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LINGUIST List 24.610

Sat Feb 02 2013

Review: Writing Systems; History of Linguistics: Hopkins (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 07-Jan-2013
From: Chunsheng Yang <ycsgeorgegmail.com>
Subject: The Six Scripts or the Principles of Chinese Writing by Tai Tung
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-551.html

AUTHOR: Tai Tung
TITLE: The Six Scripts or the Principles of Chinese Writing by Tai Tung
SUBTITLE: A Translation by L. C. Hopkins, with a Memoir of the Translator by W. Perceval Yetts
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Chunsheng Yang, Northwestern University


This book is the English translation of the first chapter of “Liu shu ku”/
“The History of the Six Writings”. “Liu shu ku” was written by Tai T’ung in
the Southern Song dynasty of China (A. D. 1127-1279) . The translation was
completed in 1881 and was originally published by Cambridge University Press
in 1954. The version being reviewed is the first paperback edition. This book
provides an introduction to the principles of Chinese writing system, namely
the six ways of Chinese character formation (i.e., the six scripts) and the
arrangement of “Liu shu ku”.

The book begins with a biography of the translator Lionel Charles Hopkins
(1854-1952) by W. Perceval Yetts. Lionel was a renowned Sinologist and lived
in China for 34 years (1871-1908), working for the British Consular Service.
Strongly interested in the Chinese language, particularly the script, Lionel
published books and articles on Chinese scripts. His strong interest in the
Chinese writing system motivated him to translate Tai T’ung’s book “Liu shu
ku”, one of the earliest dictionaries of Chinese characters. Lionel strongly
endorsed Tai T’ung’s perspectives in “Liu shu ku”, namely “the rational
notions about the ways written characters came to be formed are essential for
an understanding of the Chinese language as well as of the Chinese spirit”

The second part of the book is Lionel’s own prefatory note. Lionel discusses
his support for Tai T’ung’s explanation of the six scripts in “Liu Shu Ku”,
and argues that Tai T’ung’s work is a rational explanation of Chinese scripts.
Lionel also endorses Tai T’ung’s purpose in writing “Liu Shu Ku”, namely “to
make speech visible”, and argues that Chinese characters are “literally the
paper issue of the currency of language” (p. 4).

The next part of the book is Tai T’ung’s own prefatory note to “Liu Shu Ku”.
Following is the major part of the book, a general introduction to the six

“Liu shu”, namely “the six scripts”, are the six principles of Chinese
character composition. The six scripts consist of indicative characters
(those formed by indicating the essential features of a physical action,
state, or relation, such as 一 for ‘one’), pictorial characters (those
imitating the forms of the objects, such as 山 for ‘mountain’), suggestive
compounds (those composed of a union of figures, whereby the idea is
expressed, such as 从 ‘to follow’, which is formed by two persons 人), deflected
characters (those made by taking an existing figure and turning it around on
its axis), phonetic characters (i.e., picto-phonetic, with both a phonetic
component and a semantic component), and adoptive characters (other characters
adopted for those without written forms).

“Liu shu” have been discussed prior to Tai T’ung. Among them, “Shuowen jiezi”,
literally “explaining and analyzing characters”, is the most famous. “Shuowen
jiezi” compiled by Xu Shen (A. D. 58-147), a Chinese scholar of the Han
Dynasty (B.C. 206 - A. D. 220), was the first dictionary to analyze the
structure of Chinese characters. Although not the first one to propose “Liu
shu”, “Shuowen jiezi” was the first one to systematize these principles (Yao,
1983). Both “Shuowen jiezi” and “Liu shu ku” make a distinction between two
types of characters, namely “wen”, which are composed of a single graphic
element (such as ‘shan’ 山 ‘mountain’), and ‘zi’, which contain more than one
such element (such as ‘hao’ 好 ‘good’ with 女 ‘woman’ on the left and 子 ‘child’
on the right), and can be deconstructed into and analyzed in terms of their
component elements.

One big different between “Liu shu ku” and “Shuowen jiezi” lies in the
arrangement of characters. In “Shuowen jiezi”, characters are arranged
according to shared components in characters called the radicals, whereas in
“Liu shu ku”, characters are arranged according to nine sections, namely,
numbers, heaven, earth, man, animals, plants, industries, miscellaneous and
doubtful characters.

What motivated Tai T’ung to compile “Liu shu ku” is to alleviate the confusion
of characters. For example, one character has several sounds and one sound
corresponds to several characters. Tai T’ung attempted to “reconcile some of
these discrepancies by determining the correct forms” (p. 22). Tai T’ung
believed that the confusion in the use of characters might lead to the loss of
significance, which, in turn, results in uncertainties, misunderstanding,
faulty laws, degeneracy of social life and frequent occurrence of intense
commotion. He argued that it is essential to know the theories of the six
writings in order to read the classics and understand the world, and even
argued that “he who knew the meaning of those things on which I have written
would find the universe as clear as though he looked upon the palm of his
hand” (p. 35).

Tai T’ung believed that writing is derived from and coexists with sound, and
that sound coexists with meaning. Considering the time of period that “Liu shu
ku” was written, it has to be acknowledged that Tai T’ung’s understanding of
the relationship between sound, meaning and writing was very advanced.


“Liu Shu ku” is one of the most important classical readings in Chinese
philology. Lionel’s work is very important in introducing the knowledge of
“Liu shu”, namely the six principles of Chinese character formation, to
western scholars, especially those who are interested in philology, and the
relationship between sound, form and meaning in languages. Lionel’s extensive
footnotes provide additional benefit for potential readers in that these
footnotes not only provide many references which “Liu shu ku” cites, but they
also help readers, especially those without much background knowledge, to
better understand the text.

This book may prove to be helpful to learners of Chinese as a foreign
language. Considering that Chinese characters pose great difficulty for L2
learners, the knowledge of “Liu shu” is very helpful to these learners.
However, even with Lionel’s extensive footnotes, the book is very difficult to
read and understand, especially for those with little or no knowledge of the
Chinese writing system. Thus, learners may feel overwhelmed with such a
difficult text.

Lastly, it has to be acknowledged that some opinions in the book, such as the
importance of “Liu shu” in understanding the world, were constrained by the
particular historical background.


Yao, Xiaosui. 1983. Xu Shen and Shuowen jiezi [Xu Shen and “Explaining and
Analyzing Characters”]. Zhonghua shuju.


Chunsheng Yang is an Assistant Professor of Chinese and Linguistics at
Framingham State University. He earned his Ph.D. in Chinese linguistics from
The Ohio State University. His research focuses on the acquisition of second
language phonology, especially the acquisition of L2 prosody,
computer-assisted and mobile-assisted language teaching and learning, and
Chinese linguistics and Chinese pedagogy in general.
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