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Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou

Pages 279 - 302


This paper introduces the achievements of Chinese scholars' studies on Egyptian hieroglyphs by adopting liushu (Six Categories of Writing) since the 1920s.
These comparative studies, showing some similarities in structure and in form between ancient Egyptian writing and Chinese writing, helped to shed some new light on understanding
Egyptian hieroglyphs. Meanwhile, due to their un-methodical knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs, some Chinese scholars only mechanically applied liushu and
inevitably made some mistakes during their analysis of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Liushu, as a theory to analyze the structure of Chinese characters, is not suitable to
be adopted for an analysis of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Instead, the most important achievement of Xu Shen is the classification of Chinese characters in his book Shuowen
, a major conceptual innovation in the understanding of the Chinese writing system. He is the first to analyze the structure of the characters and to give the
rationale behind them, as well as the first to use the principle of organization by sections with shared components called bushou (radicals). Egyptologists should
borrow this idea to classify the hieroglyphs and compare the similarities or differences between the Egyptian determinatives/classifiers and Chinese bushou. This
study would do much help to understand the development of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the ancient Egyptian world view.


1 I am indebted to Dr. Renate Müller-Wollermann and Professor Wolfgang Schenkel, who led me into the field of the study of Egyptian hieroglyphs and provided me with materials out of my reach in China. Without their generous support and numerous suggestions, this paper would not have been written. Thanks are also due to Dr. Edmund Meltzer and the anonymous referees for their valuable comments.

2 For a sophisticated exposition of the problem, see J. M. Unger: Ideogram. Honolulu 2004.

3 A. Kircher: China Illustrata. Amsterdam 1667. English edition translated by C. D. van Tuyl. Muskogee 1986, p. 217.

4 R. Müller-Wollermann: “Ägyptische und chinesische Charaktere. Zur Entzifferungsgeschichte der Hieroglyphen im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert.” In: L. Gestermann and H. Sternberg-el Hotabi (eds.): Per aspera ad astra. Wolfgang Schenkel zum neunundfünfzigsten Geburtstag. Kassel 1995, pp. 91–105.

5 W. R. Dawson: “An Eighteenth-Century Discourse on Hieroglyphs.” In: Studies Presented to F. LL. Griffith. Oxford 1932, p. 466.

6 Ibid., p. 467.

7 Ibid., p. 468.

8 Bin Chun: Cheng Cha Biji (Notes-taking on Ship). In: Zhong Shuhe (ed.): Series of Going to the World. Changsha 1985, p. 105.

9 Zhang Dexin: Hanghai Shuqi (Description of Fabulous Things during Voyage). In: Zhong Shuhe (ed.): Series of Going to the World. Changsha 1985, p. 474.

10 Cf. A. W. Hummel (ed.): Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. Vol. II. Washington 1943, pp. 438–439.

11 Guo Songtao: Lundun Bali Riji (Diaries of London and Paris). In: Zhong Shuhe (ed.): Series of Going to the World. Changsha 1985, p. 874.

12 Song Yuren: Taixi Geguo Caifeng Ji (Collecting Stories from Countries Overseas). In: Wang Xiqi (ed.): Xiao Fanghu Zhai Yudi Congchao. Vol. 17. Hangzhou 1985, p. 11.

13 Cf. Hummel 1943, vol. II. pp. 836–839.

14 Wang Tao: Manyou Suilu (Description by a Roamer). In: Zhong Shuhe (ed.): Series of Going to the World. Changsha 1985, p. 80.

15 Cf. W. Müller-Yokota: “Die chinesische Schrift.” In: H. Günther/ O. Ludwig (eds.): Schrift und Schriftlichkeit. Writing and Its Use. Berlin 1994, pp. 362–371.

16 Shuowen Jiezi, known usually as the Shuowen. For the Chinese edition, cf. Xu Shen: Shuowen Jiezi (Explaining Pictographic Characters and Analyzing Composite Characters). Beijing 1963.

17 T.B.I. Creamer: “Shuowen Jiezi and Textual Criticism in China.” In: International Journal of Lexicography 2, 3 (1989), pp. 178–179.

18 In fact, the reality is far more complicated than such a linear development.

19 In fact, Chinese characters belong to a logophonetic system.

20 Ding Shan: “On the Origin of Chinese Characters.” In: Guoli Zhongshan Daxue Yuyan Lishi Yanjiusuo Zhoukan (Weekly of the Institute of Language and History, National Zhongshan University) 44/45 (1928), pp. 1–25.

21 Liang Qichao, a distinguished scholar, journalist, philosopher and reformist during the late Qing Dynasty and early Chinese Republic, who inspired Chinese scholars with writing and reform movements.

22 Li Dongfang: Foreword in: Niluohe yu Aiji zhi Wenming (The Nile and Egyptian Civilization, by A. Moret, Chinese edition translated by Liu Linsheng). Beijing 1941, pp. 1–8.

