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Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 "Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters"

The Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 "Explaining simple and analyzing compound characters", short Shuowen 說文, is the oldest and one of the most important character dictionaries of ancient China. It was compiled by the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) scholar Xu Shen 許慎. The book was finished in 100 CE but was only submitted to the court in 121 by the author's son, Xu Chong 許衝. 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 前漢 (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 隸書 (the so-called "modern script classics" jinwenjing 今文經) to the old "seal script" zhuanshu 篆書 (the so-called "old script classics" guwenjing 古文經). 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 倉頡, a minister of the mythological Yellow Emperor 黃帝, 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 聲). 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 六書 "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 (馬 "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 會意 "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"; 喪 "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 形聲 "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 賞 "to grant a reward", from 貝 "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 轉注 "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 還 "turn back", or biao 標 "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 長 "headperson", from chang 長 "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 从甲乙聲 "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,乙亦聲 "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 从乙省聲 "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"
  • 犛 "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 讀若某 "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 艸 "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 李陽冰 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 徐鉉 and Xu Kai 徐鍇 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 說文解字繫傳.
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 孫愐 character dictionary Tangyun 唐韻 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 四部叢刊. The original print from the Song period was owned by the Jiguge Studio 汲古閣, later by Lu Xinyuan 陸心源, and now by the Seikadō Library 静嘉堂文库 in Tokyo. It has also been included in Sun Xingyan's 孫星衍 collectaneum Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書. 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 唐寫本說文解字木部箋異. The original is now kept in the Kyō'u shōku Library 杏雨書屋 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 說文解字韻譜, 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 李燾 has written another index, Shuowen jiezi wuyi yunpu 說文解字五音韻譜, 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 說文解字注, Gui Fu's 桂馥 Shuowen jiezi yizheng 說文解字義證, Wang Yun's 王筠 Shuowen judu 說文句讀, and Zhu Junsheng's 朱駿聲 Shuowen tongxun dingsheng 說文通訓定聲.
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 說文釋例, 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 說文解字詁林. The commentaries are assembled according to the characters, so that it is very easy to see all comments under one single heading.

Source: Zhou Zumo 周祖谟 (1988). "Shuowen jiezi 說文解字", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言文字, pp. 367-368. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.

Table of the 540 Shuowen radicals (pdf).

Exemplarious translation:

1上.【 [一]】惟初太始道立於一。造分天地,化成萬物。凡一之屬皆從一。於悉切。【 [弌]】古文一。
1A. Unity : It is, that the start of the Great Begin of the Way is based upon Unity. It divides Heaven and Earth and forms the ten thousand creations. All things related to "one" have the 一 as part of the character (元、天、丕、吏). Pronounced like Y- and -I (yi). 弌 is an old character for 一.
Heaven (tian): is the summit (dian). The highest point where nothing can mount above. The character is compounded of "one" and "great". Prounounced like T- and -IAN (tian).
[上]】高也。此古文上。指事也。凡上之屬皆從上。時掌切。【 】篆文上。
Above: is high. It is the old character for 上, character type "pointing to situation". All things related to "above" have the 上 as part of their character (帝、旁、下). Pronounced like SH- and -ANG (shang). is the Small Seal script character for 上.
[帝]】諦也。王天下之號也。從上、朿聲。都計切。【 】古文帝。古文諸上字皆從一,篆文皆從二。【二】古文上字。辛、示、辰、龍、童、音、章,皆從古文上。
Emperor (di): is careful (di). Denomination for the true ruler of the earth. Deriving from "above" and the sound of 朿 ce or qi. Pronounced like D- and I (di). is an old character for 帝. All old style characters with the radical 上 are written with a simple stroke 一, the Small Seal style characters with a double stroke 二. 二 is an old character for 上. The following characters are written with the old style 上: xin (a celestial stem), shi (showing), chen (an earthly branch), long (dragon), tong (young), yin (sound) and zhang (stanza).
8上.【 [人]】天地之性最貴者也。此籀文象臂脛之形。凡人之屬皆從人。如鄰切。
8A. Man: the worthiest of all the beings between Heaven and Earth. This is the Large Seal character depicting of a man with arms and legs. All things related to man have the 人 as part of their character. Pronounced like R- and -IN (ren).
Old: aged. Seventy years is old. Compounded of the characters for man, hair and change, saying that beard and hair becoming white. All things related to old age have the 老 as part of their character (like 耆、壽、孝). Pronounced like L- and -AO (lao).
Aged: old. Compounded of an abridged 老 and the sound of ㄎ kao. Pronounced like K- and -AO (kao).
13下. 【 [土]】地之吐生物者也。二象地之下,地之中物出形也。凡土之屬皆從土。它魯切。
13B. Soil 土: what the earth produces of living creatures. The two horizontal strokes depict the earth below, (and the vertical stroke) depicts what beings come out of the earth. All things related to earth have the 土 as part of their character. Pronounced like "T" and "U" (tu).
[地]】元氣初分輕清陽為天,重濁陰為地。萬物所陳列也。從土、也聲。徒內切。【 】籀文地,從隊。
Earth 地: The prime breath divided the light, clear and bright things as Heaven from the heavy, muddy and dark things as Earth. It is that what arranged the ten thousand beings. Deriving from "soil" and the sound of 也 ye. Pronounced like T- and -EI (di). is a Large Seal style character for 地, derived from 隊.
[甲]】東方之孟陽氣萌動,從木戴孚甲之象。一曰:人頭空為甲。甲象人頭。凡甲之屬皆從甲。古狎切。【 】古文甲,始於十,見於千,成於木之象。
Shield, or the first of the Celestial Stems: When the first sun breathes from the east, the sprouts move out of the earth. The character depicts a wooden handle headed with a trustful shield.Somebody states, using a hollow skull as shield, the character depicting a man's head. All things related to shield have the 甲 as part of their character (actually none). Pronounced like G- and -IA (jia). is an old character for 甲, depicting: Beginning with ten, becoming apparent with thousand, completed in a tree.
[子]】十一月陽氣動萬物,滋人以為偁。象形。凡子之屬皆從子。李陽冰曰:子在中足併也。即里切。【 】古文子,從川象髮也。【 】籀文子,囟有髮臂脛在几上也。
Son, or the first of the Terrestrial Branches: In the eleventh month, the sun breath moves the ten thousand beings, nourishing man to full accordance with nature. The character is a picture (of a child). All things related to children have the 子 as part of their character (like 孕、字、孿、孺、季、孟、孽、孳、孤、存、疑). Li Yangbing says: It depicts a baby in its diapers, the feet side by side. Pronounced like J- and -I (zi). is an old character for 子, three strokes depicting the hair. is the Large Seal script character, the fontanel having hair, arms and legs and lying on a small table.

Translated by Ulrich Theobald.
Chinese literature according to the four-category system

July 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail