For at least 2,000 years Chinese scholars have conducted research into the writing system. In addition to the study of origins and the processes by which new characters are created, Chinese scholarship has been especially interested in creating a rational classification of characters for dictionary use, which would show historical relationships, idea relationships, and phonetic features. This volume, by one of the most profound Sinologists of the twentieth century, summarizes such traditional Chinese scholarship and carries research farther into the analysis of the writing system.
The heart of this book is a series of etymological lessons, in which approximately 2,300 Chinese characters are classified according to 224 "primitives" upon which they are based. For each character Father Wieger gives the modern form, its archaic form, literary pronunciation (Wade system), explanations of origin, semantic content of component parts, related characters, variant forms, quotations of classical usage, and similar material. The explanations of symbolic content are particularly rich, and gather the most important traditional explanations (especially the Shuo-wên of Hsü-shih) as well as the author's own research.
To make his book more useful Father Wieger has also incorporated a tremendous number of reading aids for the student: listings of the primitives; an index of the characters analyzed, arranged by number of strokes; a listing of 858 phonetic elements, arranged by number of strokes; a listing of about 10,000 characters by phonetic element; a lexicon by transliteration, comprising about 7,000 characters; and a lexicon of about 10,000 characters according to the customary modern system of 214 radicals devised by K'ang-hsi. With this most extensive apparatus students can locate any character they are likely to meet. Indeed, this supplementary material is so useful that it serves the purpose of a dictionary in its own right.
Recent archeological research has, for the most part, sustained the historical analyses of traditional Chinese scholarship and Father Wieger. For the student, however, more important than the historical and classificatory concerns of the book are the analyses of characters in semantic terms. In the Far East analysis of characters has long been taught in such terms, but unfortunately this very valuable mnemonic technique has been largely overlooked in the West. With Wieger's book, however, both teachers and students will find learning easier and more lasting when phonetic components are understood and the relationships are perceived between various characters, between original forms and present forms, and between idea and symbol. Father Wieger's book is an indispensable aid to every student of Chinese and Japanese.
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