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Shuowen jiezi 说文解字Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters

The Shuowen jiezi 说文解字 “Explaining simple and analyzing compound characters”, short Shuowen 说文, is the oldest and one of the most important character dictionaries of ancient China. It was compiled by the Later Han period 后汉 (25-220 CE) scholar Xu Shen 许慎. The book was finished in 100 CE but was only submitted to the court in 121 by the author’s son, Xu Chong 许冲. The characters are arranged in 540 so-called radicals (bushou 部首) in 14 chapters, and one chapter including a list of the radicals and Xu Shen’s own postface (xu 叙).

The initial point of Xu’s dictionary was the fact that during the Former Han period 前汉 (206 BCE-8 CE) a lot of different Confucian books had come to light, written in different styles of script, from the modern “chancery script” lishu 隶书 (the so-called “modern script classics” jinwenjing 今文经) to the old “seal script” zhuanshu 篆书 (the so-called “old script classics” guwenjing 古文经). In order to provide a tool for a study of these texts, especially the old text classics, which began to dominate Confucian scholarship at the beginning of the Later Han period, Xu Shen provided a dictionary which analysed the seal script characters and their meaning. The allegedly more original old script versions seemed to be more reliable than the new script texts.

The lemmata heads are written in small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆), while the analytic and explanatory text is written in contemporary chancery script. From the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) on editions of the Shuowen also added transcriptions of the seal script characters, the large seal script characters (zhouwen 籀文, also known as dazhuan 大篆), the old characters (guwen 古文) and popular variants (suti 俗体), which have been provided by Xu Shen to some of the standard small seal script characters.

In his postface (xu) to the Shuowen, Xu Shen gives an account on the development of the Chinese script. It is said to have been invented by Cang Jie 仓颉, a minister of the mythological Yellow Emperor 黄帝, after he had seen the traces of bird feet on the soil. The simple characters he created are mainly illustrations of objects and ideas, simple in appearance and therefore called “patterns” (wen 文). In a later stage the characters or ideographs were combined from an ideographic part (xing 形 “shape”) and a phonetic part (sheng 声). This type of compound characters is called zi 字. Today both terms are combined to the word wenzi 文字, meaning “Chinese character” or “Chinese script”. Xu Shen discerns six theoretical types of characters, the liushu 六书 “six types of script”:

• The simplest form are pictograms (xiangxing 象形 “illustration of a shape”), pictures of optically perceivable or imaginable things, like 木 “tree”, 山 “mountain”, different animals and plants (马 “horse”, 羊 “sheep”, 竹 “bamboo”, 米 “grain”), 手 “hand”, 眉 “eyebrow”, 气 “breath”, or various objects (戈 “halberd”, 鼎 “tripod”). This group also includes symbols of figurative meaning, like 交 “exchange” (a picture of crossed legs).
• The second type of characters are ideograms of simple relationships (zhishi 指事 “pointing at things”), often derived from a pictogram. The relationship to the pictogram is indicated with a stroke, like 上 “above”, 下 “below”, 刃 “blade” of a knife, 本 “root” or 末 “branch” of a tree. Turned characters also belong to this type, like 乏 deficient” (opposite of 正 “correct”), or 匕 “change”, a turned 人 “man”.
• The third type (huiyi 会意 “assembled meanings”) is a combination of two pictograms, like 武 “war” from 戈 “halberd” and 止 “base”; 信 “trust” from 人 “man” and 言 “spech”; 丧 “funeral” from 哭 “weeping” and 亡 “gone, dead”; 旦 “dawn” from 日 “sun” and the horizon; or 公 “public” from 八 “to separate” and ㄙ “private”. There are a lot of characters from this type, but only in a few cases Xu Shen explicitly mentions the word huiyi.
• The fourth type (xingsheng 形声 “shape and sound”), which applies to about 90 percent of all Chinese characters, is a combination of pictogram and a character of which the sound is used, like shang 赏 “to grant a reward”, from 贝 “shell, i. e. money”, and the phonetic shang 尚. The same phonetic part 尚 is used, for instance, in the characters tang 堂 “hall” (phonetic 尚 and radical 土 “pounded earth”) or shang 裳 “garment” (phonetic 尚 and radical 衣 “clothing”)
• The fifth type (zhuanzhu 转注 “comment by turning”) is a rarely understood type, because it is not sufficiently explained by Xu Shen. In his preface, he gives the examples kao 考 and lao 老. It seems to be that because both have a similar meaning (“old”) and similar pronunciation, the characters have been conciously designed in a very similar way, but with one part mirrored horizontally. Yet in the explanation to two lemmata themselves, Xu Shen derives the character kao 考 from an abbreviated 老 “old” as a radical and the phonetic part kao 丂. The following characters also might belong to this group: fan 返 “give back” and huan 还 “turn back”, or biao 标 “tip of a branch” and miao 杪 “end of a stalk”
• The sixth type of character (jiajie 假借 “wrongly borrowed”) are loan-characters borrowed for a word similarly pronounced but with a different meaning, like ling 令 “order” from ming 令 “command” (later written 命) and zhang 长 “headperson”, from chang 长 “long hair”. Many grammatical particles are of this type. The ancient Chinese simply borrow another character with the same or a similar pronuncition for these words, like nai 乃 “breast” for nai “therefore”, qi 其 “basket” for qi “his, her, its”, zhi 之 “to go” for a genetive particle and object pronoun, or ye 也 “uterus” for an equalizing particle. In some cases, new characters were created for the original words, like 奶 for “breast, milk”, and 箕 for “basket”.

