd century AD and used in dictionaries and commentaries on the classics until the early 20th century.
Early dictionaries such as the Erya (3rd century BC) indicated the pronunciation of a character by the method of dúruò (讀若, "read as"), giving another character with the same pronunciation. The introduction of Buddhism to China around the first century brought Indian phonetic knowledge, which may have inspired the idea of fanqie. According to the 6th-century scholar Yan Zhitui, fanqie were first used by Sun Yan (孫炎), of the state of Wei during the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD), in his Erya Yinyi (爾雅音義, "Sounds and Meanings of Erya"). However, earlier examples have been found in the late 2nd century works of Fu Qian and Ying Shao.
The oldest extant sources of significant bodies of fanqie are fragments of the original Yupian (544 AD) found in Japan and the Jingdian Shiwen, a commentary on the classics written in 583 AD. The method was used throughout the Qieyun, a Chinese rhyme dictionary published in 601 AD during the Sui Dynasty. When classical Chinese poetry flowered during the Tang Dynasty, the Qieyun became the authoritative source for literary pronunciations and it repeatedly underwent revisions and enlargements, the most important of which was the Guangyun (1007–1008). Even after the more sophisticated rime table analysis was developed, fanqie continued to be used in dictionaries, including the voluminous Kangxi Dictionary published in 1716 and the Ciyuan and Cihai of the 1930s.
During the Qing dynasty some bilingual Chinese-Manchu dictionaries had the Manchu words phonetically transcribed with Chinese characters. The book 御製增訂清文鑑 ("Imperially-Published Revised and Enlarged mirror of Qing") in Manchu and Chinese, used both Manchu script to transcribe Chinese words and Chinese characters to transcribe Manchu words with fanqie.
In the fanqie method, a character's pronunciation is represented by two other characters. The onset (initial consonant) is represented by that of the first of the two characters (上字 "upper word", as Chinese was written vertically); the final (including the medial glide, the nuclear vowel and the coda) and the tone are represented by those of the second of the two characters (下字, "lower word"). For example, in the Qieyun the character 東 is described by the formula 德紅反. The first two characters indicate the onset and final respectively, so that the pronunciation of 東 [tuŋ] is given as the onset [t] of 德 [tək] with the final [uŋ] of 紅 [ɣuŋ], with the same tone as 紅. The third character 反 fǎn "turn back" indicates that this is a fanqie spelling, as in the earlier instances of fanqie. In later dictionaries such as the Guangyun, the marker character is 切 qiè "run together". (The commonly cited reading "cut" seems to be modern.) The Qing scholar Gu Yanwu suggested that fǎn, which also meant "overthrow", was avoided after the devastating rebellions of the mid-Tang. The origin of both terms is obscure. The compound word fǎnqiè first appeared during the Song dynasty.
Fanqie provide information about the sounds of earlier forms of Chinese, but its recovery is not straightforward. Several characters could be used for each initial or final – in particular, no character was ever used to spell itself. However, it is possibly to identify the initials and finals underlying a large and consistent collection of fanqie, using a method first used by the Cantonese scholar Chen Li in his 1842 study of the Guangyun. For example, in that dictionary
- 東 was spelled 德 + 紅,
- 德 was spelled 多 + 特, and
- 多 was spelled 德 + 河.
This implies that 東, 德 and 多 must all have had the same initial. By following such chains of equivalences Chen was able to identify categories of equivalent initial spellers, and similarly for the finals. Unaware of Chen's work, the Swedish linguist Bernard Karlgren repeated the analysis to identify the initials and finals in the 1910s.
Chen's method can be used to identify the categories of initials and finals, but not their sound values, for which other evidence is required. Thus Middle Chinese has been reconstructed by Karlgren and later scholars by comparing these categories with Sino-Xenic pronunciations and pronunciations in modern varieties of Chinese.
Effects of sound change
The fanqie described the pronunciations of characters in Middle Chinese, but the relationships have been obscured as the language evolved into the modern varieties over the last millennium and a half. Middle Chinese had four tones, and initial plosives and affricates could be voiced, aspirated or voiceless unaspirated. Syllables with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch, and by the late Tang Dynasty, each of the tones had split into two registers (traditionally known as yīn 陰 and yáng 陽) conditioned by the initials. Voicing then disappeared in all dialects except the Wu group, with consonants becoming aspirated or unaspirated depending on the tone. The tones then underwent further mergers in various varieties of Chinese. Thus the changes in both the initial and the tone were each conditioned by the other, represented by different characters in the fanqie pair.
For example, the characters of formula 東 [tuŋ] = 德 [tək] + 紅 [ɣuŋ] are pronounced dōng, dé and hóng in modern Standard Chinese, so that the tones no longer match. This is because the voiceless initial [t] and the voiced initial [ɣ] condition different registers of the Middle Chinese level tone, yielding the first and second tones of the modern language. (The pinyin letter d represents the voiceless and unaspirated stop [t].)
This effect sometimes led to a form of spelling pronunciation. Chao Yuen Ren cited the example of the character 强, which had two readings in Middle Chinese. It could be read [ɡjɑnɡ] in the level tone, meaning "strong, powerful"; this developed regularly into the modern reading qiáng. It could also be read [ɡjɑnɡ] in the rising tone, meaning "stubborn" or "forced". The regular development would be for the voiced initial [ɡ] to condition the yang register of the rising tone, becoming the fourth tone of modern Chinese, and for the rising tone to condition an unaspirated initial. Thus we would expect jiàng, which indeed does occur in the sense "stubborn", but the character also has the unexpected pronunciation qiǎng for the sense "forced". Chao attributed this to the fanqie formula 强 = 其 [ɡi] (level tone) + 兩 [ljɑnɡ] (rising tone) given in dictionaries. Here the first character is now pronounced qí, because in the level tone the voiced initial becomes aspirated, while the second character is now pronounced liǎng, because in the rising tone sonorants like [l] condition the yin register, leading to the modern third tone.
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