First Chinese Dictionary Button for link to Chinese version of this page

The First Chinese Dictionary. In 100 AD, Shyu-Shen (Xu Shen), a famous Chinese scholar during the middle part of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD to 220 AD), edited the first Chinese dictionary “ Shuo Wen Jie Tzi” 說文解字 (explaining simple and analyzing compound characters, sometimes translated into English as, The Origin of Chinese Characters). In 121 AD Shyu-Shen's son presented the dictionary to the emperor. The shapes of Chinese characters were formed by different strokes that sometimes shared components. Shyu-Shen analyzed these components and compiled them into different radicals. The Chinese call these radicals “boo shou 部首” and use their presence in characters to organize lists, in a way analogous to how users of the latin alphabets alphabetize things. This use of common strokes and components helped to organize the information in Shyu-Shen’s dictionary under the same radicals. The ancient dictionary “Shuo Wen Jie Tzi” is arranged by “boo shou” using a system of 540 radicals. The original text was written in small seal script.

Chinese Characters

There are pages on the internet that claim the first Chinese dictionary was produced around 1100 BC, at the end of the Shang Dynasty. We can find no evidence that this is so. The earliest Chinese characters were developed by that time, so perhaps this is a mistaken reference to the appearance of Chinese writing systems.

Links about the First Chinese Dictionary:
  1. To understand the historical context in which Shyu-Shen created the first Chinese dictionary you may want to read more about the Han Dynasty at the UCLA Silk Road site.
  2. The Consortium for Language Learning and Composition at Humboldt State in Arcata, California has a fine page about Chinese orthography in which Shyu-Shen (Xu Shen) is mentioned.
  3. Set your web browser's text encoding setting to "Traditional Chinese Big5" and check out the essay by Xie Guanghui describing Chinese characters and the theory of the origin of Chinese characters mentioned by Shyu-Shen (Xu Shen).
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