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Persons in Chinese History - Xu Shen 許慎

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Xu Shen 許慎 (ca. 58- ca. 147), courtesy name Xu Shuzhong許叔重, style Xu Jijiu 許祭酒 "Libationer Xu", was a Confucian scholar and philosopher of the early Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). He is particularly famous for his character dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字. Xu Shen came from Zhaoling 召陵 in the commandery of Runan 汝南 (modern Yancheng 郾城, Henan), and occupied the position of head of the commandery labour section (jun gongcao 郡功曹), and then rose to the office of Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉) and then libationer (jijiu 祭酒, i.e. director) of the Southern Hall 南閣 (the offices directly under the Counsellor-in-chief) and then magistrate of Jiaoxian 洨縣 (modern Guzhen 固鎮, Anhui). He was a disciple of Jia Kui 賈逵 and fellow student of Liu Zhen 劉珍 and Ma Rong 馬融, who substantially promoted his career. These scholars all belong to the old-text school (guwen jingxue 古文經學) that interpreted the Confucian Classics as historical texts and not as the writings of a "saint", as the new-text school believed. Working in the Eastern Hall (Dongguan 東觀), Xu Shen had access to the complete imperial library and archives, which was a precondition for his deep insight into ancient texts in different versions. He commented on the canon of the Five Classics (wujing 五經) and pointed out "different meanings" in this corpus of texts. His book Wujing yiyi 五經異義 is only transmitted in fragments because the eminent master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 later criticized Xu Shen's interpretation of the Classics. Fragments were collected by the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Chen Shouqi 陳壽祺 (Wujing yiyi shuzheng 五經異義疏證).
His dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 is an analytic collection of characters in different shapes, from so-called "ancient script" (guwen 古文, used in old-text writings) and the "large seal script" (zhouwen 籀文) to the "small seal script" (xiaozhuan 小篆) that was made the empire-wide standard under the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE). Xu Shen analysed each character according to its meaning, its composition and shape, and in some cases also concering pronuncation. Xu divided all characters into five different types (liushu 六書). Although the dictionary is not preserved in the orginal shape but only in a reconstructed version created by Xu Xuan 徐鉉 during the tenth century, it constituted an important research tool for the philological methods of Confucian scholars of the Han-texts School (Hanxue 漢學) during the mid-Qing period, and is today still oftenly quoted. This dictionary is the oldest Chinese book that makes use of the concept of character radicals (bushou 部首).
Fragments of Xu Shen's commentary on the book Huainanzi 淮南子 (Huainanzi zhu 淮南子注) were collected by Tao Fangqi 陶方琦, but of his comments on the history Shiji 史記 (Shiji zhu 史記注) and the Classic Xiaojing (Guwen Xiaojing shuo 古文孝經說) nothing has survived.


Sources: Chen Gaochun 陳高春 (ed. 1986), Zhongguo yuwen xuejia cidian 中國語文學家辭典 (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe), p. 15. ● Huang Banghe 黄邦和, Pi Mingxiu 皮明庥 (ed. 1987), Zhong-wai lishi renwu cidian 中外歷史人物詞典 (Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe), p. 150. ● Pang Pu 龐樸 (ed. 1997), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, p. 67. ● Liu Qingwu 劉慶俄 (1997), "Xu Shen de Shuowenxue 許慎的說文學", in Men Gui 門巋, Zhang Yanqin 張燕瑾 (ed.), Zhonghua guocui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Xianggang: Guoji wenhua chuban gongsi), p. 726. ● Zhou Zumo 周祖謨 (1988), "Xu Shen 許慎", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), p. 436.

January 6, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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