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Review of  Chinese Lexicography

Reviewer: Ksenia Antonyan
Book Title: Chinese Lexicography
Book Author: Heming Yong Jing Peng
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Lexicography
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.3045

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AUTHORS: Yong, Heming and Peng, Jing
TITLE: Chinese Lexicography

SUBTITLE: A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911

PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2008

Ksenia V. Antonyan, Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences


This book is devoted to Chinese lexicography and is intended for a vast scope of
readers working in the field of Chinese linguistics, Chinese philology and
Chinese culture in general. It will also appeal to those studying general
linguistics, history of linguistics, ancient philological traditions and history
of culture.

The scope of the book is very broad. It covers a time period from the Zhou
Dynasty, 1046 B.C. - 256 B.C. to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911).
Chronologically, it is divided into four major periods: the Pioneering and
Emergence Period: 1046 BC - AD 220 (Western Zhou Dynasty to Eastern Han
Dynasty); the Exploration and Cultivation Period: 220-1368 (Three Kingdoms to
Yuan Dynasty); the Reform and Shaping Period: 1368-1911 (Ming Dynasty to Qing
Dynasty); and the Depression and Booming Period: 1911- present (the twentieth

The book is divided into five parts.

Part I (consisting of chapter 1) is an introduction and tells the reader about
the status quo in the field of research, approaches and methodology used by the
authors, and practical implications of the research.

The research is carried out within the theoretical frame of contemporary
linguistics. A communicative approach is introduced to establish a theoretical
model for the study of the history of lexicography: integrating the compiler,
the dictionary, and the user into a trinity so that the dictionaries and their
development can be examined from a threefold perspective - the dictionary, its
compilation, and its use. The authors call it the 'trinitarian' approach (p. 9).

Part I is followed by four main parts.

Part II (chapters 2-9) deals with the genesis and emergence of lexicographical
culture and works in Ancient China and embraces the period from the Zhou
Dynasty, 1046 BC - 256 BC to the Han Dynasty, 206 BC - AD 220.

Chapters 2 and 3 give an overview of the emergence of lexicographical culture in
China, the progress of exegetic practice and the advent of lexicographical works
in China.

Chinese lexicography can be traced back to the earliest textbooks compiled for
children to learn characters (around 800 BC). In the Han Dynasty dictionary
making manifested an apparent evolutionary process - from simple character lists
to character lists with interpretative notes, and then to wordbooks and

Another source of lexicographical culture in China was the exegetic practice.
From the late Western Han Dynasty to the early Eastern Han Dynasty, textual
research on characters in the pre-Qin Dynasty classics prevailed as part of
explanatory studies of Confucius' works. The practice of exegesis established
itself as a formal branch of learning. In the Western Han Dynasty, the
achievements of exegesis were embodied in the first Chinese ancient dictionary -
''Erya'' (''The Ready Guide'').

Chapters 4-8 are devoted to ancient dictionaries that form the core of Chinese
lexicographical tradition: ''Historian Zhou's Primer'' (''Shi Zhou Pian''), ''The
Ready Guide'' (''Erya''), ''The Dictionary of Dialectal Words'' (''Fangyan''), ''An
Explanatory Dictionary of Chinese Characters'' (''Shuowen jiezi''), and ''The
Dictionary of Chinese Characters and Terms'' (''Shi ming''), respectively.

Not only did these dictionaries form the basis for future development of Chinese
lexicography; they have not become obsolete and are still in use themselves. The
authors state that without ''Shuowen jiezi'', it would be impossible to read and
interpret ancient Chinese texts: it is a precious collection of ancient classic
texts, scriptures and exegetic studies (p. 95). As M. Winter puts it in his
monograph on ''Shuowen jiezi'', ''vielleicht ist es ein Charakteristikum der
kontinuierlichen chinesischen Zivilisation, dass eine beinahe 1900 Jahre altes
Woerterbuch noch immer nicht zum alten Eisen gehoert'' (Winter 1998: 11).

The micro- and macrostructure of ancient dictionaries became the template for
future dictionaries. The semantic classification and the definition modes worked
out in ''Erya'' formed the basis for ''Shuowen jiezi'', ''Fangyan'', ''Shi ming'' and
many other dictionaries. Moreover, the lexical fund represented in ''Xiandai
hanyu cidian'' (the normative ''Dictionary of Modern Chinese'') has much in common
with that of ''Erya'' (Guryan 2009b: 142-143).

