Evolution of chinese script

hi. as always am studying chinese. anybody know of any experts who can help clarify small questions regarding the composition of chinese characters? defrancis wrote that chinese script is inherently phonetic. are there any other soucres relating to the phonetic nature of chinese writing?

i try to ask taiwanese folks for the “why” of characters and they offer up the same baby stories the teachers did back in CHN 101. no one seems to have anything more than superficial knowledge of the script.

i would like to have someone to consult with on matters of written chinese.

please PM.

If you want an analysis of character components – both meanings and pronunciation – I would recommend [zhongwen.com]. They also have a book.

If you’re interested in tracing phonetic and semantic relations between characters, I would suggest talking with someone working in Chinese linguistics. (Sorry, I can’t recommend a specific expert, but there is probably a mailing list; have a Google, why don’t you?) I’ve heard, from a professor studying ancient poetry, that systematic phonetic relations between characters are more obvious in Cantonese and Minnanese, which are apparently more conservative in their sound changes than Mandarin. There no doubt exists comparative and historical linguistic work on this topic.

yes, we seem to most frequently to gaze dimly at chinese characters though the vantage of linguistics. isn’t really surprising as liguistics departments are full of people churning out works. these days i’m shooting from the paleographic angle trying to develop learning aids for western students of chinese script. might as well focus on the commonalities instead of scaring the bejezus out of all the neophytes.

google just churns out oogles.

許進雄 著 (台灣大學﹐中國文學系﹐多倫多大學博士)
學海出版社 (林森北路7號1樓之1)

This is the text book used by second-year Chinese dept. undergrads at NTU for Chinese Paleography.

You mention DeFrancis but not any books in particular. Just in case you haven’t seen this one, it would probably be of particular interest to you: Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. One of these days I’ll add an excerpt from it to my site. (I haven’t done so already because the section I chose is particularly great mafan to put into HTML.)

In the meanwhile, there are the other books listed in the link in my sig. Check out their bibliographies as well (though I don’t have many of those posted.)

You might also be interested in some of the issues of the Sino-Platonic Papers.

Hi all! This question topic is my chief area of interest and amateur scholarship, and I say this not to claim any expertise (I am definitely still learning), but merely to strongly welcome direct questions and debates on it. Even though I am not a professional scholar, I have some good sources, including a friend and mentor at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, whose brains I often pick for such matters, so fire away! (No guarantees of answers, ha ha, as this is one TOUGH field!)

And now for a lengthy but extensively considered answer, beginning with what NOT to read (including two of the books mentioned by earlier replies to the original posting).

To anyone new to the area, first, if you want the real origins of characters, AVOID the Fun with Chinese Characters cartoon books by Tan Huay Peng [The Straits Times Collection (3 vols.). (1980) Federal Publications. ISBN 981-01-3089-9], as it is full of folk-tale rubbish (although I must admit, it was very enjoyable and very useful for purely mnemonic purposes).

Similarly, the well-known Wieger book Chinese Characters [Wieger, Dr. L., S.J. (1927) Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents. Transl. by L. Davrout, S.J. from 1915 French orig.; Orig. publ. by Catholic Mission Press; reprinted in US by Dover; Taiwan - Lucky Book Co., opp. ShiDa] is almost a century old (1st ed. 1916, in French), and fails to incorporate a huge corpus of recent linguistic research on bronzes and bamboo books, as well as rich archaeological sources such as the Shang1 Dynasty oracle bones. It is limited in content, badly indexed, and uses obsolete, non-intuitive Wade-Giles romanization, rather than the modern international standard of pinyin. That being said, I do admit that when I first read it, it seemed very useful. But after a subsequent decade of study, I must recommend against reading it.

Likewise, Wilder, G.D. & Ingram, J.H. (1974 reprint of 1934 2nd ed.) Analysis of Chinese Characters [Dover Publ, ISBN: 0486230457] is a reprint of an archaic edition, also using Wade-Giles, and is in fact based on Wieger??s book. Not recommended.

A more recent source is Harbaugh, Rick (1998), Chinese Characters: a Genealogy and Dictionary; [中文字譜 - 漢英字元字典 by Zhongwen.com publ., ISBN 0-9660750-0-5.] This is the handy book mentioned by the right honorable Skeptic Yank (great name!) in connection with Zhongwen.com. Its innovative graphic “family tree”? arrangement is ideal for students wishing to find unfamiliar characters, without knowing which portion of the character is the dictionary classifier. But it follows traditional etymologies, with an approach more mnemonic than scholarly. No disparagement is intended; Harbaugh’s work fulfills admirably its goal as a tool both for non-scholarly, graphically based character searches and for learning the components and compounds related to a character. I LOVE using it. But it can’t be used as a real reference on etymology; two quick examples (switch your browser encoding if you can’t see the graphs): ؗ, ?

DB, a great post. Thanks for adding all that information and for noting the necessary but often overlooked point that much of what is said to be etymology is but fairy tales.

One point, though: That was LittleBuddhaTW, not me. I was recommending Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, by John DeFrancis. Since I wrote that earlier post I have added the complete text of the chapter on Chinese from that book. But it’s more about about the nature of the evolution of Chinese writing than character-by-character analysis.

Oops, sorry, cranky. Yeah I got Visible Speech, too, but haven’t read it yet; I’ll be interested in hearing reactions to it, and how it compares to other, similar works. BTW, if anyone wants to have a look at any of the books I mentioned, you’re welcome to stop by for a cup of coffee near one of my offices, Tunhua & Minsheng, or Academica Sinica, Nangang.

I’d be very interested if anyone has any information on the relationship between the characters 騉 (kun-1) and 鯨 (jing-1), not in the literal senses, but in more figurative usage. These symbols are used by Zhuangzi, and also a lot in Wei-Jin period literature (figuratively). Getting more information on these characters, how they’re related, and how they’ve been used figuratively over the years would help me a lot in my research. Unfortunately, I’m not a paleography kinda guy, so I’ll need some help on this one! Thanks!

Edit: the radical on the character “kun” should be the fish radical, and it means “a sea monster; leviathan; young of fishes”.

How much do you already know about them? And is your reference to figurative usage here the obvious semantic extension of “huge”? I assume you are referring to the usage of kun1 as the legendary leviathan, which I infer to originate with the real whale, jing1, from both of which you could rationally extend to ‘huge’.

I checked but could not find either character in my oracle bone books.

For kun1, my only source is Hanyu Da Zidian p1950c: original meaning ‘the young of fish’, citing Erya and Guoyu; secondary meaning ‘leviathan’, from Yupian, citing Zhuangzi.

As for jing1, formerly read jing2, HYDZD1951c gives whale, followed by the obvious semantic extension of big, and a usage read qing2, equiv. to 擎 meaning ‘lift, support’.

Sorry I can’t be of more help.