| Since 1996, Zhongwen.com has featured
the full online version of
Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary
published by Yale University Press and available at Amazon.
Traditional Chinese character etymologies show how every part of every Chinese character can be traced back to about two hundred root pictographs and ideographs (wen). These derivations are usually quite logical and easy to remember so learning character etymologies has traditionally been a central part of learning Chinese. Zhongwen.com and its associated printed dictionary are designed to facilitate this learning via a series of zipu or "character charts/genealogies" which show graphically the derivations for over 4000 characters according to traditional Chinese research.
Each zipu starts with one of the pictographs or ideographs identified by Xu Shen in his classic etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi 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 pictographs and ideographs generate all of the characters. These wen are the true radicals/roots of Chinese characters. Unfortunately, it was difficult to show this entire process to the reader without any method for cross-referencing, so Xu Shen broke his dictionary into manageable sections, starting each one with a bushou or "section heading" that was a component character for other characters in that section. With minor changes this bushou system has been the foundation of almost all subsequent Chinese dictionaries. Typically (mis)translated as "radicals", not all of the bushou are true radicals in that some of them can be further broken down into their component wen. Moreover, many of the true radicals are not included in the list of bushou.
This dictionary is organized around Xu Shen's true radicals, avoiding the expediency of arbitrarily dividing the dictionary by bushou. This new zipu system effectively generalizes the bushou system by allowing any character to be found if the viewer knows any part of the character or knows any character which shares the same component. Students can quickly locate characters while also better remembering their meanings and the relations between characters. 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 just a demonstration that computerized cross-referencing now makes it possible to fully realize Xu Shen's original vision for Chinese lexicography. It is hoped that other dictionaries will similarly be designed to return to Xu Shen's original vision.
Since the zipu follow traditional etymologies which are based primarily on the "small seal" characters from about 2,200 years ago, this dictionary does not represent the current state of research into character etymologies. In the last century far older characters have been uncovered, allowing modern researchers to go beyond the traditional etymologies and obtain a better understanding of the true history of Chinese characters. However, the traditional etymologies are of more practical interest to students and remain the standard reference point for all subsequent research. Moroever, the widespread teaching of these etymologies over the the last two thousand years (and, less formally, since characters were first adopted) has meant that the etymologies themselves have affected the usage, survival, and evolution of Chinese characters.
Following the traditional Chinese approach, this site deals only with character etymologies. Since English understandably does not have a specific word for character etymology, many English speakers conflate character etymology with two other distinct concepts. First is the etymology of root words as represented by their pronunciation. This is the main focus of etymology research by modern linguists. Applied to Chinese, such research allows understanding of how Chinese words evolved even before the introduction of Chinese characters, but it 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. For instance "zhongwen", meaning the Chinese language, has the two characters zhong and wen as explained above. 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 the component characters is probably the greatest strength of Chinese. Hence 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. Overall the changes were minor, but the semantic and phonetic information was often degraded in the characters that were simplified. Moreover, by weakening or breaking the semantic and phonetic links between many characters, simplification also degraded this information in the majority of characters that were left unsimplified.
I am an economist who analyzes game theory models of strategic communication. My academic background gives me a different perspective on "etymology" than is common among contemporary linguists, and leads me to better appreciate traditional Chinese research on the development of Chinese characters, but this dictionary itself is not directly related to my research.
Copyright 1996-2015 by Rick Harbaugh. I manage this website in my spare time - please excuse any delays in responding to inquiries.