Shanhaijing 山海经 The Classic of Mountains and Seas

The Shanhaijing 山海经 “Classic of mountains and seas” is a kind of early geography of China. The modern version has 18 juan “scrolls” and consists of four parts describing “mountains” (Shanjing 山经), “seas” (Haijing 海经), “the great wilderness” (Dahuangjing 大荒经), and China herself (Haineijing 海内经). Another arrangement divides the book into two parts, the Shanjing 山经 or Wucang shanjing 五藏山经 which consists of five geographical chapters, and the Haijing 海经 which consists of the parts Haiwaijing 海外经, Haineijing 海内经 (four chapters each) and Dahuangjing 大荒经 (five chapters). Authorship is traditionally attributed to Emperor Yu 禹, the mythological founder of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th to 15th cent. BCE), or Bo Yi 伯益, one of his ministers, or is said to be a chart of the ding 鼎 cauldrons Yu the Great erected in the provinces of China. Modern scholars believe that the book was compiled during the late Warring States 战国 (5th cent. – 221 BCE) and Han 汉 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods and is the product of a long time of compilation.

The first two parts of the book can be seen as Daoist writings. The first part deals with mountais and their nature and character, plants, animals and ores, all being features relevant for the ideal performance of Daoist shamans working there. It was probably compiled during the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. The second part deals with foreign countries and its inhabitants and contains a lot of mythological stories and tales about strange persons and animals. It was probably written during the late 3rd or the 2nd centuries BCE. The last two parts were originally supplements compiled by the Former Han period 汉 (206 BC-8 AD) scholars Liu Xiang 刘向 or Liu Xin 刘歆. Only when Guo Pu 郭璞 started compiling his commentary during the 4th century the supplements were dealt with as proper parts of the classic.

Although the stories told in the Shanhaijing are historically not reliable they are valuable sources for the study of early Chinese mythology, and eventually for the origin of certain parts of Chinese popular religion. The Yellow Emperor 黄帝, for example, can be found out to have been a deity venerated in western China. TheShanhaijing is a rich source of information on early Chinese history, geography, astronomy, climate, religion, customs and habits, animals and plants, minerals, medicine, rivers and marine sciences. In the earliest bibliography Qilüe 七略 theShanhaijing was classified as a writing of divinatory (shushu 数术) character, yet from the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on it was seen as a geographical book. During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the many superstitional and fictional accounts were the reason for its categorization as a book of cosmological character (wuxing 五行). In later ages the Shanhaijing was seen as a collection of phantastic stories and can be seen as the ancestor of Chinese novellas and fiction (xiaoshuo 小说).

Guo Pu’s commentary to the Shanhaijing is the oldest. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Hao Yixing 郝懿行 wrote a commentary, the Shanhaijing jianshu 山海经笺疏. Less important commentaries were written by Yang Shen 杨慎, Wang Chongqing 王崇庆, Wang Niansun 王念孙, He Zhuo 何焯, Wu Renchen 吴任臣 and Bi Yuan 毕沅. The most recent commentary is Yuan Ke’s 袁珂 Shanhaijing jishi 山海经集释 from 1980.

The Shanhaijing is to be found in the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 and thecollectanea Gujin yishi 古今逸史, Siku quanshu 四库全书, Gezhi congshu 格致丛书,Ershierzi 二十二子, Baizi quanshu 百子全书, Mishu ershiyi zhong 秘书二十一种, Sibu congkan 四部丛刊, Sibu beiyao 四部备要 and Longxi jingshe congshu 龙溪精舍丛书.

Sanzijing 三字经 “The Three-Character Classic”

The Sanzijing 三字经 “Three-character classic” is a character text book for elementary learning. It is traditionally attributed to the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) scholar Wang Yinglin 王应麟. The common version of the book has 1,248 characters (a Qing period print only 1,140), which are arranged in sets of three, or verses of six. The book is divided into five parts, explaining the various steps of learning, from the initial requirements, the understanding of social relationships, the numbers, seasons, the Five Processes, plants and animals, to the standardized learning with succesful outcome. The book was very popular in traditional China, and there was even a multi-lingual version including Manchurian and Mongolian. For practical learning, theSanzijing has often been rated as not very applicable because of the complexity of the text and the use of specialised characters.

