THE Chinese characters are records of a distant past. Instead of being hidden under the rubbish heaps of ruined palaces, like the Cuneiform Inscriptions, they have, millennium after millennium, been passing in open day through the hands of scribes. Subject to the caprices of each generation of writers, they now present themselves to us in a vast variety of successive forms. Through these forms, if the inquisitive eye of science trace correctly the process of change, we may acquire a knowledge of the origin of Chinese writing, and the method pursued by the inventors. 

These men did not make a language. What they did was to find out a mode of committing to writing a language which was already made. It was a sufficient medium at that time for the thoughts and wants of a civilized people. The Chinese language, as judged by the characters, is not barbarous. Though simple and not much developed, it is civilized, and represents man in a condition marked by high moral, political, and social characteristics. He is well fed and well clothed. He is possessed of the conveniences and even luxuries of life. Many of the principal elements which make up the social state of modern China existed when the characters were invented. In these inquiries the conviction is forced on us that we are dealing with an old civilization, and a language well stocked and compacted. The words of the language were as clearly divided into parts of speech, and as clearly distinguished from each other by their sense, as at any later period. 

This book is intended to be a guide to the study of the picture writing of the Chinese and to their conventional signs of words. It is an introduction to the analysis of the Chinese characters, and to the history of the words in ancient and modern times in regard to their sounds and written signs. 

Those who have read my " China's Place in Philology" know that I believe in the possibility of proving the ultimate identity of Chinese and European words. My present task, however, does not lead me into opposition with the opinions and practice of any modern philologists, by comparing words belonging to different families of language, except in one respect. I have found it necessary to strengthen the proof of the old sounds of the Chinese characters by citing corresponding words in Mongol and Japanese. After the work was in print, and while writing this Preface, I have seen Professor Max Müller's fourth volume, just published, of "Chips from a German "Workshop," where, at page 111, are inserted three posthumous letters of the late Professor Julien bearing on this very point. The validity of my proof published in the "Kevue Orientale" of November, 1865, more than ten years ago, of the connexion of the Chinese and Mongol languages, is contested by this great scholar. I will endeavour, as time permits, to collect a much larger number of instances of identity in roots than is contained in that article, for I am fully aware that in this critical instance of contiguity between the monosyllabic and polysyllabic areas the vocabulary of identities should be made as large as possible. 

I have been urged to do this by Professor Max Müller himself, who yields to none in the interest with which he regards questions connected with the Eastern Asiatic languages, and who has said and done much to stimulate those who are engaged in these researches. I will here only say that Professor Julien, when he condemned my views on this point, did not carefully examine the instances given of identities of roots. For example, the Chinese word lok " green," Mandarin lü, admits of comparison with the Mongol logon, but Julien compared logon with t‘sing "blue," " green," and "black." When comparing the Chinese t'ien "heaven" with the corresponding word in Mongol, he wrote it tegri, as in modern Turkish, instead of tengri or tingri, the Mongol. Besides this, he omitted all references to my arguments from common laws of order in words, from rhythmical resemblances and from identity in syllabary. 

Words in the languages of nomad races are, it seems to me, more easily lost or changed than in the languages of settled populations. Hence the necessity of paying particular regard to identical laws whether in the syllabary, the syntax, the system of derivation, or in the prosody. It is much to be regretted that Julien with his vast knowledge of words does not appear to have been conscious of this. 

In this book will be found by the student a much larger collection of explanations of characters than has been before given in works on the Chinese language. The etymologies are traced to their native sources and frequently criticized. The compiler of the Shwo wen is the author of most of the current explanations, but though always deserving of attention, he often errs, as is shown by native students of later times. No explanations then should be ascribed to him for which he is not responsible. Later authors are also worthy of being consulted. Their names are here often cited; for brevity, I have written the initial letters only, e.g. Sw for Shwo wen, and Tt for Tai tung, author of Lu shu ku. 