It is a notable peculiarity of the book under review that the authors translate
the titles of the dictionaries. It is unusual for sinological studies; usually
the titles are only transliterated, not translated, cf. Norman 1988. This is, in
my opinion, a useful and progressive innovation: it makes the book much more
user-friendly and facilitates the access to the material to non-sinologists. Of
course, the translation of the title may be a serious problem; in difficult
cases, and in cases when the English equivalent is far from literal translation
the authors give the detailed philological analysis of the title in question.
Thus, the English equivalent suggested by the authors for ''Erya'' - ''The Ready
Guide'' - is motivated by the function of this dictionary rather than by the
literal meaning of its title. In this case the authors carefully analyze the
possible interpretations of the original title (according to a note to ''The book
of the Han Dynasty'', 'er' means 'close, approximate' and 'ya' means 'zheng'
'justice, standard') and motivate their choice (pp. 59-60).

Original titles and their English equivalents are given in two appendices: a
''List of book titles from English to Chinese'' and a ''List of book titles from
Chinese to English''. This makes the use of the book very convenient.

One of the merits of the book is that it provides information not only on the
dictionary itself, but also the information on the historical background and
motivation to its compilation, its academic value and cultural influence. This
puts the information on the dictionary in a broad socio-cultural context and
makes the book much more informative, interesting and valuable.

The layout of chapters 4-8 in Part II is as follows:
The historical background to the dictionary's birth.
The background and motivation for the dictionary's compilation.
The format and style or the dictionary.
The cultural and academic implications of the dictionary.

In the light of the studies of contemporary lexicographers, the authors
summarize the functions of a dictionary into three categories: descriptive,
didactic, and ideological (p. 138). They show that, apart from the first two,
the dictionaries of the Han dynasty also played an ideological role in helping
'to interpret the classic works, to advocate Confucian ideas, to maintain the
sovereign, and to consolidate the foundation of the government' (p. 138). In the
Tang Dynasty, ''Erya'' (''The Ready Guide'') was elevated and ranked among the
scriptures. The values embedded in it, for instance, filial piety and
brotherliness, have influenced the thinking and behaviour of the Chinese in
later generations.

Chapter 9 gives a survey of theoretical inquiries into lexicographical issues in
ancient China.

Part III (chapters 10-14), entitled ''The Exploration and Cultivation of
Lexicography in China'', embraces the period from the Wei Dynasty, 220-265, to
the Yuan Dynasty, 1206-1368.

The authors call this period a period of exploration and construction for
Chinese lexicography for the following reason. Prior to the Western Han
Dynasty, the prototype of lexicographical culture had already taken its form -
major types of dictionaries had appeared and the general styles and formats of
dictionary compilation had begun to take shape and established.

The authors show that this period is noteworthy for the following four
highlights. First, the invention of 'fanqie' solved the problem of phonetic
notation in dictionary making and enabled lexicographers to formulate and
standardize dictionary formats and styles; second, on the basis of dictionaries
of the Han Dynasty, dictionary families began to take shape and continued to
flourish, notably ''An Explanatory Dictionary of Chinese Characters'' and its
derivatives, and ''The Ready Guide'' and its derivatives; third, new dictionary
types had come into being and were added to these dictionaries; and new
retrieval systems were created, that is, referring to dictionary information by
means of phonetic sequence (p. 165).

Part III tells about the development of Chinese character dictionaries, word
dictionaries, classified dictionaries ('leishu'), and rhyme dictionaries.

Part IV (chapters 15-19), entitled ''The Reform and Shaping of Lexicography in
China'', embraces the period from the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, to the Qing
Dynasty, 1616-1911.

The dictionaries in the Ming and Qing Dynasties fall into the following four
categories: dictionaries patterned after ''The Ready Guide'' (the Erya dictionary
family), those patterned after ''The Dictionary of Dialectal Words'' (the Fangyan
dictionary family), dictionaries of exegetic explanations, and function word
dictionaries. The book provides an introduction to the masterpieces of each
category to outline the evolutionary progression of dictionaries in this period.