There is a commentary to the Sanzijing written by Zhao Nanxing 赵南星 included in thecollectaneum Meiniezhai yishu 昧檗斋遗书, as well as a textual explanation Sanzijing xungu 三字经训诂 by Wang Xiang 王相. The collectaneum Guangrentang congshu 广仁堂丛书 includes the supplement Guang sanzijing 广三字经 by Master Jiaoxuan 蕉轩氏. The newest commentary, the Chongding sanzijing 重订三字经, has been written by Zhang Binglin 章炳麟.

Shijing 诗经 The Book of Songs

The Shijing 诗经 or “Book of Songs” is one of the traditional Confucian classics. It is a collection of three different types of songs originating in the Shang 商 (17th to 11th cent. BC) and the early and middle Zhou period 周 (11th. cent.-221 BC), in 305 chapters. Of 6 chapters only the names are preserved (Nangai 南陔, Baihua 白华, Huashu 华黍, Yougeng 由庚, Chongqiu 崇丘, and Youyi 由仪).

The three types of songs are feng 风 “airs”, ya 雅 “odes”, and song 颂 “hymns”. The 160 Airs are arranged according to the state where they originate from (hence called guofeng 国风 “airs from the states”). The Odes are divided into Major (daya 大雅) and Minor Odes (xiaoya 小雅) and arranged in decades (shi 什). The Hymns are religious chants sung in the ancestral temples of the states of Zhou 周, which was the royal house, as well as Lu 鲁, the home state of Confucius, and the house of Shang 商 whose descendants lived in the state of Song 宋. The Airs of the states are folksongs, often concered with a love theme. The Odes are said to come from the aristocratic class, the Major Odes being sung at the royal court, the Minor Odes at the court of the feudal lords. The songs collected in the Shijing are not only of a high literary value as the oldest songs in China but they also reveal a lot of the actvities of different social strata in early China.

The oldest sources say that once the court of the Zhou dynasty ordered the collection of folksongs from among the empire, quite similar to what the Han dynasty 汉 (206 BC-220 AD) did later with the establishment of the Music Bureau (yuefu 乐府). This is how the Airs came into being. The Odes were instead are said to have been submitted by their composers to the throne directly. It is said that an original collection of songs included 300 chapters, a corpus which was compiled by Confucius 孔子 who chose the best from more than 3,000 songs. In reality the compilation of the Shi corpus, as it was called in earliest times, began in the 6th century BCE. It might be that the compilation took place in Lu, the home state of Confucius, which was famous for its musical tradition. That the “songs” were music and not recited poems is revealed by numerous sources. The oldest parts are said to be the hymns from Zhou and the Major Odes, written in the early decades of the Zhou period. The Minor Odes and a part of the Major Odes were probably written in the late Western Zhou period. The largest part of the Airs and the Hymns of Lu and Shang were only written during the Spring and Autumn period.

There must have been other types of songs (altogher six, the liushi 六诗) of which no examples are preserved, namely the types of fu 赋 “straightforward” (which during the Han period reappears as the genre of prose rhapsody), bi 比 “simile, parable”, and xing 兴 “with introduction”. The great Tang period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔颖达 interpretes those terms in the following way: feng, ya and song are designations for certain external compositional forms, while fu, bi and xing were designations for certain methods how the content of the poem was approached (together the liuyi 六义 “six meanings”). During the Han period, when only the four designations of feng, daya, xiaoya and song were used, they were interpreted as the four beginnings (sishi 四始) describing the flourishing and decline of the royal house of Zhou. A very good example for the xing type is the air Guanju 关雎, an example for the bi type is the air Shuoshu 硕鼠, an example for the fu type is the air Qiyue 七月.

