Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Shuo Wen Jie Zi

In learning the Chinese language, it is comparatively easy to acquire skills in listening and speaking, but not so when one wishes to learn to read and write in Chinese. Even for native speakers, the Chinese characters are hard to commit to memory or to write, not to say foreigners.

Scholars in ancient China had noticed quite early that the myriads of minute formal and compositional difference would cause learners and users a great many difficulties. Yet it was impossible to learn to read written Chinese without first knowing the characters. Consequently, as early as in the Western Zhou Dynasty, collecting and arranging words into glossaries for teaching purposes had begun, resulting in a primitive kind of word book of the Chinese language. After the First Emperor of Qin had the country unified, he also took steps to have the language unified. During the Han Dynasty, there had emerged a  type of study that was then called xiaoxue (small learning) which actually was philological in nature.Towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, a scholar named Shen wrote a book entitled Shuo wen Jie Zi whose literal meaning is "explaining written language and parsing words." This was, so to say, the first full-fledged dictionary in Chinese history and as such laid the foundation for all future compilation of word books or phrase books in China. It is also like a key to the treasure house of ancient of Chinese philology and an indispensable tool in studying ancient Chinese characters and written language.

Xu Shen was a distinguished scholar who had already attained unparalleled fame for his profound study of ancient Chinese classics. It took him more than 20 years to bring out Shuo Wen Jie Zi which turned out to be a dictionary of 9,453 entries. These characters were classified according to their structural and compositional characteristics under 540 radicals. He made a detailed analysis of the composition and meaning of each character and provided for each a phonetic notation for which he used either a homonym or a near homonym. This prototype Chinese dictionary, in methodological terms, established a comparatively systematic way of explicating written Chinese and the use of radicals in indexing Chinese words by Xu Shen became one of the basic method of dictionary making in China.

What is this indexing system by radicals? For explanation, we must begin with the way Chinese characters are composed. Although at first glance there may seem to be myriads of formal differences which make Chinese characters so unlike each other, there really are some rules which govern their making. In writing Chinese characters there are eight basic ways of moving the pen, called stokes. For instance, the Chinese character yong (everlasting) is made up of a dot stroke, a horizontal stroke, a vertical stroke, a left-falling stroke, a right-falling stroke, a rising stroke, a turning stroke and a hook stoke. When these eight strokes are combined to form characters, there necessarily are partial likeness between different works. Many words all have common word components, which are called radicals. Some of these components or radicals are themselves independent characters while others are not. But one and all they can be so combined as to form Chinese characters. There are top and bottom components too. It was through identifying these structural characteristics that Xu Shen succeeded in devising the indexing system radicals. When someone knows the radicals of a Chinese character, he will then be able to locate it among the words having this radical in common by the number of strokes it is made up of. On the basis of this radical indexing system, Chinese scholars have later devised other indexing systems such as that by the number of strokes and that by the digit-indicated four corner strokes of a Chinese character. After the development of the Chinese phonetic alphabet, there is now also an alphabetical indexing system.

There are many types of dictionaries in China which have been compiled to serve different purposes. However, a majority of them have the function of defining and explicating words or phrases. In a broad sense, they have all been modeled on Shuo Wen Jie Zi. Among ancient Chinese dictionaries, there are some that have exerted a great impact on Chinese philology. During the Western Han Dynasty, Yang Xiong, who was a philologist as well a man of letters and philosopher, compiled the first dictionary in Chinese on dialects and the volume was entitled Dialect. Another book providing important data is Er Ya, whose authors researched the semantic development of Chinese characters and the names of ancient articles and objects. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, a scholar named Zhang Yushu and some others were commissioned by the emperor to compile what is called The Kangxi Dictionary, which marked the first time in history the Chinese equivalent for the English word dictionary was used. In the present day, the most frequently consulted dictionaries in leaning the Chinese include the Xing Hua Dictionary, the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary and Ci Hai (literally an ocean of words and phrases) which is a compressive collection of Chinese words and phrases . In 1986 was brought out the first of the twelve volumes of A Comprehensive Chinese Dictionary. The first volume alone contains more than 34,000 entries in defining and explicating which a total of five million words have been written. It has naturally received widespread attention among readers at large.


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