Fairbank Center Graduate Student Associate, Nathan Vedal, explains how a dictionary works in 16th century China.
The ordering of entries in dictionaries and encyclopedias was a perennial issue for scholars throughout the premodern world. There was generally agreement that such reference works ought to be designed for practicality, but no universally-shared view on what the most useful arrangement of entries should be. For example, the alphabetic ordering that seems commonsense to many today was not self-evidently an improvement to many scholars in early modern Europe, and was even seen by some as detrimental to the holistic understanding generated by semantically-based organization systems.
In premodern China there existed three primary methods of dictionary entry lookup: 1) those based on sound, 2) those based on script, and 3) thematic or semantic arrangements. Each of these methods contained many contested variations, but in most instances we are forced to infer the reasoning behind a particular system. In the case of thematic arrangements, we can observe that most dictionaries and encyclopedias tended to follow a more or less standard pattern. The first section of entries related to matters of the heavens, followed by a section on earth, proceeding from kings and emperors eventually through to insects and plants. Here I will briefly discuss an alternative approach from a lexicographical work that was published in the late 16th century. Fortuitously, this work contains a discussion by the compiler justifying his method.
In my current research on 16th and 17th century scholarly culture, I am documenting new kinds of categorizations emerging in lexicographic works, as well as their relation to developments in Neo-Confucian philosophy. An exemplary work is the Renzi ce [認字測 Conjectures on the recognition of characters] by one Zhou Yu 周宇 (fl. 1540s-1580s). Although little known today, this text appears in contemporary Ming bibliographies of book collections, and more importantly seems to have attracted the attention of several important Neo-Confucian thinkers of the period.
What sets Zhou’s work apart from a number of similar contemporary dictionaries is that he actually offered an explanation for his specific ordering of characters. For example, in explicating one section of his lexicon, Zhou writes, “only heaven is great, therefore [the character] ‘great’ comes after [the character] ‘heaven.’ When there is something great it must be correct, and therefore [the character] ‘correct’ comes after [the character] ‘great.’” And so Zhou proceeds to outline the ordering of each and every dictionary entry. Contrary to most other thematic or semantic methods of organizing characters, which assign an overarching category to a broad subset of characters, Zhou’s method places importance on the ordering of each individual character. This implies that his dictionary is in some sense meant to be read from beginning to end in order to capture the significance behind the progression from one entry to the next. Thus in his view the dictionary is intended to contain two levels of meaning: that of the individual entry, and that of the relationship of entries to one another, as conveyed by their ordering.
Zhou’s explicit discussion of organizational principles is unusual, but appears to be reflective of widespread contemporary experimentation with ways of conveying meaning in dictionaries via the arrangement of entries.