Especially the Hymns, but also the Odes, can also be used as historiographic sources for the late Shang and early Zhou periods. Informations about institutional history, leisuretime activities of the upper class, as well as the hardships of the life of ordinary people can be found. Many of the Airs are simple love songs, the most famous of which is the first song of the Shijing.

Very typically for the airs, but also some of the minor odes, is the repetition of verses in each of the stanzas, a phenomenon which is known in the west in poems of the rondo type, but also in many folksongs. Another phenomenon very common in the airs are double rhymes (dieyun 迭韵, like in the verse yao tiao shu nü 窈窕淑女), multiple or special readings (shuangsheng 双声, like in the verse cen ci [instead of cancha] xing cai 参差荇菜) and repeated words (diezi 迭字, like in the verses feng yu qi qi, ji ming jie jie 风雨凄凄,鸡鸣喈喈). A large part of the verses has four syllables, especially among the airs. The songs in the Shijing are the oldest example for regular poems which later became so popular.

From a linguistic viewpoint the rhymes of the songs are an important help for the reconstruction of the archaic Chinese language.

The Shijing had always attracted the interest of all groups of persons. Confucius once said that without the Shijing there was nothing to talk about. With many examples from the Shijing he even educated his disciples.

During the so-called literary inquisition under the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246/221-210 BCE) the Shijing survived virtually without damage, certainly because most of its songs were also transmitted orally, which is easier for songs than for prose texts. During the early Han period there were four different versions available: the Qi 齐, Lu 鲁, Han 韩, and Mao 毛 versions. The three former were written in the modern chancery script style (lishu 隶书) and were thus considered so-called new texts, while the Shijing of Mao – the Maoshi 毛诗 – was written in ancient characters and thus from the old text tradition. For the Qi, Lu and Han versions there were professors (boshi 博士 “erudites”) established at the National University (taixue 太学), which means that those versions were the imperially acknowledged ones. The Lu version was already lost in the 4rd century CE, the Han version survived until the end of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126). A kind of commentary to the Han version has survived, the Hanshi waizhuan 韩氏外传, which has been treated as a sub-classic writing since. The Qi version was lost during the 3rd century. The Mao version had been transmitted by descendants of Zixia 子夏, a disciple of Confucius. Mao Heng 毛亨 and Mao Chang 毛苌 introduced this version of the Shijing to Han period scholars but it only obtained official status during the Later Han period (25-220 AD) and was revised and commented by Zheng Zhong 郑众, Jia Kui 贾逵, Ma Rong 马融 and Zheng Xuan 郑玄. The latter wrote a commentary called Maoshi zhuanjian 毛诗传笺. After the Han period the Mao version was the only surviving version.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) Kong Yingda 孔颖达 wrote his famous commentary Maoshi zhengyi 毛诗正义 “The true meaning of the Shijing”. The great Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi 朱熹 assembled all Song period 宋 (960-1279) commentaries on the Maoshi and published them as Shijizhuan 诗集传.

All poems have a small preface (xiaoxu 小序), the first poem has a Great Preface (Daxu 大序).

Quanyuanqu 全元曲 The Complete Collection of Yuan Period qu Arias

The Quanyuanqu 全元曲 “Complete collection of Yuan period qu arias” is a collection of all surviving Yuan period (1279-1368) qu style 曲 arias.