The early Jesuits were accustomed to interpret Chinese characters on the wildest principles. They detected religious mysteries in the most unexpected situations. Kwei " treacherous," is written with Kieu "nine," and above it one of the covering radicals 宄 . This then was Satan at the head of the nine ranks of angels. The character 船 c'hwen "a boat," was believed to contain an allusion to the Deluge. On the left side is the ark and on the right are the signs for eight and for persons. The day for this mode of explaining the Chinese characters has gone by. 

The form of the characters made use of for explanation in this work is the modern. This will be most useful and comprehensible to the student. Old forms are puzzling to the beginner. The best collection of old and new forms of the characters accessible to the European student is that given by Morrison in his fifth volume. It has the advantage of being alphabetical. 

The acquisition of the written language will become easier when the characters are explained than if there be no key to their formation. 

Besides helping the student to acquire the written language, I have had in view the determination of the phonetic value of the characters. 

There is sufficient regularity in the construction of the characters to render it possible for us to arrive at some important conclusions respecting them. Certain groups of characters have final m uniformly. Others have final p. Others have final k, and so on. These final letters therefore were in existence when the characters were first made. This accounts for their having been retained as signs of words ending in these letters till they were lost in the up-growth of the Mandarin tongue. 

In the third chapter, containing a list of 1144 phonetics, will be found many lost finals restored. A considerable part of these have the restored final letter in a parenthesis to denote lack of certainty. In cases without the parenthesis, I have felt satisfied as to the propriety of restoring the lost letter, and usually the reasons are given. Whenever I could find the evidence, I have been careful to mark the authority of old works, and chiefly the Kwang yün, for the restoration of lost finals. This work has been for me the most prolific and valuable source of information on this point. In it the initials k, g, k', p, b, p', etc., are kept carefully distinct throughout. 

When the old final and initial letters, or in other words the ancient phonetic values of the phonetics, are fixed, the determination of roots must follow. Phonetic characters are not roots. They are a key to the roots. Each widely extended root is written with several different phonetics. The knowledge of the phonetics will be followed by the discovery of the roots of which they were the signs. 

If it be asked why had not each root a distinct phonetic, the reply must be that roots rapidly grew. Thus, many round things were in primitive times called lut or sut, both from an older dut. Four or five roots soon became ten or twenty. But it would happen that soon after a number of round things had received this name, it would become polished, intensified, modified, abridged, and lengthened, in each instance after a fashion of its own. Then came the invention of writing. All the words were written on pictorial and phonetic grounds. The men who wrote them could only to a certain degree, while inventing signs for the various words, act under the impression that any of those words were etymologically connected. Thus round things with the sounds leu, lü, lu, sü, t'eu, teu, would come to be written at first with several phonetics. After the loss of final , there was still greater confusion, for other phonetics which had lost k would be by some writers employed as signs for words which had lost t, while phonetics used as signs for roots anciently ending in p would be used by modern writers for roots once ending in k. 

The best way to represent the Chinese roots would be, perhaps, that adopted by Pictet in his " Origines Indo-Europeennes." Philological studies should be perpetually associated with the life of the people and the objects embraced within the horizon of their knowledge. I cannot enter in the present work on so wide an enterprise. 

After sketching the principles of formation in the characters, and the history of Chinese writing, I have described the sources for the history of the sounds and the letter changes which have occurred in the language. As one among the means of gaining information on this point, reference has been made to the Japanese transcription. 

Dr. J. C. Hepburn has been the first in his Dictionary to place the question of the old Chinese transcriptions in Japan in a correct and intelligible form. This he has done in his second edition. I have thus been aided in showing in the seventh chapter of this work how the Go on and Kan on transcriptions may throw much useful light on the history of the Chinese language. 

MM. Sarazin and de Rosny do not appear to have seen the new account given by Dr. Hepburn when they discussed the Japanese transcriptions at the Congress of Orientalists at Paris in 1873, as reported in the " Compte Eendu." 

