Xu Shen's Scholarly Agenda: A New Interpretation of the Postface of the Shuowen jiezi.

Author:O'neill, Timothy
Position:Critical essay
 
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This article puts forward a new interpretation of the lexicographic method of the Shuowen jiezi by rereading the original text and traditional commentaries through the lens of authorial intention. Within the paradigm of traditional Chinese hermeneutics, intentionality serves as the linchpin of philological methodology. The central argument of the article is that the lexicographic macrostructure and microstructures of the Shuowen are designed to prove that the changes in the writing systems are historically and graphemically observable, and consequently that the original intentions of the sages who used guwen to write the classics are literally recoverable by working backwards through the reforms and changes in writing to a proper understanding of how they classified and used their words in the guwen writing system. An annotated translation of the "Shuowen Postface" in light of this new interpretation concludes the discussion.

Within the paradigm of traditional Chinese hermeneutics, intentionality serves as the linchpin of philological methodology. Although the Shuowen Postface has already been translated several times, rereading the Postface with this culturally specific intentionality in mind highlights the organizational principles, structure, and content of the Shuowen jiezi. This article presents a new interpretation of the lexicographic method of the Shuowen jiezi (submitted to the emperor on October 19, 121 c.E.) (1) by rereading the original text and traditional commentaries through the lens of authorial intention. The central argument I make here is that the lexicographic macrostructure and microstructures of the Shuowen are designed to prove that the changes in the writing systems are historically and graphemically observable, and consequently that the original intentions of the sages who used guwen to write the classics are literally recoverable by working backwards through the reforms and changes in writing to a proper understanding of how they classified and used their words in the guwen writing system. This was Xu Shen's scholarly agenda.

The Shuowen is one of the most important documents in the history of speculation about the nature and function of language in China--indeed, it establishes the philological tradition. As Zhu Junsheng cogently remarks, the Shuowen jiezi ... is the original beginning of philology." (2) Following traditional Chinese views of language, the sages established meaning by making words correct--following from the fact that was so, Xu Shen thus made the Shuowen," it being the case that "[Xu] relied on the meaning of the sages who made words correct." (3) In discussing the microstructures of the Shuowen, Duan Yucai even goes so far as to say: "could this be the proper meaning established by making the word correct? ... Of course [Xu] makes the word utterly correct!" (4)

The Shuowen Postface appears to be a composite work, written by Xu Shen (58-147 C.E.) and his son Xu Chong (fl. 121), and includes the imperial rescript and endorsement of the simultaneous submission of the Shuowen jiezi and Kong Anguo's Explanations of the Guwen Version of the Classic of Filial Piety to the court of Emperor An (r. 107-125 C.E.). The Shuowen jiezi itself is a monument of world lexicography, and to the present day its macrostructural innovation (bushou "radical" or "classifier" divisions) is still commonly used in Chinese dictionaries in a modified form. (5)

Like the earlier lexicons Erya and Fangyan, the Shuowen was compiled for the express purpose of helping scholars to read difficult texts, especially the classics, by means of organized and classified lists of words and explanations. The Shuowen, however, is the first dictionary in the Chinese lexicographic tradition to have prefatory material written by its compiler, albeit placed at the end of the text. And this Postface is of singular importance, as it allows us to understand the content, structure, and lexicographic method of the Shuowen jiezi--which are inevitably built upon the foundation of Xu Shen's assumptions about language.

The Postface of the Shuowen gives an autobiographical account of the compilation of the dictionary (6) and a narrative account of the history of writing itself. Xu Kai notes that "in all cases writing has differences between the ancient and modern," (7) and this is what the Shuowen sets out to explain. Explaining how the writing system works, how it writes words, is of the utmost import in reading the classics; as Gu Aiji says, "if written words are not distinguished then the classics cannot be explicated." (8) Presuming that "in language there is much that is not correct," (9) and that "as for scholars of the present day, their language is also for its part not correct," (10) the task of the philologist and the lexicographer is to correct it in such a manner.