The term qu normally includes two different types of literature, the first being “scattered arias” (sanqu 散曲) that were written like poems or songs, and the second being arias (geju 歌剧) as part of operas or theatre plays (zaju 杂剧). The interest of Chinese scholars and literati in Yuan period songs and operas was not very deep, and even important collectors like the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Li Kaixian 李开先 published not more than a few songs by Qiao Ji 乔吉 and Zhang Kejiu 张可久. The same authors were also the only ones regarded as worth mentioning by the authors of the eminent Qing period 清 (1644-1911) collectaneumSiku quanshu 四库全书. Wu Mei 吴梅 was the first scholar studying Yuan period arias, and the first publications on this type of songs were made by Ren Zhongmin 任中敏 (the collectaneum Sanqu congkan 散曲丛刊) and Lu Qian 卢前 (Yinhongyi suo kan qu 饮虹簃所刊曲). These publications instigated a lot of researches and collections, among these some rarities, like the sanqu collections Yangchun baixue 阳春白雪, Liyuan yuefu 梨园乐府, Taiping yuefu 太平乐府 and Yuefu qunyu 乐府群玉. The earliest comprehensive collection of “scattered arias” was Sui Shusen’s 隋树森 Quan Yuan sanqu 全元散曲 that includes 3,853 songs (xiaoling 小令) and 457 suites (taoqu 套曲), with a total number of 4,310 songs. This is, of course, much less than the poems included in the Quantangshi 全唐诗 and Quansongci 全宋词, but the large number alone shows how productive Yuan period writers were in comparison to their collegues of earlier dynasties.
Except songs, the genre of qu includes whole theatre plays. The Yuan period plays consisted of spoken passages (kebai 科白) carrying on the plot, and of arias expressing the thoughts and feelings of the main characters (jiaose 角色). Only the main female and male character sing arias – this is the main difference to European operas. According to the books Luguibu 录鬼簿 by Zhong Sicheng 钟嗣成, Luguibu xubian 录鬼簿续编 by Jia Zhongming 贾仲明 and Zhu Quan’s 朱权 Taihe zhengyin pu 太和正音谱, there must have been some 600 theatre plays, of which only a small part has survived. In 1616, the collectors Zang Jinshu 臧晋叔 and Liu Yanbo 刘延伯 published a book including 100 selected theatre plays, the Yuanquxuan 元曲选. Zang Jinshu has much been criticized by contemporarians that he had polished the original texts of many plays and not copied the original wording. Yet he was also praised for his merit to have been the first systematically collecting, arranging and publishing a large amount of surviving Yuan period theatre plays. The great historian Wang Guowei 王国维 (Song-Yuan xiqu kao 宋元戏曲考) and the Japanese scholar Yoshikawa Kōjirō 吉川幸次郎 acknowledged Zang’s efforts. His book was followed by a series of other publications, like Yuankan zaju sanshi zhong 元刊杂剧三十种类, Li Kaixian’s Gaiding Yuan xian chuanqi 改定元贤传奇, Zhao Qimei’s 赵琦美Maiwangtang chaojiaoben gujin zaju 脉望堂钞校本古今杂剧, Gujin zaju xuan 古今杂剧选 by Xijizi 息机子, Chen Yujiao’s 陈与郊 Gu mingjia zaju 古名家杂剧, Huang Zhengwei’s 黄正位Yangchunzou 阳春奏, Gu Quzhai’s 顾曲斋 Guzaju 古杂剧, or the books Liuzhiji 柳枝集 and Leijiangji 酹江集. Sui Shusen later enlarged his collection by the Yuanquxuan waibian 元曲选外编 that includes a further 62 plays. Zhao Jingshen 赵景深 has added a further collection of Yuan plays, the Yuanren zaju goushen 元人杂剧钩沉. These collections were the basic sources for the Quanyuanqu. A Ying 阿英 opened a new aspect of research in Yuan operas with his book Yuanren zaju shi 元人杂剧史, published in 1954, by investigating the social and economical circumstances of the time, as reflected in the plays of Guan Hanqing 关汉卿 and other authors. The field of Yuan operas since experienced a quick development, and the books published on this topic can be divided into several categories, like bibliographies, editions, textual critique, commentaries, melodies, historical relics, commented selections, translation, collections, or history.

The Quanyuanqu includes all known qu arias written by Yuan period authors, those known by name as well as anonymous writings. It includes in total 162 theatre plays, including the full text, and not only the arias. In addition to the above-mentioned number of “scattered arias”, 45 fragmentary arias are included. It is also the case that some of the theatre plays are not complete, especially those copied from the earliest collection Yuankan zaju sanshi zhong. The authors are the main chapters of the collection, their order is not chronological but follows the order in the Luguibu. In these books, authors mainly writing theatre plays appear first, followed by authors professing in “scattered arias” (anonymous sanqu are not included). Full texts are ranging before fragments. Arias with the same musical mode (gongdiao 宫调) and the same basic melody pattern (qupai 曲牌) are brought together. For all authors, short biographies are provided, and all pieces are richly commented, including a text-critique comparing different editions and versions.