I am obliged to M. de Rosny for pointing out in the " Actes dela Société d'Ethnographie," 1871 to 1873, vol. vii., an error on the subject of the Japanese passive into which I had fallen in my " China's Place in Philology." It was an inadvertence, as was his when he represented me as seeking to trace a path for the Chinese of the old ages to go in a pleasure train to admire the Tower of Babel. An amusing idea this, but it is not mine, for I was careful in my book to express the opinion that the Chinese must have gone away from western Asia before the time of the separation of languages to which the Hebrew and Babylonian document speaking of the Tower of Babel refers. 

After reading M. de Eosny's opinion of etymology and of the comparison of words, I still think these comparisons may and ought to be made, and become eminently useful when under the guidance of a good philological method. Speaking of my book he says, " Les indianistes, les semitistes et surtout les hellenistes n'auront qu'a ouvrir son livre pour se former une idee de la solidite de ses comparaisons." I know well that this habit of merely opening a book may lead to a strong condemnation of it. It is not, however, safe to form an unfavourable judgment after so brief an examination. These identities of Greek words, for example, and Greek formative syllables with those belonging to some Turanian languages, are too numerous to be accounted for as accidental. The Mongol language has been so little studied by European savans that there is till the present time no Mongol dictionary or grammar of that language in English or French. The modern Hellenist believes that the Greeks came from the neighbourhood of the Caspian Sea, where they were near the Mongols, and that the languages of the two races are not connected. He would perhaps modify his view if he first examined the Mongol carefully in regard to roots and grammar and formed an unprejudiced decision, making fair allowance for the effect of geographical contiguity. 

Probably M. de Rosny is one of those ethnologists who are opposed to comparisons of words because they seem to cast a doubt on the widely accepted opinion that the various families of human speech grew up separately like trees from the soil. But however appropriate this way of speaking may be, it should be remembered that each tree comes from a seed dropped from a similar tree. Whenever the metaphor of a tree is used of languages, of laws, of grammatical forms or of roots, their derivation in each case from a pre-existing tree of the same kind should be kept in view as a possibility. 

Among the new methods in philology that are now coming into vogue is the use of the laws of position in determining the family relationship of languages. I rejoice to see that M. de Rosny has himself used this method in his " Affinites des Langues Finno-Japonaises." Professor Boiler's method of proving the connexion of the Japanese and Tartar languages by comparison of words only, falls much short in force because he omits reference to the laws of position. Both these eminent philologists seem to me to limit their subject needlessly by passing over in silence the Dravidian languages. Nor does M. de Rosny notice in the Finnish the circumstance that its geographical contiguity to Sclavonic and Teutonic peoples has caused a rough shaking in its syn- tactical system. It is indeed so free from that rigidity in the laws of position that marks the other languages of the group, that the combination Mongol-Japanese would be better as a name than that which M. de Eosny has chosen. But better still is the word Turanian. This may be made to include the Dravidian races, which it appears to me essential not to omit. I would keep the word Turanian, but not extend it to the monosyllabic languages. M. de Rosny has praised parts of " China's Place in Philology," and strongly condemned others. In a few years it will be seen whether he is right in lending encouragement to the hypothesis of mutual isolation between the families. 

In giving prominence to the laws of position as valid proof of connexion or disconnexion in language, he cannot claim to be fighting under the "Sanscritist" banner. His studies lie in a more eastern region, and his intelligence compels him to the admission that a careful consideration of those laws is essential to complete the linguistic process which proves consanguinity. Let him carry the process a step further, and he will perhaps find himself driven to the conclusion, that Tartar processes of grammar and Tartar laws of position may be applied to elucidate the peculiarities of languages nearer home. His present position, as at the same time the writer of the Affinites and of the critique on my book, is not very tenable. Words are more easily borrowed by contiguous languages than grammatical features. If the close resemblance of grammatical features between Arian and Turanian languages can be proved by extending the method which M. de Rosny himself employs, then á fortiori the identity of similar words in the two systems may be hopefully discussed. 

