Shuowen Jiezi

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The cover of a modern reprint of a Northern Song-Dynasty "veritable" edition (真本) of the Shuowen Jiezi
The 540 radicals of the Shuowen Jiezi in the original seal script

Shuōwén Jiězì (Chinese: 說文解字; Wade–Giles: Shuo-wen chieh-tzu; literally: "Explaining and Analyzing Characters"), often shortened to Shuowen, was an early 2nd-century Chinese dictionary from the Han Dynasty. Although not the first comprehensive Chinese character dictionary (the Erya predates it), it was still the first to analyze the structure of the characters and to give the rationale behind them (sometimes also the etymology of the words represented by them), as well as the first to use the principle of organization by sections with shared components, called radicals (bùshǒu 部首, lit. "section headers").

Circumstances of compilation[edit]

Xu Shen, a Han Dynasty scholar of the Five Classics, compiled the Shuowen Jiezi. He finished editing it in 100, but due to an unfavorable imperial attitude towards scholarship, he waited until 121 before having his son Xǔ Chōng present it to Emperor An of Han along with a memorial.

In analyzing the structure of characters and defining the words represented by them, Xu Shen strove to disambiguate the meaning of the pre-Han Classics, so as to render their usage by government unquestioned and bring about order, and in the process also deeply imbued his organization and analyses with his philosophy on characters and the universe. According to Boltz (1993:430), Xu's compilation of the Shuowen "cannot be held to have arisen from a purely linguistic or lexicographical drive." His motives were more pragmatic and political. During the Han era, the prevalent theory of language was Confucianist Rectification of Names, the belief that using the correct names for things was essential for proper government. The postface ( 敘) to the Shuowen Jiezi (tr. Thern 1966:17) explains: "Now the written language is the foundation of classical learning, the source of kingly government." Compare how the postface describes the legendary invention of writing for governmental rather than for communicative purposes:

Cang Jie, scribe for the Yellow Emperor, on looking at the tracks of the feet of birds and animals, realizing that the patterns and forms were distinguishable, started to create graphs, so that all kinds of professions could be regulated, and all people could be kept under scrutiny.(tr. Thern 1966:17)

Pre-Shuowen Chinese dictionaries like the Erya and the Fangyan were limited lists of synonyms loosely organized by semantic categories, which made it difficult to look up characters. Xu Shen analytically organized characters in the comprehensive Shuowen Jiezi through their shared graphic components, which Boltz (1993:431) calls "a major conceptual innovation in the understanding of the Chinese writing system."

Textual organization[edit]

The title of the work draws a basic distinction between two types of characters, wén 文 and 字, the former being those composed of a single graphic element (such as shān 山 "mountain"), and the latter being those containing more than one such element (such as hǎo 好 "good" with 女 "woman" and 子 "child") which can be deconstructed into and analyzed in terms of their component elements. Note that the character 文 itself exemplifies the category wén 文, while 字 (which is composed of 宀 and 子) exemplifies 字. Thus, Shuōwén Jiězì means "commenting on" (shuō "speak; talk; comment; explain") the wén, which cannot be deconstructed, and "analyzing" (jiě "untie; separate; divide; analyze; explain; deconstruct") the .

Xu Shen categorized Chinese characters into 540 sections, under "section headers" (bùshǒu, now the standard linguistic and lexicographical term for character radicals): these may be entire characters or simplifications thereof, which also serve as components shared by all the characters in that section. The number of section headers, 540, numerologically equals 6 × 9 × 10, the product of the symbolic numbers of Yīn and Yáng and the number of the Heavenly Stems. The first section header was 一 ( "one; first") and the last was 亥 (hài, the last character of the Earthly Branches). Xu's choice of sections appears in large part to have been driven by the desire to create an unbroken, systematic sequence among the headers themselves, such that each had a natural, intuitive relationship (e.g., structural, semantic or phonetic) with the ones before and after, as well as by the desire to reflect cosmology. In the process, he included many section headers that are not considered ones today, such as 炎 (yán "flame") and 熊 (xióng "bear"), which modern dictionaries list under the 火 or 灬 (huǒ "fire") heading. He also included as section headers all the sexagenary cycle characters, that is, the ten Heavenly Stems and twelve Earthly Branches. As a result, unlike modern dictionaries which attempt to maximize the number of characters under each section header, 34 Shuowen headers have no characters under them, while 159 have only one each. From a modern lexicographical perspective, Xu's system of 540 headings can seem "enigmatic" and "illogical" (Thern 1966:4). For instance, he included the singular section header 409 惢 (ruǐ "doubt"), with only one rare character (ruǐ 繠 "stamen"), instead of listing it under the common header 408 心 (xīn "heart; mind").

