In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Paleography

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Reference Works
  • Coin Inscriptions
  • Stone Inscriptions
  • Silk Manuscripts

Chinese Studies Paleography
Edward L. Shaughnessy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0043


Paleography, literally “the study of ancient writing” (Ch. Guwenzixue 古文字学), is now used in Chinese Studies in the West as a general term for the study of both ancient writing and ancient written materials, especially those archaeologically excavated. In the West, paleography tends to be differentiated from “epigraphy,” literally “the study of inscriptions” (in Chinese usually rendered as qikexue 契刻学 [lit. “the study of inscribing”], though this is not an exact equivalent). In China, the term tends to be used in its more literal sense as the theoretical study of ancient writing, as opposed to the applied branches of chutu wenzi xue 出土文字學 (lit. “the study of unearthed writing”), which are typically used for any sort of excavated textual material, from oracle-bone inscriptions through any writing, however restricted, on bronze, stone, tile, or bamboo and silk, and chutu wenxian xue 出土文献学 (lit. “the study of unearthed texts”), which tends to be used for excavated texts of a longer or more literary nature. In China and in the West, “antiquity” is usually conceived of as the period down to and including the Han dynasty; therefore, the study of stone tomb epitaphs from later dynastic periods or from Dunhuang 敦煌 manuscripts does not usually fall within the purview of paleography. Needless to say, however, there is considerable latitude in the use of all of these terms. For our purposes, “paleography” will be a catch-all term encompassing all of the different subdisciplines down to the Han dynasty. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, archaeological excavation has played an important role in the establishment of China’s self-identity. Particularly important were discoveries in the 1970s of bamboo and silk manuscripts from the Qin and Han periods; many of these had counterparts in the received literary tradition and precipitated a profound re-appraisal of the antiquity and development of that tradition. More recently (in the 1990s and 2000s), still earlier manuscripts—from the 4th century BCE have come to light. It is commonly said in China that these new written sources require a wholesale rewriting of early Chinese cultural history and that no serious student of any aspect of early Chinese literature or history can afford to be ignorant of them.

General Studies

Although paleographic materials may appear forbidding to readers familiar only with modern Chinese printed books (or even with traditional Chinese printed books, for that matter), all of the materials presently known—from Shang oracle-bone inscriptions, through Zhou bronze and stone inscriptions and bamboo-strip manuscripts from the southern state of Chu 楚 to the clerical script (lishu 隶书) documents of the Qin and Western Han periods—are genetically related to standard Chinese script (kaishu 楷书). The study of Chinese paleography properly begins with the great Qing dynasty commentaries on the Shuo wen jie zi 说文解字 or Discussion of Iconographs and Analysis of Compound Graphs of Xu Shen 许慎 (c. 55–149), especially those of Duan Yucai 段玉裁 and Zhu Junsheng 朱骏声, and culminating in the massive work Ding 1928–1932 (cited under Reference Works). Just after Ding completed his compendium, Tang Lan published the first synoptic introduction to paleography in Tang 1981. Since then, several of the most renowned paleographers of modern China, have offered their own general studies. It is the work Wenzixue gaiyao, however, by Qiu Xigui that is universally acclaimed to be the definitive overview of this field. Moreover, the English translation of this work, Qiu 2000, is even better, not only incorporating numerous corrections by Qiu Xigui himself, but also supplying the work with indices both to individual characters discussed in the text and to general topics. Among other Western language overviews of the early Chinese language and paleography, three works in particular deserve special mention. The first is Tsien 2004; this remains the classic introduction to the historical background of writing in China. The second is Boltz 1994, which some see as a Western counterpart to Qiu 2000. The third, and most recent of the works, is Galambos 2006, which focuses in particular on writings of the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BCE) and on the phenomenon of variation seen in them.

  • Boltz, William. The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1994.

    Seen by some as a Western alternative to Qiu Xigui’s Wenzixue gaiyao (Qiu 1988) Cs the most authoritative introduction to the nature of the Chinese writing system, the book focuses on the creation of writing in the Shang period and its reformation under the Qin and Han dynasties. It stresses the phonetic nature of the script and argues for multivalent pronunciation of many graphs.

  • Galambos, Imre. Orthography of Early Chinese Writing: Evidence from Newly Excavated Manuscripts. Budapest: Department of East Asian Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, 2006.

    Based on a doctoral dissertation written at the University of California at Berkeley, this book begins with an overview of theories concerning the creation of writing, before turning to its main focus, which is the twin issues of standardization and variation in paleographic texts from ancient China, in particular brush-written characters on stone and bamboo media from the Warring States period.

  • Gao Ming 高明. Zhongguo guwenzixue tonglun 中国古文字学通论. rev. 2d ed. Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 1996.

    The textbook of a long-time professor of paleography at Peking University, this book includes general introductory chapters on the history of Chinese paleography, the origin and development of Chinese characters, as well as their shape, sound, and meaning. It concludes with specialized reviews of oracle-bone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions, and Warring States paleography. Originally published by Wenwu chubanshe in 1987.

  • Li Feng, and David Prager Branner, ed. Writing and Literacy in Early China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

    This compilation of papers presented to the Early China Seminar at Columbia University over the course of two years includes discussions of all aspects of Chinese paleography: from the beginnings of writing, to oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions, down to writings of all types on wood and bamboo strips. Many of the essays are particularly concerned with the social context of writing.

  • Qiu Xigui 裘锡圭. Wenzixue gaiyao文字学概要. Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1988.

    This is the single most influential study of Chinese paleography. It includes these chapters: The Development of Writing, The Nature of Chinese Characters, The Origin and Development of Chinese Script, The Evolution of the Shapes and Styles of Chinese Characters, The Classification of Chinese Characters, Graphic Differentiation and Consolidation, The Intricate Relationship between Graphic Form and Sound and Meaning, and The Systematization and Simplification of Chinese Script.

  • Qiu Xigui 裘锡圭. Chinese Writing. Translated by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2000.

    This is more than just a translation of Qiu Xigui’s magisterial Wenzixue gaiyao 文字学概要. Done by two of the Western world’s leading scholars of Chinese linguistics, it establishes a consistent English-language terminology for Chinese paleography. It also provides several advantages vis-à-vis the Chinese original, including especially a complete index of characters discussed in the text.

  • Tang Lan 唐蘭. Guwenzixue daolun 古文字學導論. Jinan: Qi Lu shushe, 1981.

    Originally published in 1935, this slender volume set the foundation for the modern study of Chinese paleography. Dismissing the six principles by which the Shuo wen classified Chinese characters, Tang suggested that all graphs could be analyzed according to one of three principles: xiangxing wenzi 象形文字 or “graphs depicting figures”; xiangyi wenzi 象意文字 or “graphs depicting ideas”; and xingsheng wenzi 形声文字 or “graphs depicting sounds.”

  • Tsien Tsuen-hsuin. Written on Bamboo & Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books & Inscriptions. rev. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    This is standard Western-language introduction to Chinese paleography; it includes chapters on oracle-bone inscriptions; bronze inscriptions; inscriptions on stone and jade; as well as chapters on bamboo and wood, silk, and paper manuscripts. It also introduces evidence for materials used to write. Originally published in 1962.

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