Chapter 15 gives a general survey of the lexicographical culture in the Ming and
Qing Dynasties. Chapters 16-19 deal with the formation of Chinese character
dictionaries, Chinese word dictionaries, the evolution and reformation of
special and encyclopedic dictionaries, and the evolution and formation of rhyme

Part V (chapters 20-25) gives the detailed overview of Chinese bilingual
lexicography from the Tang Dynasty, 618-907, to the Qing Dynasty, 1616-1911.

It tells about the origin and emergence of Chinese bilingual lexicography, the
archetype and evolution of Chinese bilingual dictionaries, ethnic minority
languages and their bilingual dictionaries (among other, Tangut, Mongolian,
Turkish and Tibetan), religious preaching from the West and its influence on
bilingual dictionary compilation, Chinese government establishments and Chinese
bilingual dictionary compilation, and the characteristics and socio-cultural
influence of early Chinese bilingual dictionaries.

Chinese bilingual lexicography originated from the preaching of Buddhism; it was
introduced into China in the late Western Han dynasty, 206 BC - AD 7 (p. 369).
In translating Buddhist sutras, Chinese monks accumulated Buddhist terms and
transliterated them with Chinese characters, which were later gathered to become
glossaries. The authors show that the earliest extant glossary of this kind
preceded the first Western Sanskrit-English dictionary by more than one thousand
years (p. 370).

Further development of the bilingual lexicography was stimulated by cultural and
trade relations of China with its neighbours (including Xinjiang and Central
Asia) and countries in other parts of the world. From the Eastern Han Dynasty
(25-220), the Han Cultural Rim was beginning to take shape, and Chinese culture
was widely found in China's neighbouring countries such as Korea, Japan, and
Vietnam. By the sixteenth century, Christianity began to spread in China, which
led to the compilation of numerous Chinese-English, Chinese-Latin and other
Chinese-Western dictionaries.

The book disposes of a detailed and well-organized reference apparatus.

It contains three appendices: a ''List of Book Titles from English to Chinese
with English Titles Arranged in Alphabetical Order'', a ''List of Book Titles from
Chinese to English with Chinese Titles Arranged in Pinyin Order'' (unfortunately
there is no pinyin transliteration itself, the titles are given in Chinese
characters only) and ''The Chronology of Chinese History''.

The book gives an extensive and far-ranging bibliography on the subject, a list
of main websites used by the authors, and an index of Chinese names. The
bibliography is a precious guide and an indispensable guide for scholars
interested in the subject.

The book contains 13 colour illustrations representing, among other, prominent
persons of Chinese history, such as the First Emperor of Qin Dynasty and Xu
Shen, the author of ''Shuo wen jie zi'' (''An Explanatory Dictionary of Chinese
Characters''), as well as pages from the major lexicographic works, such as ''Shi
ming'' (''The Dictionary of Chinese Characters and Terms'') and ''Guang yun'' (''The
Dictionary of Rhymes'').


It may seem incredible that a book on Chinese lexicography has not been written
by now. Dictionaries belong to the main products of Chinese traditional
philology, one of the most ancient autochthonal traditions of the world.
Moreover, dictionaries are necessary for anyone who would like to take up a
study of any aspect of Chinese culture.

But the fact is that ''for various reasons, historical, political, and
linguistic, no in-depth, comprehensive, and consistent studies have ever been
made of the history of lexicography in China'' (p. 12).

Except for a few of succinct reviews not exceeding a dozen of pages, there is no
general survey of Chinese lexicography in European languages (Creamer 1991, Xue
2003; the relevant sections in Norman 1988 and Harbsmeier 1998). This also
refers to Russian (Yakhontov 1980, 1981; the relevant sections by S.E.Yakhontov,
O.I.Zavyalova and A.M.Karapetyants in the encyclopedia ''Spiritual Culture of
China'', vol.3, 2008 and vol.5, 2009).

In China, the books on the subject are not numerous, too. The main of them to be
mentioned are Liu 1992 and Qian 1986.

So, the authors' undertaking is a pioneering one. It is the first fundamental
monograph on the subject, incomparable with its predecessors in scope and
volume. It is the first work that opens up the history of Chinese lexicography
to non-Chinese scholarly world.

The scope of the book is very broad. It covers a time period of more than two
millennia and gives information on more than 170 dictionaries: the date of
creation, authorship, macro- and microstructure. Some of the dictionaries are
discussed briefly, and some in much greater depth, with cited examples supplied
with English translation and a detailed commentary.