The literature of White Dews

Proverbs about White Dew

“When it comes to the End of Heat, it is still hot. But eighteen days later, it is White Dew and you need to dress properly.” This proverb means that you can wash yourself with cool water during the End of Heat period, but you have to dress properly, or you’ll be attacked by the cold air. This suggests that White Dew is the real beginning of autumn.

People used to say that “since it is getting cooler, mosquitoes will gradually disappear,” which shows that the temperature varies greatly between day and night. Mosquitoes are usually very active, but after White Dew, they begin to disappear gradually and will not bite people anymore.

Proverbs about White Dew

During the White Dew period, if you go out on a clear night and watch the starry sky, you may get wet by the dew on your trouser cuffs. In the morning, you can see the water vapor near the ground has condensed into crystal dew drops on the grass. The conditions for forming dew are: clear sky, breeze and humidity of the air. There are proverbs like:

“Dew indicates that the next day will be a sunny day” “If the next day will be dry, there will be no dew” “There is no dew if the wind is strong” During this period, since the autumn is coming, it is getting cooler and the temperature varies greatly between day and night. It is cool in the morning and at night, but hot at noon. Several proverbs say:

“White Dew indicates that the autumn is coming, and it is getting cooler and cooler at night.” (Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangxi and Liaoning) “After the White Dew, it is cold at night but hot in the day.” (Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan and Shanxi) “After the White Dew, it is cool in the morning and at night, but hot at noon.” (Hubei) “The White Dew falls in mid-autumn, so it is cool in the morning and at night.”

Losing no time to sow seeds is very important during this period. As the proverbs say:

Since the White Dew is after the Autumn Equinox, it is very busy on the farms. Do not plant garlic before the White Dew. Plant broomcorn in the White Dew and beans in the Autumn Equinox.

The Reeds and Rushes from Book of Songs

The reeds and rushes are deeply green, and the white dew in this season turns into frost. The man I am missing is on the other side of the bank. I look for him upstream, yet the road is dangerous and long. I look for him downstream, he seems right in the middle of the river.

The reeds and rushes are exuberant, yet the dew in the morning is not dry. The man I am missing is on the other side of the bank. I look for him upstream, yet the road is rough and steep. I look for him downstream, he seems right on the sand bank .

The reeds and rushes are lush, yet the remaining dew is still lingering. The man I am missing is on the other side of the bank. I look for him upstream, yet the road is winding and heavy. I look for him downstream, he seems right on the sand bank .

Sorrowful Autumn

Lu Yin Wilde geese flew over the autumn sky and disappeared in the horizon. It is cold when White Dew comes, and cicadas hiss on the bald trees. The blasted orchid down the steps still has the last breath, Yet the circular fan in hand gradually becomes useless.

Zizhi tongjian 资治通鉴 “Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government”

The Zizhi tongjian 资治通鉴 “Comprehensive mirror to aid in government” is one of the most important traditional histories of China. In respect of influence it is only second to the first universal history of China, the Shiji 史记, or even surpasses the latter. The Zizhi tongjian was written by the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) writer and politician Sima Guang 司马光. The Zizhi tongjian consists of 294 juan “scrolls” plus 30 juan of register (mulu 目录) and a text-critical apparatus (kaoyi 考异) of 30 juan. It covers the time period between the reign of King Weilie 周威烈王 (r. 425-402 BCE) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty 东周 (770-221 BCE) and the reign of Emperor Shizong 后周世宗 (r. 954-959) of the Later Zhou 后周 (951-960), or the years 403 BCE to 959 CE.