Dai Zhen--one of the most influential Qing scholars, and teacher of Duan Yucai and Wang Niansun--discussed the history of Chinese speculation about language in the following terms:

The philology of the ancients was lost, and after this there were glossing commentaries. The methods of glossing commentary were lost, and what was thereupon transmitted became fabricated and groundless gibberish ... ah, so reprehensible! As for where the classics take you, that is the Way. As for what is used to make the Way clear, it is their words. As for what is used to define words, there has never been someone who was able to do this outside of philology and written words. From written words one can comprehend language, from language one can comprehend the intent in the hearts of sages and worthies. (11) As this passage exemplifies, the whole point of Chinese philology was to correct hermeneutic mistakes by reading specifically for authorial intention (and the rhetoric here duplicates Han dynasty writers, including Xu Shen, furiously engaging in the project of restoring language that has been lost, broken, misrepresented, and misunderstood). Gu Aiji confirms that "the texts of the classics are disorderly in terms of their written words ...; in any particular case, when one reads books it is necessary to first have knowledge of written words; if one desires to have knowledge of written words it is necessary to first investigate graphic structures ...; the philology of antiquity has now, in modern times, been cut off." (12) This is the paradigmatic complaint of traditional Chinese philologists, and perhaps even a good definition of philological practice itself, in that in the act of doing philology per se one must always begin with the assumption that something has been lost, misread, or misunderstood beforehand.

Wang Niansun takes for granted that there is a zhengwen, an Urtext--that there must have been a perfectly understandable, perfectly transparent linguistic statement that perfectly represented the original author's precise intent. As his Miscellaneous Notes on Reading Texts states, Wang is "relying on the written text to search for the proper meaning." (13) and presuming that "one necessarily desires to search for its original meaning." (14) One of the driving forces of the Miscellaneous Notes is the desire to point out when commentators and exegetes have misread an author's intent. Some representative philological comments include: "this was not Sima Qian's intention; Ban Gu was mistaken about it," (15) "this was Yanzi's intent," (16) and "he did not understand Xunzi's intent." (17)

Wang Niansun makes historical transmitters and unskilled editors responsible for basically all textual corruption, understanding that what "textual corruption" encompasses here is everything in a text that is not perfectly and easily comprehensible to the philologically trained reader. As Wang states throughout the Miscellaneous Notes, "later people intentionally changed it [based on their own opinion]"; (18) "later people did not understand the meaning of this word and so intentionally changed it"; (19) "later people did not comprehend the ancient word and so changed it"; (20) and "later people did not understand the meaning of the written text and so changed it." (21) In other words, "the intended meaning was not understood," (22) and so something was done to the text to make it more accessible to the untrained reader.

Sloppy and egregious textual emendation drove the Qing philologists to distraction, since it further corrupted already problematic texts. Part of the damage done by such unskilled editors and commentators, beyond changing individual words, actually stemmed from deleting text (tuowen). Wang Niansun notes this frequently: "later people did not understand the meaning of the text and so intentionally deleted this"; (23) "since the modem edition excises this, the intended meaning of the language is not complete"; (24) "if one excises this word, the meaning of the written text is not clear"; (25) "if one excises this word, the meaning of the written text is not clear and the syntax is also totally incongruous"; (26) "if one excises this word, then the meaning of the language is not complete." (27) In short, if one excises words or even whole syntactic units from the original text, it damages the original intent of the author, makes the language unclear and obscure, and therefore stymies the hermeneutic process. Superfluously adding text (yanwen fift Sc) is equally harmful, as the Miscellaneous Notes says in such a case, "someone did not understand the meaning of this word and so intentionally added that word." (28)

Wang's Miscellaneous Notes is a veritable "Summa Philologica" for the Chinese tradition; in substance and in fact, his work is a set of blueprints designed to aid the reader of ancient texts in sloughing off the accretions of shoddy scholarship and the vagaries of historical transmission in order to recover the original intent of the original sage-authors as it was originally stated in the original texts. And in espousing this particular...

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