Xu Shen has developed a special syntax for his analysis. Huiyi characters are generally analysed with the sentence cong A, B 从甲乙, or cong A, cong B 从甲从乙 “from A and B”. Xingsheng characters are analyzed with the sentence cong A, B sheng 从甲乙声 “from A and the sound of B”. One part of the huiyi characters is in many cases also used phonetically, in which case Xu Shen writes cong A, cong B, B yi sheng 从甲从乙,乙亦声 “from an and B, B is also used phonetically”. In a lot of characters the phonetic part is abbreviated, a phenomenon which in huiyi type characters also occasionally occurs. Xu Shen’s formula for this phenomenon is cong B sheng sheng 从乙省声 “from abbreviated B, used phonetically”.


The arrangement of the radicals follows the contemporary conceptions of the universe, which is based on “one” 一, “above” 上, “religious matters” 示, the trinity Heaven, Earth and Man 三, and king 王, and ends with objects of human craftsmanship, like carts and tools, and the element earth 土, one of the five processes (wuxing 五行). The last radicals are the higher numbers and celestial stems and terrestrial branches. The sequence of the radicals was explained by later commentators of the Shuowen. It many cases the sequence is graphically, with the next character being derived from a part of the preceeding one, for instance:
• 小 “small”
• 八 “to separate”
• 釆 “to distinguish”
• 半 “things divided in the middle”
• 牛 “cattle”
• 牦 “Tibetan yak”
• 告 “marking a dangerous bull”
• 口 “mouth”
• 凵 “a mouth is opened widely”
• 吅 “to shout in alarm”
• 哭 “to weep”
• 走 “to walk”
• 止 “base”
• 癶 “blocked feet”
• 步 “to go”
• 此 “to stop”…
• 日 “sun”
• 旦 “dawn”
• “morning sun”
• “weaving streamers”
• 冥 “dark”
• 晶 “brilliant”
• 月 “moon”
• 有 “what should better not occur”
• 朙 “bright”
• 囧 “interlocking windows illuminate the room”
• 夕 “evening”
• 多 “endless repetition”
• 毌 “to penetrate and lock together”
• ㄢ “to include firmly”…

The characters listed under each radical are arranged in a very complicated sequence not easily to perceive. Words with positive connotations are listed first, those with negative meanings last. Technical terms important for state rituals and in the world of thought are also listed relatively before very common words. Words with similar meaning are listed in one group. Within such groups, tautologies are very common (X is Y.//Y is X.). Without index it is therefore very time-consuming to detect a character. At the end of each radical paragraph, the total number of characters listed under the particular radical is stated, as well as the additional writing variants with old and large seal script characters. Later scholars have added some characters not listed in the Shuowen. These are listed as newly appendend (xinfu 新附) at the end of each radical section.
For each character, the meaning is provided first. Then Xu Shen analyses the character itself. In many cases he quotes from the Confucian classics to provide the reader with an example from the literature he knows. Sometimes he also adds a phonetic instruction of the type of du ruo X 读若某 “read like X”. In the last place he gives alternative writings (often another radical) or the ancient shape of the character, which often totally differs from the small seal script style.

The Shuowen jiezi lists 9,353 characters as a lemma, and 1,163 alternative characters (old styles, and so on). This large number covers practically all words occurring in the ancient literature. Some characters have later been added, especially such from Han period literature not used in pre-Han texts. The Shuowen does not cover characters from the ancient state of Chu 楚, memory of which was lost during the Han period, and not those exclusively used on bronze vessel inscriptions from the early Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). It does of course also not list the most ancient form of Chinese characters as used in the oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) that were only discovered in the early 20th century. It was, nevertheless, easier to read these inscriptions with the help of the Shuowen jiezi. Without Xu Shen’s indications, this would have been far more difficult.

Xu Shen’s analysis is enormeously helpful for understanding the history of Chinese characters and the original meaning of them. Without his providing the seal script shape and its analysis, it would not be possible to really perceive the acutal meaning of a lot of characters, because the modern chancery script shape is often simplified and does not reveal the origional shape, like 夜 “night”, derived from 夕 “evening”, 亦, derived from a standing person 大, or 春 “spring”, which is a composition of 艹 “grass”, 日 “sun” and 屯 “sprout”. The Shuowen jiezi served as a model for all later character dictionaries based on an arrangement of the characters according to radicals.
Unfortunatley the Shuowen jiezi has suffered from an unhappy history of transmission. The Tang period scholar 唐 (618-907) Li Yangbing 李阳冰 edited the Shuowen after he had made a lot of amendings concerning the small seal script of the lemmas. He also added his own commentary, which was, according to testimony of later scholars, very unreliable and unscholarly. It was only during the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960) that the brothers Xu Xuan 徐铉 and Xu Kai 徐锴 from the state of Southern Tang 南唐 (937-975) started recovering the ancient text of the Shuowen jiezi. Xu Kai published it with his own commentary in the 40 juan “scrolls” long Shuowen jiezi jichuan 说文解字系传.

