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A brief history of Chinese lexicons

Beginnings of writing in China

We do not know for certain who invented writing in China, or indeed when it first appeared. We do know through archeaological digs and excavations that the earliest dated evidence of it appears on pottery dating back 6000 years ago, to the village of Banpo in Neolithic times. Stylised drawings of animals have been found dating to 2000 BC. Tortoise shell inscriptions which are dated to the Shang ( ) Dynasty (16th Century BC - 11th Century BC) show marks which have been found to have modern descendents. This shows a trend to stylisation, which sees the appearance of the Da Zhuan ( ) script in the Zhou ( ) Dynasty (Western 1066-771 BC , Eastern 770-221 BC).


There are two periods in the history of written Chinese revolving around an important phase in the history of China; before and after the milestone in time that was the reform of the writing system by Li Si ( ) in 211 BC during the reign of the Qin ( ) Dynasty (221-206 BC) emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di ( ). Li Si wrote the work Xiao Zhuan ( ) which for the first time fixed the meanings of some 3300 characters. It has to be said that later scholars have shown he was wrong about some of the associations he made, but nevertheless, it was the first time character meanings were standardised, and used for the whole of China at that time. The style of Xiao Zhuan script was a simplification of the Da Zhuan script.

Before Xiao Zhuan, all the characters used in the various locations of China were unstandardised. That is, for the same word, many characters each from a different region, or indeed, scribe, was used. The old classics fall into this category of work such as the ShiJing (Book of Odes) ( ), the writings of Confucious (Kong Zi 551 BC - 479 BC), Mencius (Meng Zi 372 BC - 289 BC), and some of their disciples. Now that Xiao Zhuan had appeared, there became a lot of character which became simplified, and others which became obselete.

Three hundred years after Xiao Zhuan was to pass before the first great dictionary appeared. This came in the form of Xu Shen( )'s Shuo Wen Jie Zi ( ) during the Han ( ) Dynasty (Western 206 BC - 25 AD, Eastern 25 AD-220 AD) in 100 AD. It was ordered under 520 symbols, and totalled up to 10516 characters. It is from this and its predecessor, Xiao Zhuan, that the characters we use today are based.

The problem with the characters is that they have no hard and fast way to fix their pronunciations. The same character can have different pronunciations across the languages of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam (CJKV), in which places they have been used. A number of methods (such as FanQie and rhyme tables) were invented to aid (though not quite overcome) this problem.

Splicing sounds

In order to fix the sounds of a character, we needed a method in which to do it. Very early on in the late Han period (25-220), splicing two characters for the intial and rhyme was the method to pin down the sounds. This is known as the FanQie ( ) method. Prior to the Sui ( ) (581 - 618) and early Tang ( ) (618 - 907) dynasties, the character "fan" was used to symbolise this splicing. After the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, the character "qie" was used.

Here is an example of how Fan and Qie splicing work.

The character has the old pronunciation "tung", and both methods use two extra characters, the first of which is the initial, and the second an exact rhyme to our example. The splicing works exactly the same way in both examples.

Four Tones

Shen Yue ( ) (441-513) of the Kingdom of Liang ( ) (502-557) introduced the idea of the four tone categories in his work SiShengPu ( ). These are known as Ping ("level"), Shang ("rising"), Qu ("departing"), and Ru ("entering" or abrupt). This enabled those interested in the phonlogy of the language then to further differentiate between sounds of similar articulations through the recognition of the way the pitch changed for each tone category. As we do not know how exactly the how the sounds of Shen Yue's time sounded, we can guess through exploring the evidence left to us in rhymebooks, fanqie transcriptions of foreign ideas, concepts, the name of deities and so on...


In the Sui dynasty, a major rhymebook was published. QieYun ( ) of 601 AD was a milestone in Chinese phonology, and all future rhymebooks could derive a tradtion from it. It was the basis of Middle Chinese pronunciations (the sounds of the early to mid Tang Dynasty). Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an entirely complete copy of this work extant. We know of this book through future works such as GuangYun.

In 1008 AD, during the Song () Dynasty (Northern 960 - 1127, Southern 1127 - 1279), the important work GuangYun ( ) was written, preserving the QieYun system. However, the authors realised that the sounds of Chinese had changed since Tang times. In GuangYun are noted 36 different types of initials, and 206 rhymes. It had two volumes of Ping rhymes, and one volume each of Shang, Qu and Ru tone rhymes. All together this was a five volume work.

A little later, the 206 rhymes were simplified to 107 rhymes in Liu Yuan ( )'s RenZi XinQian LiBu YunLue ( ) in 1282 AD. Since Liu Yuan hailed from PingShui, and because the title of this work was a long, they became known as the PingShuiYun ( ) or PingShui Rhymes. Later this was reduced to 106 rhymes, and generally became known as ShiYun ( ) (Prosodic Rhymes) due to its use as a lookup method in rhyme dictionaries that aided scholars and poets.

In 1324, during the Yuan ( ) or Mongol Dynasty (1279-1368), Zhou DeQing ( ) compiled ZhongYuanYinYuan ( ). By this time the sounds of Chinese had changed so much, that the Ru tones had disappeared.

KangXi ZiDian

The second Qing ( ) dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor KangXi ( ) (reigned 1662-1723), decreed the compilation of a new dictionary, the KangXi ZiDian ( ) of 1716. This enumerated 47021 characters listed under 214 symbolics. This system of symbolics became the standard method of categorising characters in all the CJKV countries, only with slight modifications. It list characters under each symbolic, their pronunciation using the Fanqie method of splicing an initial and rhyme, from a number of sources, including Guangyun, and many other dictionaries available at the time.

Divergence of written and spoken Chinese

In the Zhou dynasties, the characters had already been established in their form and appearance. After the Qin Dynasty, the nature of Chinese began to change. The written language and the spoken language were diverging. However, the old written style was retained unto the present, because all the ancient works were written in this way. In pre-Qin times, the spoken language was written as it was spoken. Much later, as the sounds of the language changed, it was necessary to differentiate two similarly sounding sounds. To do this, compounds were formed, usually of two words which were close in their meanings. The literary and colloquial languages were becoming divergent, and the speakers from different regions also diverged in their speech.
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© Dylan W.H. Sung 1999 onwards.
This page was first created on Sunday 8th August 1999,
and was recently updated on Thursday 25th April 2002.

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