In his classic etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi written nearly 2000 years ago, Xu Shen showed how every character can be analyzed by breaking it into component characters, which themselves can be broken down further, so that ultimately only a couple hundred root pictographs and ideographs (wen) generate all of the characters.

Along with its associated printed dictionary, shows this generation process graphically for over 4000 characters using a series of zipu or "character charts/genealogies" that each start with one of the wen from Shuowen Jiezi. Without any system for cross-referencing, Xu Shen had to break his dictionary into manageable sections, starting each one with a bushou or "section heading" (conventionally mistranslated as "radical") that was a component for other characters in that section but not always a root wen. This bushou system has been the organizing principle for almost all subsequent Chinese dictionaries, but it arbitrarily focuses on only a single component of each character. In contrast the zipu system allows any character to be found if the viewer knows any part of the character or knows any character which shares the same component.

The zipu follow traditional etymologies based mainly on the "small seal" characters that were standardized about 2,200 years ago in the Qin Dynasty. Modern researchers have obtained a better understanding of the earlier evolution of characters before they were standardized, but the traditional etymologies are more useful for students and remain the standard reference point for all subsequent research. Moroever, their widespread study over the centuries has meant that the traditional etymologies themselves have affected the usage, survival, and evolution of Chinese characters.

Since English lacks a specific word for character etymology (ziyuan), many English speakers conflate it with two other distinct concepts. First is the etymology of root words as represented by their pronunciation, which is the main focus of etymology research by modern linguists. Such research allows understanding of how Chinese words evolved even before the introduction of Chinese characters, but is of little practical value to native or foreign Chinese learners. Second is the breaking down of compound words with multiple characters into their component root words/characters, e.g., ziyuan is just "character source". Since most Chinese words are compound words (the thousands of Chinese characters can be combined to make hundreds of thousands of Chinese words) understanding these word etymologies is of great practical importance to Chinese learners. Because Chinese has so few foreign loan words, and because Chinese characters allow for more detailed information on the component root words than is just available from the pronunciation, these etymologies are usually quite obvious as long as one knows the component characters. Indeed this ability to readily infer the meaning of words from their component characters is probably the greatest strength of Chinese. (In contrast, even the etymology of the English word "etymology" is obscure.) Given the transparency of compound word etymologies when the characters are well understood, the focus of traditional Chinese etymology has always been on helping students better understand the meanings of characters as the most important step in learning Chinese.

This dictionary focuses on the traditional forms of characters used for the last two thousand years rather than the "simplified" forms introduced for some characters in mainland China in the 1950s and 1960s. Under the influence of Western linguistics and its focus on spoken language, authorities in this period did not appreciate the central role of Chinese characters in the Chinese language. Hence this simplification, unlike the last more systematic simplification in 220 BC, focused just on reducing the number of strokes in characters rather than on clarifying their semantic and phonetic information. This information was sometimes strengthened in the characters that were simplified but it was often degraded in them. Inconsistencies in the simplification process also weakened or broke the semantic and phonetic links between many characters, thereby degrading this information in many characters that were left unsimplified. Whether the overall gains and losses made characters easier or harder to learn is unclear, but in any case a rare opportunity to resystematize characters was lost.

I am an economist who analyzes game theory models of strategic communication. This dictionary is not directly related to my research. Essentially I have just taken the Shuowen's data on the components for each character and run it through a program to generate the trees implied by this data. I have then translated the explanations from the Shuowen and from later commentaries by traditional Chinese sources for each character, and added character and word definitions. The dictionary does not contain original research, but rather it is a demonstration that computerized cross-referencing now makes it possible to more fully implement Xu Shen's original vision for Chinese lexicography. I hope that other printed and electronic dictionaries will similarly be designed to further this vision.

Like this site? Please add a link to here via the Character of the Day which is also on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 1996-2015 by Rick Harbaugh. I manage this website in my spare time - please excuse any delays in responding to inquiries. I am currently updating some features on the site (last updated in 2001) so any suggestions are welcome.

Main Features
Foreword to Printed Edition
Foreword to Original Web Edition
Reference Sources