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Great post! I actually ordered the English translation of 文字學概要 a few weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived yet. 


Regarding 大篆, I think it is used broadly to refer to pre-Qin calligraphy (including oracle bone and bronze script), or narrowly as just the pre-Qin seals. 


I also think Wieger's book is good for mnemonics and for its phonetic series, but I don't think its information about the character structure is  very reliable.

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Wieger's book is interesting historically, it's a fun read, and at the time it was probably the best thing available in English/French. But it's badly outdated now, so I don't think anyone looking for real character etymology should bother themselves with that book. It can be a handy book for learning characters, but for that purpose I personally like Rick Harbaugh's Chinese Characters: A Dictionary and Genealogy better. As I said here, it also gets a lot wrong, but it's the best thing in English right now. But actually, Wieger and Harbaugh would probably go together nicely.


In that post I just linked to, I also talk about the problem with looking at radicals when talking about etymology. 美 is a good example of a character that never really had anything to do with the 部首 it's filed under in dictionaries. 部首 are just a system for organizing a dictionary, nothing more. The modern 部首 system came about in the Qing Dynasty, thousands of years after the writing system had already fully developed. Even the 540 部首 in the 說文解字 (Han Dynasty) came nearly two thousand years after 甲骨文. The 說文解字 is wrong about etymology at least as often as it's right, and its 部首 system is a complete mess. You have to start from the beginning with etymology, so if you're looking at 部首 as a meaningful unit of analysis, you've already lost before you've even started. The 部首 are useful to know, of course, but they don't really have anything to do with etymology. Even the 說文部首 are good to be familiar with, because a lot of palaeographic reference books are organized according to that system rather than Kangxi radicals.


xiaokaka, you may be right about 大篆, at least about how the average person uses it. I don't know. I do know that I've never heard anyone in my department refer to anything called 大篆 except a professor who's a calligrapher, not a palaeographer. I don't think it's a very useful term in palaeography, and if I wanted to refer to all pre-Qin writing, I'd probably say 先秦文字.

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Wikipedia writes:


Large Seal script or Great Seal script (Chinese大篆pinyinDàzhuàn) is a traditional reference to Chinese writing from before the Qin dynastyand is now popularly understood to refer narrowly to the writing of the Western and early Eastern Zhou dynasties, and more broadly to also include the oracle bone script. The term is in contrast to the name of the official script of the Qin dynasty, which is often called Small or Lesser Seal Script (小篆 Xiǎozhuàn, also termed simply seal script). Howeverdue to the lack of precision in the term, scholars often avoid it and instead refer more specifically to the provenance of particular examples of writing.


So you are correct that it isn't used a lot by scholars. 

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Yeah, that seems right to me. I do know usually when people say 篆文, they're referring to 小篆, not both 小篆 and 大篆. I also know that it doesn't do much good to say something like "I can read 大篆." For instance, I can read Warring States-era bronzes and bamboo strips with some facility, but I'm completely hopeless with oracle bones or Western Zhou bronzes. I can follow a lecture on them, but I haven't worked with them myself so it would take some serious work to get myself to the point where I could read them.


Thanks for the clarification.

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OneEye (or anyone else for that matter ☺️), have you had a look at 汉字源流字典 edited by 谷衍奎? It seems very good from what I can tell. It's written in simplified Chinese but there may be a traditional edition as well. It is one volume but exceeds 2000 pages.

Edit: A link: http://book.douban.com/subject/3038118/

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OneEye (or anyone else for that matter ☺️), have you had a look at 汉字源流字典 edited by 谷衍奎? It seems very good from what I can tell. It's written in simplified Chinese but there may be a traditional edition as well. It is one volume but exceeds 2000 pages.

Thanks for the heads up.

I had downloaded a copy of an older edition of 汉字源流字典, based on a recommendation at a Cantonese discussion forum, a long time ago. But it was one of the worst scan jobs ever. I used to joke that they had set it at 1 dpi (dots per inch). Usually 300 dpi or 600 dpi is standard. Even up to 1200 dpi. (More?) It was that crummy a job. At more than 900 pages, you'd think they'd have looked at one of the pages before proceeding to waste both their and our times.

This newer edition is over 2000 pages.

Anyway, I just downloaded the new scan job and it's a wonder to behold.

This is what the true art of scanning is all about.

As for the content itself.


Beautiful job. Simply beautiful. Front and back cover as well.

Characters all arranged by stroke count order. Included indexes of characters by both stroke count and Hanyu Pinyin pronunciation.


A sample entry.

Under each "character" (not all entries are characters. 勹 isn't an actual character, is it?) entry, they've a 字形, 構造(构造), 本義(本义), 演變(演变), and a 組字(组字).

字形 - how the "glyph" looked over time. Jiaguwen, jinwen, or zhuan. A drawing to illustrate.

構造(构造) - structure, composition of the character. Which of the 6 categories of characters it's under. Both a xingsheng and a huiyi simultaneously, etc. In jiaguwen was a drawing of..., by jinwen had been..., finally by zhuan it was...