Sima Guang had always been interested in history but was repelled by the bad structure of traditional historiography which made an access to events and their circumstances very cubersome, especially in the official dynastic histories that are written in a biographic-thematic style (jizhuanti 纪传体). He therefore decided to write history by himself. His first work was a draft called Tongzhi 通志 “Comprehensive records” in 8 juan, covering the Warring States period 战国 (5th cent.-221 BCE)and the short-lived Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BC). He submitted this book to Emperor Yingzong 宋英宗 (r. 1063-1067) in 1066 who immediately appreciated it and ordered to continue the work. Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085) granted the book the title of Zizhi tongjian, wrote a preface to it and had it included in the Institute for the Veneration of Literature 崇文院 of the Imperial Archives. In 1084 the whole book was completed.

Although Sima Guang is often called the sole author of the book he had only written part of it. The rest was compiled by a team of historians under his supervision. The most important members of the team were Liu Shu 刘恕, Liu Ban 刘攽 and Fan Zuyu 范祖禹. Liu Shu was a historian of wide knowledge who constructed the theoretical background of the Zizhi tongjian. Liu Ban was an expert on the history of the Han period, Fan Zuyu on that of the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

The composition of the Zizhi tongjian was made in three steps. In the first step the compilers collected all available source material from all ages, put together accounts on specific events and arranged the material chronologically. The result was the so-called congmu 丛目 “clustered overview”. The second step was to screen the material, to eredicate redundancies, to select the most detailed passages, and to clear contradictions. The result was the changbian 长编 “long version”. This version was again, in a third step done by Sima Guang himself, abbreviated and refined.

The compilers of the Zizhi tongjian used a vast amount of material, not only the official dynastic histories and miscellaneous histories, but, especially for the Tang period, a lot of official and private sources of all kinds: veritable records (shilu 实录), family registers (jiapu 家谱, pudie 谱牒), family biographies, condolences and essays. The text-critical apparatus is of great help to reconstruct wordings in primary sources.

The great advantage of the Zizhi tongjian over the official dynastic histories is that it is arranged chronologically. While the latter are following a biographic-thematic pattern of historiography (jizhuanti 纪传体) in which specific historical events are to be found in many different chapters, namely the biographies of the persons involved, the Zizhi tongjian follows a chronological pattern (biannianti 编年体), coupled with a short introduction and summary to each important event. This makes is very easy for the reader to follow the course of events and to understand how things in history developed. Inspite of this great advantage the Zizhi tongjian is still a traditional history which lays most stress on political events, not on the history of culture, economy, literature, and so on. It is also influenced by Confucian thinking of righteous rule and usurpatious rule and is therefore biased towards persons thought to be not backed by a right to rule. Sima Guang gives his own comments to history, in paragraphs introduced by the words chen Guang yue 臣光曰 “servant Guang says”. His book served in first line as a textbook on governance and should be read by princes and emperors as a guideline how to rule and what not to do as a ruler. Sima Guang was an excellent author whose literary talent is seen in the Zizhi tongjian. It is one of the most-read traditional histories of China.

A textual revision was undertaken after the submission to the throne, and in 1086 the Zizhi tongjian was printed in Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang. The print is lost, and from a print from 1132 only fragments exist. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Hu Kejia 胡克家 reprinted a Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) version, which served also as the base for the modern reprint by the Zhonghua shuju press 中华书局 in 1956.

Shuihuzhuan 水浒传 The Water Margin

Attributed to Shi Naian 施耐庵 or Luo Guanzhong 罗贯中, this novel depicts the joining of heroes to a bandit group in the Liangshan swamps 梁山泊. The earliest editions date from the early 16th century, and there is evidence of the historicity of the main heros during the Song period 宋. Song Jiang 宋江, Wu Song 武松 and their followers were forced by bad officials, defamation and their own violent temper to go into the underground. Everyone of them has his story of own, and this shows that the novel is composed of many small parts and traditions, that are even themes for theatre plays. The bandit group promises to help Song emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 to fight against the intruding Liao 辽 armies and therefore is given grace inspite of their crimes. Most popular editions do not describe the final battles against the Liao empire in the north. The political content of the novel made it the object of occasional banishment during the Qing Dynasty 清 for glorifying bandits, and of an example of a peasant uprising under a revolutionary leadership during the Maoist era. There exist a few sequels and continuations of this novel, that has been very popular for describing the brotherhood between honest man and thus also is given the title “All men are brothers”.