The value of the book is increased by the fact that it puts the information on
the dictionaries in a broad socio-cultural context. It explains how the need for
the book emerged and whom it was intended for. The authors do not limit
themselves to just only linguistic information.

The research is carried out within the context of the history of world
lexicography and within the theoretical frame of contemporary linguistics.

However, some parallels between European and Chinese lexicography drawn by the
authors may seem too straightforward. In my opinion, it is rather misleading to
begin the chapter devoted to ''Fangyan'' (''The Dictionary of Dialectal Words'')
with remarks on the emergence of sociolinguistics in America (p. 76).

This also refers to parallels drawn between the first European etymological
dictionary published by Thomas Blount in 1656 and ''Shi ming'' (''The Dictionary of
Chinese Characters and Terms'') (p. 114). ''Shi ming'' can hardly be categorized as
an etymological dictionary in the strict sense of the term. It is true that its
semantic interpretations are based on the principle of phonetic interpretation
('shengxun'), that is, on words that sound similarly. But it is not etymology
per se that was the aim of ''Shi ming''; its aim was, according to the citation
from its Preface given by the authors, 'to discuss and point out the real
reference of the names' (p. 118).

A few crictical remarks concerning the reference apparatus of the book.

Unfortunately there is no subject index (including, among other, Chinese terms
such as 'fanqie' - a method for giving phonetic notation to Chinese characters
in ancient China, 'xungu' - 'exegesis' and others). It would be better if the
name index included all the names mentioned in the book, not only the Chinese ones.

The book would be more informative for sinologists if it gave all the original
Chinese terms for key concepts, not only their English equivalents: e.g., we
find only 'phonetic interpretation' (original Chinese terms 'shengxun' and
'yinxun' are not given in the book).

A serious shortcoming of the bibliography is that for publications in Chinese,
only the English translation of the title is given (no original Chinese title);
and as the titles from the bibliography are not represented in the appendices
(which include the titles of the dictionaries and some other works that are the
object of description of the book), the original title is nowhere to be found.
This makes the book much less useful for sinologists (who might want to find the
book in Chinese and read it in Chinese). The authors declared that their aim was
to ''adopt a style more appealing to western readers'' (p.7); but why not be a
little more friendly to sinologists?

When the scope of the book is so broad, it would be impossible to include in the
bibliography all the works concerning the subject. Nevertheless, it is a pity
that some very important works are missing. E.g., as far as ''Erya'' (''The Ready
Guide'') and ''Shuo wen jie zi'' ''An Explanatory Dictionary of Chinese Characters'')
are concerned, these are Gu and Wang 1990, Guan 1996, Dou 2004, and Winter 1998,
to name just a few.

There is one regrettable mistake to be mentioned. The title ''Guo yu'' is
erroneously translated as ''The National Language'' (pp. 36, 72, 135, 416, 427).
Actually, it has nothing to do with the concept of national language; the title
coincides with the term coined centuries later and first applied to Chinese as
the national language in 1910 (Norman 1988: 133-134). ''Guo yu'' is the title of
the historic Confucianist writing that throws light on the events that occurred
in eight ancient Chinese kingdoms during the period of the 10th-5th cent. BC.
Orthodox Chinese scholarship attributes the work to Zuo Qiuming and states that
it was written with materials left over from the ''Zuo zhuan''. Russian sinologist
V.S.Taskin renders the title into English as ''Discourses of Kingdoms'' (Kuo Yü
(Discourses of Kingdoms) 1987: 469-470; Imber 1975; The Indiana Companion to
Traditional Chinese Literature (1986): 524-525).

However, these shortcomings are not decisive and can be easily corrected in the
second edition.

The book is by far the most systematic and exhaustive study available. It is a
must for anyone interested in the subject. Studying and teaching of Chinese
lexicography, Chinese traditional philology and Chinese culture will be raised
with it to a new level.

It would not be a big exaggeration to say that this work is an introduction into
Chinese culture through the gates of lexicography.

It will certainly help to remove barriers between Chinese and Western
lexicography, initiate new forms of comparative research in the global context,
and converge the history of Chinese lexicography into the general flux of the
history of world lexicography.

We hope that the authors' work will continue and they will prepare the next
volume devoted to Chinese lexicography from 1911 to present, for nowadays
Chinese lexicography is a vast and actively developing area.


