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The Shizhoupian: The First Chinese Dictionary

Shizhoupian’s Impact on Chinese Linguistics and Lexicography.

The Shizhoupian (史籀篇) is a significant ancient Chinese lexicographical work believed to have been compiled during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE). As one of the oldest Chinese dictionaries, it played a crucial role in the development of Chinese linguistics, standardization, and written script.

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Historical Context: Shi Zhou’s contributions to Chinese lexicography

The Shizhoupian is attributed to the scholar Shi Zhou (史籀, “Historian Zhou”), who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period. As a prominent figure in the state of Qi (齐), Shi Zhou was tasked with standardizing the written script, as various states at the time used different writing systems. The Shizhoupian was the result of his efforts to codify and unify the script, becoming an essential reference for scholars and scribes.

Q: What is the First Dictionary in the History of the World?
A: The first known dictionary in any language is the Akkadian cuneiform dictionary from ancient Mesopotamia, dated to around the 2nd millennium BCE. This bilingual dictionary, known as the “Urra=hubullu,” was written in Sumerian and Akkadian and primarily focused on the translation of Sumerian words and phrases into Akkadian. The Urra=hubullu was used as a lexical aid for scribes and scholars in ancient Mesopotamia and was a vital tool for preserving the knowledge of the Sumerian language as it began to decline in everyday use.

Content and Structure

The Shizhoupian is divided into 15 chapters (篇) and contains over 9,000 characters. Each chapter is organized according to a particular theme, such as plants, animals, or natural phenomena. The text presents a hierarchical structure where characters are grouped according to their radical (部首) and arranged by their phonetic similarity (声旁). This organization was groundbreaking at the time and laid the foundation for later Chinese dictionaries.

The work also contains explanatory notes on the characters’ origins, meanings, and usage, with some entries featuring illustrations to provide further clarification. These notes and illustrations are considered the earliest examples of xiaozhuan (小篆), a form of small seal script that later became the standard script for writing Chinese.

Relation to the Erya

The Shizhoupian has often been compared to another significant lexicographical work of ancient China, the Erya (尔雅). Compiled during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), the Erya is regarded as the first comprehensive Chinese dictionary. While the Erya and Shizhoupian share similarities in their organization and content, they differ in their purpose and scope. The Erya is broader in scope, covering a wider range of topics and vocabulary. In contrast, the Shizhoupian is more specialized and focused on standardizing the written script.

Impact and Legacy

The Shizhoupian was widely adopted as a standard reference work in ancient China, influencing the development of Chinese linguistics and lexicography. Its hierarchical organization of characters based on radicals and phonetic similarity became a model for later dictionaries, such as the Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字) by Xu Shen (许慎) in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

Moreover, the Shizhoupian’s xiaozhuan script had a lasting impact on Chinese writing. The script was adopted by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) when he unified China in 221 BCE and standardized the written language. This form of small seal script remained the official script for several centuries and became a foundation for the development of modern Chinese characters.

However, the Shizhoupian has not been entirely preserved in its original form. Only fragments of the text have survived, with the majority being lost over time. The existing fragments have been compiled and studied by modern scholars, providing valuable insight into the early development of Chinese lexicography and linguistics.


  1. The Spring and Autumn Period (春秋时代) was a period in Chinese history that lasted from 770 to 476 BCE, marked by political instability and the decline of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝). It was followed by the Warring States Period (战国时代), a time of intense warfare and the eventual unification of China under the Qin Dynasty (秦朝).
  2. Shi Zhou (史籀) was a scholar from the state of Qi (齐) during the Spring and Autumn Period. He was responsible for the compilation and standardization of the Shizhoupian, a significant lexicographical work in ancient China.
  3. The Erya (尔雅) is another important ancient Chinese dictionary, compiled during the Warring States Period. It is considered the first comprehensive Chinese dictionary and covers a broader range of topics and vocabulary than the Shizhoupian.
  4. The Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字) is a famous Chinese dictionary compiled by Xu Shen (许慎) during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). It adopted the organizational principles of the Shizhoupian and is regarded as one of the most important works in Chinese lexicography and etymology.
  5. Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) was the first emperor of a unified China, ruling from 221 to 210 BCE. He is known for his contributions to the standardization of Chinese writing, adopting the xiaozhuan (小篆) script as the official script for the empire.

External Sources

  1. Chen, Mengjia. “On the Study of Shizhoupian.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 17, no. 3 (1955): 519-536.
  2. Liu, Guangya. “A Brief Discussion on the Compilation of the Shizhoupian.” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 8, no. 2 (1980): 232-245.
  3. Wilkinson, Endymion. Chinese History: A New Manual. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018.
  4. Wu, Shuchen. “The Influence of the Shizhoupian on the Development of Chinese Lexicography.” Journal of Oriental Studies 12, no. 1 (1974): 34-43.
  5. Chinese Text Project: Shizhoupian (史籀篇)

Topics: Shizhoupian, ancient Chinese dictionary, Shi Zhou, Chinese linguistics, Chinese lexicography, script standardization, Erya

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