Guiding Words

“Primary Education” in Imperial China
11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room C

  • Chaired by Christoph Anderl
  • Christopher Foster, “The Cang-Ya School of Early Medieval China”
  • Federico Valenti, “Phono-Rhetorical Strategies in Pre-Modern Chinese ‘Primary Education 小學’ Texts: The Erya and its Supplementary ya Tradition”
  • Rickard Gustavvson, “The Chinese Script as the Root of Cultural Order: Xu Kai’s Philosophy of Writing”
  • Jan Vihan, “The Dichotomy of Basic and Extended Meanings in Language Rationalisation: The Case of Shuowen

Throughout China’s imperial era, moral, and political norms were established largely by reference to the Confucian classics. Yet to understand these classics, scholars turned to a variety of dictionaries, glossaries, and reference works. Labelled as xiaoxue 小學 or “primary education,” these texts were treated as a vital key to unlocking the meaning of the classics. For this reason, they enjoyed immense academic esteem. Thus, the official bibliographies found in the Hanshu 漢書, Suishu 隨書, and later dynastic histories, list “primary education” as second only to the classics, before all other genres. Two works stand out in particular: the Erya 爾雅 (itself elevated to a “classic” during the Song dynasty) and the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 (arguably the most influential lexicographical work in China’s history). Despite their renown in Chinese intellectual history, “primary education” texts remain deeply understudied, especially in Western scholarship. The papers in this panel explore the nature and reception of these two monumental pieces. Federico Valenti examines phonetic topoi within the Erya. Christopher Foster investigates the relationship between the Erya and a previous Cang Jie pian 蒼頡篇tradition in medieval times. Rickard Gustavson excavates the intellectual program behind Xu Kai’s 徐鍇 medieval commentary to the Shuowen. Jan Vihan shows how Duan Yucai 段玉裁 transformed the function of the Shuowen in late imperial China. Chairing the panel is Professor Bernhard Fuehrer, among the foremost experts in Chinese philology, traditional exegesis, and literary criticism.

Christopher Foster, “The Cang-Ya School of Early Medieval China”

In the early Han, entry into a privileged scribal class was guarded by the state through mastery of a primer known as the Cang Jie pian 蒼頡篇. The Cang Jie pian initially enjoyed immense prestige. It attracted commentaries by figures like Yang Xiong 揚雄, was the subject of court convened scholastic conferences, and even was included in the manuscript collection of the Lord of Ruyin 汝陰. Yet with the rise of Confucian classicism, by the end of the Han, the importance of the Cang Jie pian was supplanted by “primary education 小學” works that aided specifically in reading the Confucian classics, such as the Erya 爾雅. In this talk, I trace how the Cang Jie pian and Erya traditions competed and merged with one another in medieval China. The question of the Erya’s early origins is addressed, while mentions of a “Cang-Ya 蒼雅 school” of exegesis are compiled and interpreted. A parallelism will be demonstrated between how the Cang Jie pian and Erya traditions developed through their supplements (e.g. the Guang Cang 廣蒼 vs. Guang Ya 廣雅, etc.). Finally, a close reading of the Jingdian shiwen 經典釋文 and Yiqiejing yinyi 切經音義 glossaries will investigate the relative importance placed upon these two traditions as authorities for the exegesis of canonical scriptures throughout medieval China.