The Shuowen Jiezi is often mistakenly cited[who?] as the origin of the "Six-Principles Theory of Chinese character composition" (liùshū 六書 "six graphs"); however, several earlier books mention it (q.v. Chinese character classification). Xu Shen's postface describes the Six Principles and his dictionary systematizes them. He uses the first two, simple indicatives (zhǐshì 指事) and pictograms (xiàngxíng 象形) to explicitly label the dictionary's character entries, e.g., in the typical pattern of "(character) (definition) ...simple indicative" (A B 也...指事 (也)). Logographs belonging to the third principle, phono-semantic compound characters (xíngshēng 形聲), are implicitly identified through the entry pattern A… from B, phonetically resembles C (A...從 B, C 聲), meaning that element B plays a semantic role in A, while C gives the sound. The fourth type, compound indicatives (huìyì 會意), are sometimes identified by the pattern A...from X from Y (A...從 X 從 Y), meaning that the compound A is given meaning through the graphic combination and interaction of both constituent elements. The last two of the six principles, borrowed characters (aka phonetic loan, jiǎjiè 假借) and derived characters (zhuǎnzhù 轉注), are not identifiable in the character definitions, as they are not principles of structural composition.

Contents and importance[edit]

page of a Chinese dictionary, with headings in seal script and entries in conventional script
Page from a copy of a Song dynasty edition of the Shuowen, showing characters with the 言 element, including 說 shuō

Xu Shen states in his postface that the Shuowen has 9,353 character entries, plus 1,163 graphic variants, with a total length of 133,441 characters. The transmitted texts vary slightly in content, owing to omissions and emendations by commentators (especially Xú Xuàn, see below), and modern editions have 9,431 characters and 1,279 variants. The Shuowen includes a Preface and 15 chapters. The first 14 chapters are character entries; the 15th and final chapter is divided into two parts: a postface and an index of section headers.

Xu wrote the Shuowen Jiezi to analyze seal script (specifically xiǎozhuàn 小篆 "small seal") characters that evolved slowly and organically throughout the mid-to-late Zhou dynasty in the state of Qin, and which were then standardized during the Qín dynasty and promulgated empire-wide. Even as copyists transcribed the main text of the book in clerical script in the late Han, and then in modern standard script in the centuries to follow, the small seal characters continued to be copied in their own (seal) script to preserve their structure, as were two kinds of variant graphs included by Xu, which he termed ancient script (gǔwén 古文) and Zhòu script (Zhòuwén 籀文, not to be confused with the Zhou Dynasty).

The guwen characters were conclusively shown by the leading scholar, Wang Guowei, to be anything but ancient; rather, they were regional variant forms from only slightly earlier, in the eastern areas during the Warring States period, thus making them contemporaneous with (not "ancient" compared to) the pre-unification Qín seal script. Note that Xu only included these "ancient" variants when they differed from standard seal. The Zhòu characters, now usually called large seal script (dàzhuàn 大篆 "large seal"), were taken from the no-longer extant Shĭ Zhòu Piān (史籀篇), an early copybook traditionally attributed to Shĭ Zhòu, or Historian Zhou, an official in the court of King Xuan of Zhou (r. 827-782 BCE).

Xu Shen did not know it at the time, but this "Zhòu script" dated from the late Western Zhōu Dynasty, and the "Zhòu script" was thus much older than the Warring States and Qin forms that he was analyzing. Later handwritten Shuowen versions copied the seal and ancient graphs, but wrote the definitions in the prevailing script in use (clerical script, regular script, etc.).

The typical Shuowen format for a character entry consists of a seal graph; a short definition (usually a single synonym, occasionally in a punning way as in the Shiming), pronunciation given by citing a homophone, and analysis of compound graphs into semantic and/or phonetic components. Individual entries can additionally include graphic variants, secondary definitions, information on regional usages, citations from pre-Han texts, and further phonetic information, especially in dúruò (讀若 "read like") notations (Coblin 1978).

Although the Shuowen Jiezi has had incalculable value to scholars and was traditionally relied upon as the most important Chinese etymological dictionary, many of its analyses and definitions have been eclipsed as vague or inaccurate since the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions in the late 19th century[citation needed]. It therefore can no longer be relied upon as the single, authoritative source for definitions and graphic etymologies. Xu Shen lacked access to oracle bone inscriptions from the Shāng Dynasty and bronzeware inscriptionss from the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasty, to which scholars now have access; they are often critical for understanding the structures and origins of logographs. For instance, he put (慮 "be concerned; consider") under the section heading 思 ( "think") and noted it had a phonetic of (虍 "tiger"). However, the early bronze graphs for (慮) have the xīn (心 "heart") semantic component and a (呂 "a musical pitch") phonetic, also seen in early forms of (盧 "vessel; hut") and (虜 "captive").

By suggestion of Imre Galgambos, Shuowen function was educational. Since Han studies of writing are attested to have begun by pupils of 8 years old, Xu Shen's categorization of characters was proposed to be understood as a mnemonic methodology for juvenile students.[1]

Textual history and scholarship[edit]

Although the original Han Dynasty Shuōwén Jiězì text has been lost, it was transmitted through handwritten copies for centuries. The oldest extant trace of it is a six-page manuscript fragment from the Tang Dynasty, amounting to about 2% of the entire text. The fragment, now in Japan, concerns the (木) section header. The earliest post-Han scholar known to have researched and emended this dictionary, albeit badly, was Lǐ Yángbīng (李陽冰, fl. 765-80), who "is usually regarded as something of a bête noire of [Shuowen] studies," writes Boltz (1993:435), "owing to his idiosyncratic and somewhat capricious editing of the text."