It is a matter of great satisfaction to me, that in this book I respond to his challenge in Actes, p. 186, to bring forward the proofs of my readings of old Chinese sounds. I wish they were more complete, but hope that the citations from native authorities such as the Kwang yün 1 will inspire confidence in the correctness of my renderings. 

The Appendices have been separately printed at Geneva, under the kind care of M. Francois Turrettini. 

Here will be found specimens of old forms of the characters, and among them the radicals of the Shwo wen in the Siau chwen, or small Seal character. Also rules for the pronunciation of words given with the syllabic spelling in K'ang hi. The right use of the tables of sound in K'ang hi is very important in the search for the old sounds. Students who have been familiar only with the Mandarin or Canton pronunciations, and who may not be accustomed to make use of the initials b, d, g, dj, dz, will find in K'ang hi's tables proof of their existence. 

A kind friend in China, interested in the progress of Chinese philology, has assisted in the publication of this work. 

1 A copy of the Kwang yün, with the initials and finals marked in the margin, may now be consulted in the British Museum. 



December, 1875. 



Origin of Chinese Writing. Its Three Founders. Distinction between Wen and Ts'i. What are Radicals? What are Phonetics? List of Radicals as now used. PAGE 1 



Lines, Shapes and Coverings. Natural and Artificial Objects. Man and 

his Relations and Circumstances. Parts of the Body. Animals. Names of 

Plants and Agriculture. Implements, Clothing, and the Useful Arts. Measures. 

Metals. Qualities of Objects. Verbs PAGE 41 



Their Number. First arranged by Gallery. Order of Strokes. Their Value as Indicating the Sounds of Words when the Characters were made. Phonetics often acquire two or more Sounds. They present a View of the Chinese Syllabary and the Changes it has Undergone. List of Phonetics according to the Modern Writing PAGE 50 



The Implements of Writing, Ancient and Modern. Changes in the Forms of the Writing. Ku wen. Lieu wen. Ta chwen. Siau chwen. Li shu. K'iai shu. T'sau shu PAGE 142 


THE Six PRINCIPLES IN THE FORMATION OF THE CHARACTERS. The Lu shu as exhibited in the Dictionaries Shwo wen, Lu shu ku. Examples. Pictures of Ideas. Pictures of Objects. Pictures of Suggestion. New Characters made by Change in Position of Old Ones. Phonetic Characters with Radicals. Phonetic Characters without Radicals. . PAGE 151 




Research shows that the Chinese Language is not Compound. Sources for the History. 1. Phonetic Characters. 2. Rhymes of Old Poetry. Results of the Researches of Twan yu t'sai. The Seventeen Classes of Old Rhymes. 3. Tonic Dictionaries. 4. Old Transcriptions, Japanese, Corean, Cochin Chinese. . PAGE 166 


Example of Letter Change in European Languages, k to ch. Chinese Letter Changes. 1. Surd and Sonant from Simple Mutes. 2. Formation of Aspirated Mutes. 3. Changes in the Throat Letters. 4. Changes in the Palatal Region. 5. Changes in Tooth Letters. 6. Changes in Lip Letters. 7. Changes in the Vowels PAGE 184 


A. Lithographed Examples of Ancient Forms of Characters. 

B. Examples to show that Words in s, sh, ch, ts, come from the same Roots with corresponding Words in I. 

C. How to use K'ang hi. 

D. Two Old Poems to Illustrate the History of the Sounds. 

E. Account of the Fang Yen, an Old Book on Dialects. 

F. A List of Sanscrit Words in Buddhist Literature to illustrate the History of the Sounds. 

O. Radicals of the Shwo wen in the Siau chwen. 

H. Gallery's Primary Strokes of the Modern Writing. 

I. Notes on some Select Characters. 



Shu king. Book of History. 

