Shuōwén Jiězì (說文解字)

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The Shuōwén Jiězì [說文解字] was written by Xǔ Shèn [許慎], who completed it in 100 CE. It is often referred to as simply “the Shuōwén”. Though Xǔ Shèn was a very erudite scholar, he was limited by pre-scientific thinking and by the materials he had available to work with. Regardless of this fact, the Shuōwén was an outstanding scholarly achievement that is still used extensively today. Endymion Wilkinson’s Chinese History: A New Manual says,“Despite the modern discovery of new and earlier forms of writing on artifacts and in excavated texts, Xu’s work is still the single most important historical source on ancient Chinese characters.”

The Shuōwén was the first character dictionary and was unique in that it offered explanations for character forms. It is important to paleographers because it is the starting point for character research. In reality, however, due to the above mentioned limitations, many of the Shuōwén’s explanations have been shown by modern paleography to be historically inaccurate, though they provide valuable insight into how Han scholars thought about Chinese characters. In light of this situation, in the absence of proof that the Shuōwén’s explanation for a given character is inaccurate, scholars tend to give Xǔ Shèn [許慎] the benefit of the doubt. If there is evidence though, then the evidence must take precedence over tradition.


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