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.

Exemplarious translation of Shuijingzhu 水经注

The following translation gives an overview of the classic (text in red) and the commentary with its many citations of secondary literature.


【注】《禹本纪》与此同.高诱称,河出昆山,伏流地中万三千里,禹导而通之,出积石山.按《山海经》,自昆仑至积石一千七百四十里.自积石出陇西郡至洛, 准地志可五千余里.又按《穆天子传》,天子自昆仑山入于宗周,乃里西土之数.自宗周瀍水以西,北至于河宗之邦,阳纡之山,三千有四百里,自阳纡西至河首, 四千里,合七千四百里.《外国图》又云:「从大晋国正西七万里,得昆仑之墟,诸仙居之.」数说不同.道阻且长,经记绵禠,水陆路殊,径复不同,浅见末闻, 非所详究,不能不聊述闻见,以志差违也.
The (Yellow) River
Classic: The Kunlun Mountain Range is in the northeast,
Commentary: The Kunlun massif consists of three geological terraces. The Kunlunji (“Report of the Kunlun Mountains”) says, “Mount Kunlun is made from three terraces, the lower terrace is called Fantong or Bantong, the middle terrace is called Xuanpu or Langfeng, the upper terrace, where the Highest Deity lives, is called Cengcheng or Tianting (“Heavenly Palace”).”
Classic: 50,000 leagues from Mount Song (modern Henan). This mountain range is just the middle of the earth.
Commentary: The Yu benji (“Imperial Biography of Emperor Yu”) says the same. Gao You says, the Yellow River comes from the Kun(lun) Mountain, it flows creeping into the middle lands, 13,000 leagues long. Yu the Great routed the Yellow River and made it a bed, opening at the Jishi Mountain. According to the Shanhaijing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”), the distance from the Kunlun to the Jishi Mountain is 1,740 leagues, and from the place where the river comes from Mt. Jishi in Longxi commandery down to River Luo in the plain land, more than 5,000 leagues are measured. Further, the Mu Tianzi zhuan (“Story of King Mu”), reports that the Son of Heaven came from Mt. Kunlun to the capital Zongzhou, after he had taken a geographical survey of the western regions. From River Chan near Zongzhou to the west (that is, river up, not really west, but in northern direction along the river bend), north until the region of Hezong and Mt. Yangyu, he measured 3,400 leagues, and from Mt. Yangyu to the source of the river in the west, there are 4,000 leagues, which makes a total of 7,400 leagues. The Waiguotu (“Maps of Foreign Countries”) says further, from the country of the Great Jin Dynasty 70,000 leagues straight to the west, is Mount Kunlun where all immortals live. We can see that all these reports provide different geographical figures. The way to Mount Kunlun is far and difficult, the reports are confuse and accidently; there are only few waterways and streets, and even these few run in different places; only few people have seen or even heard from these places, and nobody has made further investigations. We cannot but write down what others have seen and heard to report only mistakes and errors.
Classic: It is 11,000 leagues high.
Commentary: The Shanhaijing says, it is 800 leagues long and 10,000 fathoms high. Guo Jingchun thinks that it is more than 2,500 leagues high, from the real top. The Huainanzi says, it is 11,000 leagues 114 steps 2 feet and 6 inches high.