23 Huang Zunsheng: “The Organization of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Its Comparison with Chinese liushu.” In: Guoli Zhejiang Daxue Wenxueyuan Jikan (Journal of the Chinese Faculty of Zhejiang University) 2 (1942), pp. 1–15.

24 See W. Schenkel: “The Structure of Hieroglyphic Script.” In: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland News 15 (Aug., 1976), p. 4.

25 On the origin of the alphabet is a thorny question. Some scholars believe that the alphabet was developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and some others deny that the ancient Egyptian writing had anything to do with the contemporary alphabet. Nevertheless, Egypt undoubtedly plays an important role in the history of the alphabet. Cf. A. Roccati: “The alphabet(s) at a turning point: a view from Egypt.” In: P. Kousoulis/ K. Magliveras (eds.): Moving Across Borders. Foreign Relations, Religion and Cultural Interactions in the Ancient Mediterranean. Leuven 2007, pp. 327–335; J. F. Quack: “Die spätägyptische Alphabetreihenfolge und das ‚südsemitische' Alphabet.” In: Lingua Aegyptia: Journal of Egyptian Language Studies 11 (2003), pp. 163–184; G. J. Hamilton: The Origins of he West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts. Washington 2006, pp. 2–18.

26 Zhou Youguang: “The General Law of the Writing Evolution.” In: Zhongguo Yuwen (Chinese Philology) 7 (1957), pp. 1–6; For the detailed studies see Zhou Youguang: Shijie Wenzi Fazhan Shi (A History of the Development of World Writing). Shanghai 1997, pp. 4–10.

27 On his studies of the universal applicability of the liushu see Zhou Youguang: “A Comparison of Liushu between Hieroglyphs and Chinese Characters: One Example of the Universal Applicability of Liushu.” In: Yuyan Wenzi Yingyong (Applied Linguistics) 1 (1995), pp. 82–85; Zhou Youguang: “The Universal Applicability of Liushu.” In: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue (China Social Sciences) 5 (1996), pp. 153–167; Zhou Youguang 1997, pp. 147–168; Zhou Youguang: Bijiao Wenzixue Chutan (An Introduction into the Comparative Study of Writing). Beijing 1998, pp. 166–186.

28 Zhou Youguang: “The Brief Examples of the Universal Applicability of the Liushu.” In: Qun Yan 6 (2005), p. 34.

29 The meaning of ideogram remains debatable. For the changes in meaning of ideogram, see W. Schenkel: “Die Entzifferung der Hieroglyphen und Karl Richard Lepsius.” In: V. M. Lepper/ I. Hafemann (eds.): Karl Richard Lepsius. Der Begründer der deutschen Ägyptologie. Berlin 2012, pp. 59–61.

30 The ancient Egyptian word “night” as a combination of the sky and a star is seldom seen. There is an example in J. F. Champollion's Dictionnaire, see J. F. Champollion: Dictionnaire Egyptien. Paris 1843, p. 3.

31 Cf. Chen Yongsheng: Chinese Characters and Egyptian Hieroglyphs. A Comparative Study on the Methods of Word Recording (Hanzi yu Shengshuzi: Biaoci Fangshi Bijiao Yanjiu). Beijing 2013, pp. 36–41.

32 Gong Yushu/ Yan Haiying/ Ge Yinghui: Sumeier, Aiji Ji Zhongguo Guwenzi Bijiao Yanjiu (The Ancient Writing Systems from Sumer, Egypt and China: A Comparative Perspective). Beijing 2009.

33 Ibid., pp. 238–249.

34 This is certainly not a normal writing for “beer”. The normal writing is or for abbreviation.

35 For sound complements in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, see W. Schenkel: Tübinger Einführung in die klassisch-ägyptische Sprache und Schrift. Tübingen 2012, pp. 37–39.

36 Gong Yushu/ Yan Haiying/ Ge Yinghui 2009, pp. 280, 285.

37 Xiangxing is only a very small percentage of Chinese characters. In Shuowen Jiezi there are in total 9475 Chinese characters, among which only 364 are xiangxing, about 3.8%, 7697 are xingsheng, about 81%. In modern Chinese, the percentage of xingsheng is up to 90%.

38 As Wolfgang Schenkel pointed out, in hieroglyphic texts a vast majority of signs has a phonetic, rather than semantic function. See W. Schenkel: “Wie ikonisch ist die altägyptische Schrift?” In: Lingua Aegyptia: Journal of Egyptian Language Studies 19 (2011), pp. 125–153; in China, the word “hieroglyph” was mistranslated into Xiangxing Wenzi (pictograph), and this mistake is still widespread in most dictionaries, reference works, and textbooks. See Wang Haili: “Guanyu Gu Aiji Xiangxing Wenzi de Yiming Wenti.” (On the Mistranslation of the Term “Hieroglyph”) In: Shijie Lishi (World History) 5 (2003), pp. 52–57.

39 For a systematic and penetrating critique of this classification, see Tang Lan: Zhongguo Wenzixue (Study of Chinese Characters). Shanghai 1949, pp. 67–74.

