LINGUIST List 24.610

Sat Feb 02 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 07-Jan-2013
From: Chunsheng Yang <>
Subject: The Six Scripts or the Principles of Chinese Writing by Tai Tung
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Tai TungTRANSLATOR: L. C. HopkinsTITLE: The Six Scripts or the Principles of Chinese Writing by Tai TungSUBTITLE: A Translation by L. C. Hopkins, with a Memoir of the Translator by W. Perceval YettsPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 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 inthe Southern Song dynasty of China (A. D. 1127-1279) . The translation wascompleted in 1881 and was originally published by Cambridge University Pressin 1954. The version being reviewed is the first paperback edition. This bookprovides an introduction to the principles of Chinese writing system, namelythe six ways of Chinese character formation (i.e., the six scripts) and thearrangement 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 livedin China for 34 years (1871-1908), working for the British Consular Service.Strongly interested in the Chinese language, particularly the script, Lionelpublished books and articles on Chinese scripts. His strong interest in theChinese writing system motivated him to translate Tai T’ung’s book “Liu shuku”, one of the earliest dictionaries of Chinese characters. Lionel stronglyendorsed Tai T’ung’s perspectives in “Liu shu ku”, namely “the rationalnotions about the ways written characters came to be formed are essential foran 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 discusseshis 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 “tomake speech visible”, and argues that Chinese characters are “literally thepaper 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 sixscripts.

“Liu shu”, namely “the six scripts”, are the six principles of Chinesecharacter 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 (thoseimitating the forms of the objects, such as 山 for ‘mountain’), suggestivecompounds (those composed of a union of figures, whereby the idea isexpressed, such as 从 ‘to follow’, which is formed by two persons 人), deflectedcharacters (those made by taking an existing figure and turning it around onits axis), phonetic characters (i.e., picto-phonetic, with both a phoneticcomponent and a semantic component), and adoptive characters (other charactersadopted 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. “Shuowenjiezi” compiled by Xu Shen (A. D. 58-147), a Chinese scholar of the HanDynasty (B.C. 206 - A. D. 220), was the first dictionary to analyze thestructure of Chinese characters. Although not the first one to propose “Liushu”, “Shuowen jiezi” was the first one to systematize these principles (Yao,1983). Both “Shuowen jiezi” and “Liu shu ku” make a distinction between twotypes of characters, namely “wen”, which are composed of a single graphicelement (such as ‘shan’ 山 ‘mountain’), and ‘zi’, which contain more than onesuch 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 theircomponent elements.

One big different between “Liu shu ku” and “Shuowen jiezi” lies in thearrangement of characters. In “Shuowen jiezi”, characters are arrangedaccording 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 anddoubtful characters.

What motivated Tai T’ung to compile “Liu shu ku” is to alleviate the confusionof characters. For example, one character has several sounds and one soundcorresponds to several characters. Tai T’ung attempted to “reconcile some ofthese discrepancies by determining the correct forms” (p. 22). Tai T’ungbelieved that the confusion in the use of characters might lead to the loss ofsignificance, which, in turn, results in uncertainties, misunderstanding,faulty laws, degeneracy of social life and frequent occurrence of intensecommotion. He argued that it is essential to know the theories of the sixwritings in order to read the classics and understand the world, and evenargued that “he who knew the meaning of those things on which I have writtenwould find the universe as clear as though he looked upon the palm of hishand” (p. 35).

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


“Liu Shu ku” is one of the most important classical readings in Chinesephilology. Lionel’s work is very important in introducing the knowledge of“Liu shu”, namely the six principles of Chinese character formation, towestern scholars, especially those who are interested in philology, and therelationship between sound, form and meaning in languages. Lionel’s extensivefootnotes provide additional benefit for potential readers in that thesefootnotes not only provide many references which “Liu shu ku” cites, but theyalso help readers, especially those without much background knowledge, tobetter understand the text.

This book may prove to be helpful to learners of Chinese as a foreignlanguage. Considering that Chinese characters pose great difficulty for L2learners, the knowledge of “Liu shu” is very helpful to these learners.However, even with Lionel’s extensive footnotes, the book is very difficult toread and understand, especially for those with little or no knowledge of theChinese writing system. Thus, learners may feel overwhelmed with such adifficult text.

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


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


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

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