Creamer T.B.J. (1991). ''Chinese Lexicography.'' In Woerterbuecher
/Dictionaries/Dictionnaires. An International Encyclopedia of Lexicography. 3
vols. Vol. 3. F.J. Hausmann et al. Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication
Science. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter. Pp. 2595-2610.
Gu Tinglong, Wang Shiwei (1990). Erya daodu (A Guide to Erya). Chengdu: Bashu
Guan Xihua (1996). Erya yanjiu (A Study of Erya). Hefei: Anhui daxue chubanshe.
Guryan, Nataliya V. (2009a). ''Problems of Dating and Authorship of Ancient
Chinese Dictionary Erya.'' In The Bulletin of Moscow University. Series 13.
Vostokovedenie. № 1: 86-97. Moscow: Moscow State University named after
M.V.Lomonossov (in Russian; English summary).
Guryan, NataliyaV. (2009b). The Structure of the First Chinese Dictionary ''Erya''
and the Chinese Philological Tradition. Ph.D. Dissertation. Moscow: Moscow
State University named after M.V.Lomonossov, Institute of Asian and African
Studies (in Russian).
Dou, Xiuyan (2004). Zhongguo yaxueshi (A History of the Chinese Dictionaries of
the Erya Family). Jinan: Qilu shushe.
Harbsmeier, Christoph (1998). ''Language and Logic in Traditional China.'' In
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 7. Part 1: Language and
Logic. By Christoph Harbsmeier. Ed. By K.Robinson. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Imber, Alan (1975). Kuo Yü. An Early Chinese Text and its Relationship with the
Tso Chuan. Stockholm.
Kuo Yü (Discourses of Kingdoms) (1987). Transl. and Comment. by V.S.Taskin.
Moscow: Nauka (in Russian; English summary).
Liu, Yeqiu (1992). Zhongguo zidian shilüe (A Brief History of Chinese Character
Dictionaries). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.
Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press.
Qian, Jianfu (1986). Zhongguo gudai zidian, cidian gailun (An Introduction to
Ancient Dictionaries in China). Beijing: The Commercial Press.
Spiritual Culture of China. Encyclopaedia (Zhongguo jingshen wenhua dadian).
Vol. 3. Literature. Language and Writing (2008). M.L.Titarenko (ed.). Moscow:
Russian Academy of Sciences, Vostochnaya Literatura Publishers (in Russian).
Spiritual Culture of China. Encyclopaedia (Zhongguo jingshen wenhua dadian).
Vol. 5. Science, Technology, Military Science, Public Health Service and
Education (2009) M.L.Titarenko (ed.). Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences,
Vostochnaya Literatura Publishers (in Russian).
The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (1986). Nienhauser,
William H., Jr. (Editor and Compiler). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Winter, Marc (1998).''…und Cang Jie erfand die Schrift''. Ein Handbuch für den
Gebrauch des Shuo Wen Jie Zi Schweizer Asiatische Studien. Monographien /
Monographies. Band / Volume 28 Bern; Berlin; Frankfurt a.M.; New York; Paris;
Wien: Peter Lang.
Xiandai hanyu cidian (Dictionary of Modern Chinese) (1996, 2005). Beijing:
Shangwu yinshuguan.
Xue, Shiqi (2003). ''Chinese Lexicography Past and Present'' In R.R.K.Hartmann
(ed.), Lexicography: Critical Concepts (Reprints of 70 Texts by 75 Authors), 3
vols., Vol. 2. Reference Works Across Time, Space and Language, London, New
York: Routledge. Pp. 158-173.
Yakhontov, Sergey E. (1980).''History of the Chinese Linguistic Tradition (1st
Millennium BC - AD 1st Millennium).'' In A.V.Desnitskaya, S.D.Katznelson (eds).
History of Linguistic Traditions. Antiquity, Leningrad: Nauka. Pp. 92-109 (in
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Ksenia V. Antonyan is senior research fellow at the Department of East and Southeast Asian Languages at the Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow). Her field of research is Modern Chinese grammar, verb compounds and the phenomenon of grammaticalization. She published a book 'Morphology of Resultative Constructions in Chinese' (Moscow, 2003; in Russian, English summary). She has taught two courses: 'Theory of Chinese Grammar' and 'History of Chinese Grammar' at Russian State University for Humanities.

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ISBN: 0199539820
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