本義(本义) - The original meanings according to older dictionaries, such as the 说文(if was included in), 玉篇, 字彙補(字汇补), etc.

演變(演变) - The evolution of the character through time. Later took on the meaning of..., erroneously used for...,

組字(组字) - How the character is classed. Can be used by itself. As component part of other characters. Was or wasn't a 说文 radical. Today is a radical or classified under the x - radical.

Seems like a lot of fun. :)


Skeins of silk drying on rack under the sun. Priceless.

Should be many enjoyable hours going through this little baby.  :)


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I have  常用汉字图解 - The Composition of Common Chinese Characters, an Illustrated Account, 北京大学出版 1997. It was recommended by I think one of our regulars, in a really, really old topic somewhere on these forums (really tried but can't find it anymore, it was like 6 years old). I tracked it down via a book search, (justbooks.de) and had it shipped from California to Germany for under 20 USD everything altogether.


It is not a dictionary and not meant to be used as one (I guess). It only features 652 of the most basic characters (not saying frequent!), sorted by themes like the human body, animals, etc.

It has got a pinyin index and an index by stroke count. Every character comes with pinyin and traditional form, and is then briefly explained.

The introduction is extensive and indeed very good (for a relative beginner - it won't tell a "pro" ;)  anything new), giving a historical overview of the Chinese writing system, and explaining pictographs, indicatives, ideographs, phonetic compounds and phonetic loans, and critically mentioning the concept of mutual explanatories.


The examples are in Chinese, which is fine for me but might be a pain for a very beginner. By the time I got it I had just passed HSK2 and couldn't yet make much of this book.

I dream of something more extensively, like Kobo-Daishi's book, but my Chinese reading still isn't up to it.


If the print looks blurred that is just my camera (and it's raining here today so it's dark), apologies! The print is indeed very good and clear (unlike some other Chinese books I have) and the format is magazine size, and both Chinese and Latin typeset are large, so you can comfortably read it without losing eyesight  (oh hello Roddy!).


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I took a look at 漢字源流字典 today. It's OK I guess. It's pretty much par for the course in that it makes no use of any of the advances in palaeography and phonology in the last 20-30 years. The author basically agrees with 說文解字 most of the time, which is to say he's wrong much of the time. It does have some useful stuff in it, but overall it's not much different or better than anything else out there, unfortunately.


I don't know anything about 常用漢字圖解, but it looks like it's probably like any number of other books out there. On first glance, there are at least two serious mistakes in the samples you posted. The 玄 part of 弦 is quite obviously a phonetic component, yet the book makes no mention of it. They also make the common mistake of thinking that a phonetic component will always be on the right hand side (see the explanation of 貯: "the chest part is moved to the right of the shell part, resulting in a phonetic compound"). A phonetic component is a phonetic component regardless of its position in the character. If it helps you learn characters, then it's fine, but it seems pretty useless if you want to learn about etymology.


Everything I've seen out there aimed at learners of Chinese gets this stuff wrong. It's because they're made by Chinese teachers rather than the palaeographers who really know how characters work. The teachers read a book or two aimed at a popular audience and then decide they're going to incorporate their newfound information into a book for second language learners, but the problem is that they don't know enough about the subject to keep their biases from getting in the way, so no progress is made.


I have a friend who does a presentation at ICLP every year about how to learn characters. He really knows his stuff, both on the pedagogy side of things and the palaeography side. And every year like clockwork, right after he gets done, the ICLP teachers immediately swoop in to try to undo the "damage" he's done by telling the students stories about big sheep and pigs in houses, as if every character were a 會意字 (nobody really believes that, but for some reason a lot of Chinese teachers insist on teaching that way).


Oh well. It'll get better eventually.

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It's a bit depressing, there seem to be mistakes everywhere in material for foreign students :(

Can't you persuade said friend to write a book? But I know: tedious work with (almost) no financial compensation, and when you are on a busy schedule for your day job, it's difficult to find room for such a project.

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Yeah, I personally think a book that's both pedagogically sound and etymologically accurate would be awesome.


But you've hit on a very pertinent problem. Palaeographers aren't generally very concerned with how to teach characters for foreign learners, so we get stuff from pedagogues who know only just enough to be dangerous.

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There are some massive, multi-volume reference works that are fantastic, but they're expensive, take up a lot of space, and are really only necessary if you're doing graduate or professional-level academic work in this field. If anyone's interested in that stuff, I can post about that later


Please do.


In this day and age of the Internet, money is no object.


All that's required is a fairly fast Internet connection and a reasonably large enough hard drive. Really, any hard drive purchased within the last decade or so will do. And anything beyond dial-up.