Shuowen scholarship improved greatly during the Southern Tang-Song Dynasties and later during the Qing Dynasty. The most important Northern Song scholars were the Xú brothers, Xú Xuàn (徐鉉, 916-991) and Xú Kǎi (徐鍇, 920-74). In 986, Emperor Taizong of Song ordered Xú Xuàn and other editors to publish an authoritative edition of the dictionary. Xu Xuan's textual criticism has been especially vital for all subsequent scholarship, since his restoration of the damage done by Li Yangbing resulted in the closest version we have to the original, and the basis for all later editions. Xu Kai, in turn, focused on exegetical study, analyzing the meaning of Xu Shen's text, appending supplemental characters, and adding fanqie pronunciation glosses for each entry. Among Qing Shuowen scholars, some like Zhū Jùnshēng (朱駿聲, 1788–1858), followed the textual criticism model of Xu Xuan, while others like Guì Fù (桂馥, 1736–1805) and Wáng Yún (王筠, 1784–1834) followed the analytical exegesis model of Xu Kai. One Qing scholar, Duàn Yùcái (段玉裁), stands above all the others due to the quality of his research in both areas. His annotated Shuowen edition is the one most commonly used by students today.

Scholarship in the 20th century offered new understandings and accessibility. Ding Fubao (丁福保, 1874–1952) collected all available Shuowen materials, clipped and arranged them in the original dictionary order, and photolithographically printed a colossal edition. Notable advances in Shuowen research have been made by Chinese and Western scholars like Ma Zonghuo (馬宗霍), Ma Xulun (馬敘倫), William G. Boltz, Weldon South Coblin, Thomas B. I. Creamer, Paul L. M. Serruys, Roy A. Miller, and K. L. Thern.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Galambos, Imre. Orthography of Early Chinese Writing: Evidence from Newly Excavated Manuscripts. Budapest, 2006:54-61.
  • Atsuji Tetsuji 阿辻哲次. Kanjigaku: Setsumon kanji no sekai 漢字学―説文解字の世界. Tôkyô: Tôkai daigaku shuppankai, 1985. ISBN 4-486-00841-3, ISBN 978-4-486-00841-5
  • Boltz, William G. (1993), "Shuo wen chieh tzu", in Loewe, Michael, Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, Early China Special Monograph Series 2, Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China, and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, pp. 429–442, ISBN 978-1-55729-043-4. 
  • Bottéro, Françoise; Harbsmeier, Christoph (2008), "The Shuowen Jiezi dictionary and the human sciences in China", Asia Major 21 (1): 249–271. 
  • (Chinese) Chén Zhāoróng 陳昭容. (2003). 秦系文字研究﹕从漢字史的角度考察 [Research on the Qín (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing]. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊. Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph.
  • Coblin, W. South. (1978), The initials of Xu Shen's language as reflected in the Shuowen duruo glosses, Journal of Chinese Linguistics 6, pp. 27–75 
  • Creamer, Thomas B.I. (1989) "Shuowen Jiezi and Textual Criticism in China," International Journal of Lexicography 2:3, pp. 176–187.
  • Ding Fubao (丁福保). 1932. Shuowen Jiezi Gulin (說文解字詁林 "A Forest of Glosses on the Shuowen Jiezi"). 16 vols. Repr. Taipei: Commercial Press. 1959. 12 vols.
  • Duàn Yùcái (段玉裁). (1815). "說文解字注" (Shuōwén Jĭezì Zhù, commentary on the Shuōwén Jíezì), compiled 1776–1807. This classic edition of Shuowen is still reproduced in facsimile by various publishers, e.g., in Taipei by Li-ming Wen-hua Co Tiangong Books (1980, 1998), which edition conveniently highlights the main entry seal characters in red ink, and adds the modern kǎi 楷 standard script versions of them at the tops of the columns, with bopomofo phoneticization alongside.
  • Serruys, Paul L-M. (1984) "On the System of the Pu Shou 部首 in the Shuo-wen chieh-tzu 說文解字", Zhōngyāng Yánjiūyuàn Lìshǐ Yǔyán Yánjiùsuǒ Jíkān (中央研究院歷史語言研究所集刊, Journal of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica), v.55:4, pp. 651–754.
  • Thern, K.L. (1966), Postface of the Shuo wen chieh tzu, The First Comprehensive Chinese Dictionary, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin 
  • (Chinese) Wáng Gúowéi 王國維. (1979). "史籀篇敘錄" [Commentary on the Shĭ Zhoù Piān] and "史籀篇疏證序" [Preface to a Study of the Shĭ Zhòu Piān], in 海寧王靜安先生遺書‧觀堂集林 [The Collected works of Mr. Wáng Jìng-Ān of Hǎiníng (Guan Tang Ji Lin)]. Taibei: 商務印書館 Commercial Press reprint, pp. 239–295.
  • (Chinese) Xu Zhongshu zh:徐中舒. "丁山說文闕義箋" [Commentary on the errors in Shuowen by Ding Shan]

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