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Liushugu 六書故

Feb 27, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Liushugu 六書故 "On the origins of the six types of Chinese characters" is a book on Chinese characters written during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) by Dai Tong 戴侗 (1200-1285).

The book has a length of 33 juan, plus one fascicle of explanations to the compilation. For the author, the study of Chinese characters and their construction was the basis of all learning and reading. He therefore analysed the six types of characters as described in the preface of Xu Shen's 許慎 (c. 58-c. 147 CE) character dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).

Yet instead of using the 540 character radicals of the Shuowen, Dai Tong established 479 "meshes" (mu 目), 189 of which are simple characters (wen 文) and 245 compound characters (zi 字), or "children" of the simple "mother" characters. 45 characters could not be attributed to one of the two groups. He divided the "meshes" into nine groups, according to the meaning of the characters, namely numbers, Heaven, Earth, man, animals, plants, work, miscellaneous, and unknown. In this way he established a kind of "genealogical tree" of character.

The character 月 "moon", for example, generates the character 夕 "evening", 夕 generates 多 "a lot", 多 generates 夥 "plenty".

Dai Tong also changed the sequence of the six types of character and tried to define them in a new way, that is not in all cases very convincing, especially in the case of the zhuanzhu 轉注 "comment by turning" (or "mutual explanation") type of characers which he simply defines as mirroring or rotation of characters.

The value of the Liushigu lies in its use of bronze inscriptions as a source for the original shape of characters. Dai Tong also stressed the importance of the pronunciation for the constitution of a character (xingsheng types 形聲), a fact that had been rather neglected by older analysts.

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