Xu Shen the historical reconstructionist

Timothy O’Neill:

This article puts forward a new interpretation of the lexicographic method of the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 by rereading the original text and traditional commentaries through the lens of authorial intention. Within the paradigm of traditional Chinese hermeneutics, intentionality serves as the linchpin of philological methodology. The central argument of the article is that the lexicographic macrostructure and microstructures of the Shuowen are designed to prove that the changes in the writing systems are historically and graphemically observable, and consequently that the original intentions of the sages who used guwen [古文 “ancient writing”; here, the original Chinese script as designed by four-eyed Cangjie] to write the classics are literally recoverable by working backwards through the reforms and changes in writing to a proper understanding of how they classified and used their words in the guwen writing system. An annotated translation of the “Shuowen Postface” in light of this new interpretation concludes the discussion.

A quote:

Because they began with the inherently flawed assumption that writing has never changed, Xu argues that junwen scholars [who thought guwen to be unauthentic and preferred to work with Qin-era Small Seal script] were therefore blindly working with what they wrongly perceived to be the genuine intentions of the sages as encoded graphemically in the writing system—that is, interpretations of words based on the structure of the characters that write them. It is almost a slap in the face of the jinwen scholars that Xu Shen presents them with the historicist argument that they have been basing at least a select portion of their exegetical and governmental policy work on the drastically harmful if not immoral alterations specifically made by Qin officials to the writing system. Hence a portion of the intentions the jinwen scholars were finding in their graphemic analysis of the classics (shuozi jiejing 說字解經 “explaining characters in order to explicate the classics”) were the intentions not of sages, but of vile Qin criminals, one of whom was a eunuch regicide, no less.⁶⁷


67. This parallelism in the Postface to the title of the work provides a strong argument for understanding the original title of the Shuowen Jiezi to mean something like “analyzing the three distinct writing systems [i.e. Cangjie’s original, Zhou Great Seal and Qin Small Seal] in order to explicate their offspring characters ”.

An interesting point for me is how much importance they gave to the now-discredited practice of explaining words, and their etymology (in the older sense of the term), in terms of character analysis. This was considered to be the route to proper hermeneutics of the authorial intention of the sages, and therefore a basis for policy and law. Xu Shen specifically claims that his 540-classifier system had been deliberately set up by Cangjie and consciously employed by Confucius and Zuo Qiuming in their classics (and therefore that it’s needed to understand the sages properly). The Shuowen lists 9353 characters with 1163 “repeats” (), which are actually entries tracking changes in graphical structure—and therefore, under this paradigm, corruption, not only in structure but also in sound and meaning; this implies that 12.43% of the (then) modern small-seal graphs were “wrong”.

And here’s a piece of the translation of Shun’s scholarly trashing, just for fun:

They consider Qin lishu to be the writing of the time of Cangjie, saying that from father to son it was transmitted one to the other—how could it receive revisions and changes? Then they rashly say the head of ma and ren together makes chang , that ren holding shi makes dou , and that as for hui , it is a bent zhong .

3 thoughts on “Xu Shen the historical reconstructionist

    • Thanks for the visit, dearest friend! Don’t feel bad about there being too much linguistics in these posts; I’m nose-deep in the narrow focus of the dissertation right now :)

  1. Another exceedingly interesting article, cited by O’Neill: Françoise Bottéro, Revisiting the wén and the : The Great Chinese Characters Hoax.

    Tl;dr: At no point in the dictionary does Xu Sheng use 文 as meaning “simple, atomic characters”, or 字 as “composite characters”. He does say that 字 are born from 文 (and uses the presence of component 子 as an argument), but that’s it. Based on the contexts where Sheng uses the two words, it would seem rather that 文 “pattern, design, mark, writing” refers to characters graphologically, as visual shapes—shapes whose structure were symbols for the myriad things (and which were wrongly corrupted by the Zhong and Qin reforms); whereas 字 refers to the very same characters, but considering them from the point of view of linguistic symbols representing words, with a given pronunciation (“attached voice”). Then to say that 字 was born from 文 is to say that full, pronounceable linguistic writing was born from an pictographic/abstract/ideographic proto-writing; first Cangjie just copied the bird-tracks, later he fit the system to language.

    It was a pleasure to finally read Bottéro.

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