Federico Valenti, “Phono-Rhetorical Strategies in Pre-Modern Chinese ‘Primary Education 小學’ Texts: The Erya and its Supplementary ya Tradition”

The early Chinese synonymicon Erya 爾雅 (“Approaching Elegance”, ca. 3rd century BCE) has been almost unanimously attested as the most influent model for the transmission of an authoritative lexicon in the Chinese literary tradition (South Coblin 2017, Bottéro 2017). By dint of the most recent studies in early Chinese phonology and phonetic reconstruction (Schuessler 2008, Zhenzhang 2013, Baxter&Sagart 2014), it is possible to identify some phonetic topoi that might have been used as didactic mnemonic aids for the readers/users of the Erya. These phonetical patterns might tentatively be considered as a well-structured stratagem to perfect the transmission of knowledge in lexicographic works: alliterations, rhymes, paronomasia, and other similar phono-rhetorical strategies make it much easier to memorise and disseminate a broader quantity of information. The introduction of such phono-rhetorical devices paved the way for more complex development of Chinese “primary education,” introducing paronomastic texts like the Shiming 釋名 (“Explanation of Names,” ca. 200 CE) that directly derives from the Erya textual heritage. This work is in fact recorded also as the Yiya 逸雅 (“Lost Erya”) and it is recognised as a part of the so-called Five Erya tradition 五雅, which also include the Guangya 廣雅, the Piya 埤雅, and the Erya yi 爾雅翼. Aim of this paper is to provide new insights about the role of sounds patterns and devices in the internal organisation and arrangement of the Erya and its derivative “primary education” texts.

Rickard Gustavvson, “The Chinese Script as the Root of Cultural Order: Xu Kai’s Philosophy of Writing”

While lexicography in imperial China largely falls into the discipline of language studies, many lexicographers go beyond a narrow linguistic or philological scope. Their interest in language is typically bound up with other intellectual concerns, such as cosmology, ethics, and politics. An example of such a person is the Southern Tang court official Xu Kai (920–974), who wrote the Shuowen jiezi xizhuan 説文解字繫傳, the first known commentary on the Shuowen jiezi. In the first part of this work, Xu Kai provides his commentary on the Shuowen, in which he is primarily concerned with philological and exegetical issues relating to Xu Shen’s text. The second part of his work consists of ten supplementary chapters devoted to specific topics on the philosophical and political significance of writing. Xu Kai finds in the Chinese script a graphic system that reveals, in a concise manner, the integration of heaven, earth, and man, and becomes the ultimate reference point for building socio-political order. In this paper, I outline Xu Kai’s philosophy of writing and his lexicographic method based on the second part of his work. I also briefly demonstrate how aspects of Xu Kai’s philological thoughts are easier understood against the background of his philosophical ideas than they would be if read in isolation. In addition, by relating Xu Kai’s views to the historical context of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907–960), I highlight the value of lexicographic texts as source material for studying Chinese intellectual history.

Jan Vihan, “The Dichotomy of Basic and Extended Meanings in Language Rationalisation: The Case of Shuowen

Duan Yucai, the authoritative Qing commentator on the Han primer-cum-lexicon Shuowen Jiezi, observes that earlier “primary education” works “were insufficient in enabling scholars to infer the original basis of an expression and, consequent upon this, fitting its various usages together. Therefore Xu Shen took up the shape of a character as the basis to explain pronunciation and meaning and only then did the basic meaning of a so-conceived character become plainly obvious. Once the basic meaning was clear, it became possible to specify as loan usage those instances where only the sound and not the meaning of a character was used.” Apart from gathering disparate word explanations, the Shuowen attempts to rationalise language and writing, or, to paraphrase Xunzi, to create good names which are easy to grasp out of inherently arbitrary designations. In my paper, I show how Xu Shen’s principal methodological invention, the dichotomisation of basic and loan meanings, serves this rationalisation. In negotiating basic meanings, Xu Shen relies on the notion of similarity to sound, orthography, or meaning. In navigating loans, Xu Shen employs the concept of partial identity to transform the earlier tradition of pure phonetic borrowing into his theory of extended meanings. Where Xu Shen’s work is mostly concerned with basic meanings, complicating its use as a lexical aid, Duan Yucai seeks to draw semantic links. I thus conclude with examples of Duan’s semantic network rooted in classical evidence. This last aspect makes the Qing commentator most indispensable to a modern user of the Shuowen.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room C
“Primary Education” in Imperial China