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Well, the most obvious starting point will always be 《古文字詁林》. There's also 《殷周金文集成(修訂增補本)》 for bronzes, which has a great index in the back with dates for each bronze piece. There are tons of different 文字編 for various periods, like《楚系簡帛文字編》、《上海博物館藏戰國楚竹書(一~五)文字編》、《戰國古文字典》、and any number of others for the Warring States period. There's a new 4-volume 《甲骨文字編》 that just came out in 2012, which is absolutely fantastic, as well as 劉釗's 《新甲骨文編》. For 隸書, there's the excellent (though flawed, see 裘錫圭's paper in which he outlines all the errors before you use it) 《秦漢魏晉篆隸字形表》. Other great 字形表-type books include 《古文字譜》、《古文字類編》、and 《漢語古文字字形表》. Most major archaeological finds have dedicated 文字編 for them, like the 《馬王堆簡帛文字編》.

Most of these books aren't especially useful if you don't have some basic training in palaeography and things like character corruption (訛變) so you'll know what you're actually looking at. Even without such training, though, I'm sure they'd be fun to browse.


I'm sure this will keep you busy for a while.

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  • 2 months later...

I thought this might be relevant here. I got a request via Twitter to explain the etymology of 高興. It turned out to be pretty interesting, so we made it the first post on our new blog. We'd love to hear what people think! Other topics coming soon, including several about etymology.

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I didn't realize we were blocked in China! Sorry about that, we'll work on fixing it. Thanks for letting me know!


For now, here it is:


Edit: the links below are broken now. The full article can now be found here, and shouldn't be blocked in China.


We recently sent out a tweet asking people to tell us which characters they'd like to know the etymology of. Ollie Guest from chinesemusings.com asked about 高 and 興. Both characters turned out to have really interesting etymologies, so we decided to dive in a little more deeply and find out what's really going on.


Let's start with 高


No, scratch that. We'll have to start with 京. Why? Well, the form of 高 is a derivative of 京¹.


In oracle bone script, 京 was a picture of a tall building. According to Jì Xù-shēng (季旭昇), "the top represents the roof, the middle part is the columns which support the roof, and the bottom is the plinth" (original: 上象屋頂,中為屋柱,下象柱礎². The plinth may have been stone or rammed earth). During the Shang Dynasty, average people lived in pit-like dwellings (半穴居)³, and only rulers lived in tall buildings. The original meaning of 京 was thus “tall, imperial building.”


Later on, 京 also developed the meanings “tall hill,” “tall,” and “capital city” (the only place in those days that had tall buildings). Later, to distinguish the meaning of “tall” from that of “capital city,” a new character was created: 高. It was derived from 京, but had a distinguishing mark (口) at the bottom so that the two characters wouldn't get confused. The 口 in 高 doesn't represent a mouth here, it is merely a mark meant to distinguish the two characters from each other.


During the Shang dynasty, these two characters also shared the same initial and main vowel, and even in modern Southern dialects they usually still retain the same initial, such as in Cantonese: 高 gou1 and 京 ging1.


So, we can explain 高 this way:


Form: a tall building (京) with a distinguishing mark (口)
Sound: gāo
Meaning: tall, high


And now for 興


The modern form of 興 consists of 舁 and 同. 舁 was originally a picture of two sets of hands, and in this character they're picking up a tray:


同 wasn't always 同 in this character. It was originally 凡. In oracle bone and bronze script, 同 was 凡 plus 口.


凡 was originally a picture of a tray (it was the original form of the character 槃, which means tray). According to Jì Xùshēng, a 凡 was a tray that required at least two hands to lift ("一定要二人以上才能抬得動")⁴. So 興 was a picture of two sets of hands 舁 lifting a tray 凡, and meant “lift/raise up.” The 口 was added later, turning 凡 into 同. Here's a quick overview of how the form changed over time:


So we can explain 興 in this way:


Form: two sets of hands (舁) lifting a tray (同, originally 凡)
Sound/Meaning 1: xīng — rise, arise, start
Sound/Meaning 2: xìng — interest (in something), delight, happy, to like


Now, as for why 興 means happy in modern Chinese, it isn't too difficult to get from “lift/raise up” to “happy.” In English, we talk about “raising” one's spirits, being in “high” spirits, etc. The meaning of 興 evolved over time into what it means now.


Now, it should be easy to see why 高興 (gāoxìng) means happy!


So there it is. Questions and comments welcome! Wondering about the etymology of a character? Ask us! If it's a good one, we'll do another post like this!



1. All character images come from 小學堂.

2. 季旭昇《說文新證》上冊,藝文印書館印行,第451頁。

3. The original version of this post stated that the bottom of 京 was a stone foundation. After some dialogue with our friend and colleague Scott McGinnis at Berkeley, we've decided that it's a plinth, which may have been either stone or rammed earth (we'd have to look into that a bit further to be sure). Scott also informed us that 半穴居 refers to pit-like dwellings rather than cave-like dwellings, which was a careless translation on our part. So, apologies for the confusion, and thanks to Scott for the help!

4. 季旭昇《說文新證》上冊,藝文印書館印行,第614頁。

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