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Review of  The Six Scripts or the Principles of Chinese Writing by Tai Tung

Reviewer: Chunsheng Yang
Book Title: The Six Scripts or the Principles of Chinese Writing by Tai Tung
Book Author: Tai Tung L. C. Hopkins
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 24.610

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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” (xiii).

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 scripts.

“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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781107605152
Prices: U.K. £ 19.99
U.S. $ 31.99