Shi' king. The Odes, or Collection of Ancient Poetry of the Court and of the Provinces. 

Yi king. Book of Changes. 

Li sau. Poems of C'hü yuen. 

Er ya. Dictionary of Archaisms. A work of the latter part of the Cheu dynasty. Kwo p'u added the sounds and sense of doubtful words, A.D. 343. 

Sw. Shwo wen. 

Fy. Fang yen. Work by Yang hiung. 

Kya. Kwang ya. One of the first Dictionaries containing the syllabic spelling. Only words looked on as doubtful are spelled. Chang yi collected the words. T'sau hien explained them and fixed the pronunciation in the Sui dynasty. He cites Kwo p'u's edition of the Fy for the sound of some rare words. 

Yp. Yü p'ien. Dictionary by Ku ye wang, A.D. 543. Arranged according to radicals. Syllabic spelling used throughout. 

Kwy. Kwang yün. Dictionary arranged throughout like Ty, Tsy, Yh, Chy, according to initials and finals. It was apparently the first of this kind. A.D. 600. The work of an Imperial Commission. Contains the pronunciation of the period in Central China. Republished by Ku yen wu in the seventeenth century. 

Ty. T'ang yün. Dictionary of T'ang dynasty. Cited in Kh. 

Tsy. Tsi yiin. Dictionary of the Sung dynasty. Cited in Kh. 

Yh. Yün hwei. Dictionary of the Yuen dynasty. Cited in Kh. 

Chy. Hung wu cheng yün. Dictionary made by order of Hung wu, founder of the Ming dynasty. Cited in Kh. 

Kin shi tsui pien. Collection of inscriptions. 

Lsk. Lu shu ku. Dictionary of Tai tung. 

Kh. K'ang hi ts'i tien. The most valuable of recent dictionaries. Arranged according to the radicals. Published A.D. 1717. 



Kp. Kwo p'u. An ancient explainer of the classics. A.D. 343. One of the most influential of the founders of the syllabic spelling. 

Tt. Tai tung, the learned author of Lu shu ku, in the twelfth century. 

Tyt. Twan yü tsai. Author of Lu shu yin yün piau. The most successful of recent investigators into ancient sounds. End of eighteenth century. 


The old four tones are 平 p'ing, 上 shang, 去c'hu, 入 ju. These are marked in this work 1, 2, 3, 4. 

When the upper and lower series of initial letters, k, t, p, s, etc., g, d, b, z, etc., are distinguished from each other, the four tones become eight. 

Tone class 1 becomes 1 and 5. 

Tone class 2 becomes 2 and 6. 

Tone class 3 becomes 3 and 7. 

Tone class 4 becomes 4 and 8. 

This arrangement suits the native syllabic dictionaries of Canton, Amoy, and Fucheu, and the pronunciation of the old middle dialect, as exemplified in the dialects of Shanghai and Ningpo. 

There was no c'hü sheng in the time of the classics. 

In Sir Thomas Wade's system, tone class 5 becomes 2, 2 becomes 3, and 3 becomes 4. 

The subdivision of p'ing sheng in Chinese dictionaries constructed on the old system, into upper and lower, was early made for convenience in binding, and has nothing to do with difference in intonation. 

Later, when the Mandarin dialect was formed, a real subdivision of p'ing sheng into two classes, each characterized by a peculiar intonation, had already taken place. 

The subdivision of shang and hia p'ing in Wu fang yuen yin and other Mandarin dictionaries is real. 


I, a, o, u, as in Italian. 

Ü , ö, as in German. 

Final e as in the English "then." 

Medial e, not having i or y before it, as a in "America." 

The vowel ï is like e in " ladle." 

In t, t's, an aspirate follows t in each case. 

In k' , p' an aspirate follows k and p. 

In ch' an aspirate follows t and precedes sh.