Online Resources for Chinese Palaeography – Part Two

My previous post introduced a fundamental bit of knowledge to work with online resources for Chinese Palaeography, namely the difference between graphs (the visual representation) and the words that graphs represent. Here, I go on to review two more of these resources. 

HUMANUM 漢語多功能字庫 is one of the many tools offered and maintained by the Research Institute for the Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A very handy component of interest to anyone working with Chinese language is the tiny drop-down menu right next to the box with the word you have searched. This menu provides a direct link to other resources, saving you time from having to perform the research twice. There are links to Lin Yutang’s 林語堂 and Kangxi’s 康熙 dictionaries; the Zhongwen zipu 中文字譜 set up by Prof. Rick Harbaugh is convenient to gain a quick glance at characters’ components, something that may come in handy when thinking about the phonetic series (xiesheng 諧聲, i.e. the series of Chinese characters sharing the same phonetic element) to which a graph belongs. 

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Other information displayed on the right top corner, such as the entry number in the Matthew Chinese-English dictionary (outdated, yet still useful for a first look-up), the page number for the Hanyu da zi dian 漢語大子典, or the Big5 大五碼 Chinese Character coding (a Chinese Character encoding system in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau), is just an added bonus. 

There are several other reasons that those interested in ancient Chinese manuscripts will love the website further. 

  • Whenever possible, it provides thumbnails of a graph in various scripts. From left to right, users can see the xiao zhuan 小篆 form (that is, “small seal,” a script popular during the Qin dynasty and whose invention is attributed to chancellor Li Si, introduced in my previous post); the jin wen 金文 (“bronze inscription”) and the jiagu 甲骨文(“oracle bone inscription”) forms, both broken down into components (under bujian shu 部件樹). The last two boxes show examples from bamboo manuscripts, primarily Warring States and Han dynasty ones, and other recorded representations of a given word, such as on drum inscriptions and seals. 
  • The “Comprehensive Explanation of Forms and Meaning” (xing yi tongjie 形義通解) section details the history of the usage of a character, its etymology, as well as the opinions of eminent scholars of the field, such as Qiu Xigui 裘錫圭 and Ji Xusheng 季旭昇. The list of relevant characters, xiang guan Hanzi 相關漢字, at the end of this section often includes just the right suggestions to dig into the history further. 
  • The page ends with the Cantonese readings of the searched character, as well as readings in other dialects (qita fangyan duyin 其他方言讀音) and its usage in chengyu 成語, Chinese idiomatic expressions. 

The website is thus rich and attractive for researchers and scholars from different fields, and is filled with different kinds of information. This illustrates the comprehensive nature of the database, which brings together different references and coding systems (Unicode, English, Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese) and is sensitive to all users’ needs.

The Open Ancient Chinese Characters Glyphs Database 開放古文字字形庫 is slimmer. As a subsection of The Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Characters 古今汉字集成 (which includes good databases for Khitan and Jurchen languages), the OACCGD gives at-a-glance all the instances of a graph. Right under the thumbnail, users are given information to look up the source. Oracle bone inscriptions (fig. 1) are divided according to locations of recovery (North and South) and periodization groups. They are provided a number linking to the Jiaguwen heji 甲骨文合集 collection (which you can very conveniently look up here). Examples from bronze inscriptions display the bronze name and the Jicheng 集成 number (short for Yin Zhou jinwen jicheng shiwen 殷周金文集成釋文 (fig. 2). Manuscripts are given the first character of the corpus name, the first character of the manuscript title, and the strip number. For example, 郭.成.4 indicates the manuscript Cheng zhi wen zhi 成之聞之 of the Guodian 郭店 corpus, strip no. 4. This requires being in possession of those books, or able to access libraries, since there are no links to publications.

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Fig. 1

The website is often updated: halfway through the year 2020, it had already incorporated the thumbnails of an Anda University manuscript published in 2019. Very conveniently, the database also includes evidence from Dunhuang 敦煌 texts. 

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Fig. 2

As is clear in my previous piece and this overview, all these databases are incredible resources to find information quickly and in a targeted way. Even if it takes some time to find the right word, with a few clicks scholars can skim through as many as fifty textual sources and informed opinions. Furthermore, in line with the “sharing is caring” mentality, these are freely accessible and easily shared with colleagues, two fundamental aspects that, when missing, hurt the popularity of a database (such was the fate, in my opinion, of the CHANT database). They are therefore also very powerful teaching tools. 

Notwithstanding all these perks, there are two major shortcomings. First, these tools do not provide proper documentation of the information provided on the page. For example, scholars are often quoted with no bibliographical references. While a quick Google search almost always solves the problem, it is usually up to the user to link all the dots provided in the “Comprehensive Explanation” section, which although potentially fun can also be onerous. Perhaps more significantly, lack of proper documentation obscures the steps taken to reach the conclusions presented on the website, in a field that urgently needs more clarity on methods and resources. 

Perhaps more relevant is the lack of access to the data that was used to build the database. There is always a complicated answer to questions of the free sharing of data and sources, one that involves copyright, educational usages, and the costs involved in producing the collections that users want to access. On the other hand, imagine the increase of knowledge about ancient Chinese texts and manuscripts if more people were able to be active instead of passive participants. A do ut des logic could lead to the speedy update of these databases, or to the creation of new ones based on shared scans of manuscripts and sources. 

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