【注】《山海经》曰:「昆仑墟在西北,河水出其东北隅.」《尔雅》曰:「色白,所渠并千七百,一川,色黄.」《物理论》曰:「河色黄者,众川之流,盖浊之 也.百里一小曲,千里一曲一直矣.」汉大司马张仲《议》曰:「河水浊,清澄,一石水,六斗泥.而民竞溉i田,令河不通利.至三月桃花水至,则河决,以其噎 不泄e也.禁民勿复引河.是黄河兼浊河之名矣.」...
Classic: The (Yellow) River
Commentary: Chunqiu shuo tici (“Thematical words as explanation to the Spring and Autumn Annals”) says: The (Yellow) River (He) can be called a water lily (or lotus; he); the essence of the water lily spreads all around, hiding the dark principles by attiring right measurements. The Shiming dictionary says, the River is something flowing down, because it follows the terrain to the lowest place and seeks its way through it. The Kaoyiju (“Lodge of investigating strange matters”) says, the River is the universal breath of the element water, the essence of the four great streams (Yellow River 河, Yangtse 江, Huai 淮, and Ji 济), and through this essence things are able to liquidize. The Yuanmingbao (“Buds of the primary mandate”) says, the River is the beginning of the Five Elements, it is the source of the ten thousand beings, it is muscle and secretion of the primary universal breath. […]
has its source in the northeastern foothills of the Kunlun Range.
Commentary: The Shanhaijng says, the Kunlun Range is in the northwest, and the Yellow River comes from the northeastern corner of it. The Erya dictionary says, it is a colourless river, but the 1,700 tributary rivers make its color becoming yellow. The book Wulilun (“About physical matters”) says, the color of the River is yellow because the many tributary rivers make the water muddy. Every hundred leagues is a small bend, and every thousand leagues is a great bend, whichafter the river agains flows in straight direction. The Discussions of the Great Marshal Zhang Zhong of the Han Dynasty says, the water of the Yellow River is very muddy. If you separate clear and dirty parts by sedimentation, you see that one picul of water contains six pecks of mud. When the peasant people compete with each other to irrigate their fields, they dam up the water. Only in the third month, during the peach blossom and when the snow-break effects a water rush, the dams are opened, that the accumulated water does not dissipate all over. After this, is is forbidden to dam up again the Yellow River. This is why the River is also called Yellow (Muddy) River. […]
Classic: (The Yellow River) starts from this northeastern corner and flows into the Yellow Sea (Bohai Gulf).

Shuijingzhu 水经注 Commentary to the River Classic

The Shuijing 水经 “The river classic” was an ancient Chinese geographical book describing the course of rivers. It had been transmitted as a core component together with its commentary, the Shuijingzhu 水经注 “Commentary to the river classic”. The classic had been written by Sang Qin 桑钦 during the Three Kingdoms period 三国 (220-280), the commentary by Li Daoyuan 郦道元 during the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534). The original text contained 40 juan “scrolls” of which 5 were lost. Later some chapters were divided in order to regain the original number.

For his commentary, Li Daoyuan did not only have the necessary geographical experience from his profession when he was inspecting canals, dykes and rivers, but he also studied a lot of old and contemporary books on geography. The original Shuijing only dealt with 137 rivers, and Li Daoyuan added so much information about other rivers that the Shuijingzhu can not dealt with as a commentary but is in fact a book of its own. It is twenty times as large as the old Shuijing and discusses the geographical course and the cultural background of 1,252 rivers and creeks. The importance of the Shuijingzhu lies in its character as a vast treasury for all types of information on the local economy, society, and geography, not only during the Northern Dynasties period but through the ages. The rivers are described from their source, with the tributaries, river forks and so on down to their estuary mouth. All this is very important information for the reconstruction of the early Chinese hydrological environment. Li Daoyuan, collecting written sources and writing from his own experience, is very cautious towards his sources. This makes his book even more valuable. One exception is that he was not able to deal with rivers of southern China with the same diligence as that of the north because China was divided at that time into the Southern and Northern dynasties.

During the ages, many errors have crept in, mainly in places where the old Shuijing was confused with Li Daoyuan’s part. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Quan Zuwang 全祖望, Zhao Yiqing 赵一清 and Dai Zhen 戴震 tried to amend those errors. In the late 19th century Yang Shoujing 杨守敬 collected those commentaries in his publication called Shuijingzhu shu 水经注疏.