Xu Xuan became a subject of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) and presented his own, much shorter, commentary to the Shuowen jiezi, to the Song court. He had eliminated the errors by Li Yangbing and added a pronunciation guide according to the fanqie system 反切 used in Sun Mian’s 孙愐 character dictionary Tangyun 唐韵 from the Tang period, and some notes to a part of the characters. He divided each of the 15 original chapters into two half-chapters. It was also he who added the new characters to the text which appear in ancient writings, especially such from the Han period, but which were missing in the original Shuowen jiezi. Xu Xuan’s imperially acknowledged version (also called Da-Xu ben 大徐本 “Version of the older Xu”) was printed, as well as the version of his brother (the Xiao-Xu ben 小徐本 “Version of the younger Xu”). The first is included in the collectaneum Sibu congkan 四部丛刊. The original print from the Song period was owned by the Jiguge Studio 汲古阁, later by Lu Xinyuan 陆心源, and now by the Seikadō Library 静嘉堂文库 in Tokyo. It has also been included in Sun Xingyan’s 孙星衍 collectaneum Pingjinguan congshu 平津馆丛书. This version has been reprinted several times and is very widespread. A manuscript version from the Shugutang Studio 述古堂 of Xu Kai’s Shuowen jiezi xichuan has been reprinted in the collectaneum Sibu congkan. It has also been printed by the Qing period publisher Qi Guizao 祁嶲藻.
There is a Tang period manuscript preserved, but only in a very small fragment of 188 characters from the section of the radical 木 “tree”. It has been commented and published by the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Mo Youzhi 莫友芝 with the title of Tang xieben Shuowen jiezi mubu jianyi 唐写本说文解字木部笺异. The original is now kept in the Kyō’u shōku Library 杏雨书屋 in Osaka. Another fragment from the section of the radical 口 “mouth” is a manuscript written in Japan.

Xu Kai has also written an index to the Shuowen jiezi, the Shuowen jiezi yunpu 说文解字韵谱, in which the characters are arranged according to the rhyme system valid since the Tang period. The index has later been amended by Xu Xuan. The Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) scholar Li Tao 李焘 has written another index, Shuowen jiezi wuyi yunpu 说文解字五音韵谱, which is geared to the Song period rhyme system, which has less rhyme groups than that of the Tang period. All three books have been printed.
The corpus of Qing period studies on the Shuowen jiezi is quite vast. It has attracted the attention of scholars of all fields, from paleographers and phonologists to botanists. The most important studes and commentaries are Duan Yucai’s 段玉裁 Shuowen jiezi zhu 说文解字注, Gui Fu’s 桂馥 Shuowen jiezi yizheng 说文解字义证, Wang Yun’s 王筠 Shuowen judu 说文句读, and Zhu Junsheng’s 朱骏声 Shuowen tongxun dingsheng 说文通训定声.
The book of Duan Yucai is a very detailed analysis of the whole text of the Shuowen jiezi. He quotes a lot of ancient literature in his analysis of the meaning Xu Shen has attributed to the character, in order to trace the expansion of the original meaning of the character. This was often done by borrowing the character for another word. Duan also tries to establish the original pronunciation of the character. Inspite of some errors, the Shuowen jiezi zhu is an excellent early modern standard commentary.
The book by Gui Fu is in first case a source book providing a lot of material from original sources supporting or contradicting the analysis of Xu Shen. Of secondary importance is Gui’s analysis of the main text and of the commentaries of the Xu brothers.

The book of Wang Yun has been compiled as an extract of the large works of Duan and Gui, to make it easier for the reader to deal with the large amount of material. Wang has also made some corrections to the text. He has also written the Shuowen shili 说文释例, an analysis of the basic guidelines with which the Shuowen had been written.
Zhu Junsheng has arranged the characters according to rhyme groups. He analyses the original text of Xu Shen and the particular parts of the characters, the exended meaning (while Xu Shen only provides the original meaning of the character) and for which words the character is borrowed. Zhu also adds some more characters from Han and Wei period 曹魏 (220-265) sources not included in the Shuowen jiezi text.

In 1928 Ding Fubao 丁福保 published a compilation of all previous commentaries to the Shuowen in a large, eight volume (modern reprints have even more volumes) edition called Shuowen jiezi gulin 说文解字诂林. The commentaries are assembled according to the characters, so that it is very easy to see all comments under one single heading.

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