40 Tang's sanshu: xiangxing, xiangyi, xingsheng. See Tang Lan 1949.

41 Chen's sanshu: xiangxing, jiajie, xingsheng. See Chen Mengjia: Yinxu Buci Zongshu (Reviews on the Oracle Inscriptions from Yin Dynasty Ruins). Beijing 1988; Qiu's sanshu: biaoyi, xingsheng, jiajie. See Qiu Xigui: Wenzixue Gaiyao (Chinese Writing). Beijing 1988; Liu's sanshu: biaoxing, jiajie, xingsheng. See Liu Youxin: Liu Youxin Yuyanxue Lunwenji (Collected Papers of Liu Youxin). Beijing 2005.

42 Cf. W. Müller-Yokota: “Die chinesische Schrift.” In: H. Günther/ O. Ludwig (eds.): Schrift und Schriftlichkeit. Writing and Its Use, pp. 362–371.

43 In Kangxi Zidian there are 214 bushou, and in Xinhua Zidian there are 189 bushou.

44 W. G. Boltz: “Shuo Wen Chieh Tzu.” In: M. Loewe (ed.): Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley 1993, p. 431.

45 P. L. M. Serruys: “On the System of the Pu Shou 部首 in the Shuo-wen Chieh-tzu 說文解字.” In: Zhongyang Yanjiuyuan Lishi Yuyan Yanjiusuo Jikan (Journal of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica) 55, 4 (1984), pp. 651–754.

46 For the history of “determinative” studies in Egyptology, see O. Goldwasser: “A Comparison between Classifier Language and Classifier Script. The Case of Ancient Egyptian.” In: G. Goldenberg/ A. Shisha-Halevy (eds.): Egyptian, Semitic and General Grammar. Studies in Memory of H. J. Polotsky. Jerusalem 2009, pp. 16–20.

47 See J. F. Champollion: Grammaire égyptienne, Chapters IV and V, pp. 70–161.

48 For examples, A. Gardiner: Egyptian Grammar. Oxford 31957, p. 31; J. Allen: Middle Egyptian. Cambridge 2000, p. 3; W. Schenkel: Tübinger Einführung in die klassisch-ägyptische Sprache und Schrift. Tübingen 1990, 2005, 2012, pp. 49–51.

49 Cf Gardiner 1957, pp. 31–33.

50 Cf. A. Erman: Ägyptische Grammatik. Berlin 1902, p. 6.

51 W. Schenkel: “Schrift.” In: W. Helck/ E. Otto (eds.), Lexikon der Ägyptologie. Vol. V. Wiesbaden 1984, col. 720.

52 Cf. F. Kammerzell: “Aristoteles, Derrida und ägyptische Phonologie. Zur systematischen Verschiedenheit von geschriebener und gesprochener Sprache.” In: Sesto congresso internazionale di egittologia. Atti. vol. II. Torino 1993, p. 248.

53 O. Goldwasser: From Icon to Metaphor. Studies in the Semiotics of the Hieroglyphs. Fribourg 1995 (Orbis biblicus et orientalis 142); O. Goldwasser: “The Determinative System as a Mirror of Word Organization.” In: Göttinger Miszellen 170 (1999), pp. 49–68; O. Goldwasser: Prophets, Lovers and Giraffes. Wor(l)d Classification in Ancient Egypt. Wiesbaden 2002; O. Goldwasser: “On the New Definition of Classifier Languages and Scripts.” In: V. M. Lepper (ed.): After Polotsky. New Research and Trends in Egyptian and Coptic Linguistics. Göttingen 2006, pp. 473–484; R. Shalomi-Hen: The Writing of Gods. The Evolution of Divine Classifiers in the Old Kingdom. Wiesbaden 2006; Antonio Loprieno used the term “lexical classifiers.” Cf. A. Loprieno: “Is the Egyptian Hieroglyphic Determinative Chosen or Prescribed?” In: L. Morra/ C. Bazzanella (eds.): Philosophers and Hieroglyphs. Torino 2003, pp. 237–250. Jean Winand also used the term “classificateur”. Cf. J. Winand: Les hiéroglyphes égyptiens. Paris 2013, pp. 30–48.

54 Goldwasser 2009, p. 16.

55 This text was originally written in hieratic, a more cursive version of the Egyptian script. Although the orthography of Egyptian scripts changed over time, the underlying system of the script remains still fundamentally the same. For the hieroglyphic text, see R. B. Parkinson: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. Oxford 1991 (repr. 2005).

56 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow,” and the other is a “woman”.

57 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow,” and the other is a “hoe”.

58 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow,” and the other is a “man”.

59 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow”, and the other is a “man”.

60 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow”, and the other is “grain of sand”.

61 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow”, and the other is a “man”.

62 The three words sꜣir, mꜣir (No. 21), mꜣiry (No. 22) are “mixed spellings” indicating a phonetic change from r to i. There is no uniform Egyptological convention for transliterating mixed spellings though Gardiner does address them. See E. Meltzer: “Remarks on Ancient Egyptian Writing with Emphasis on Its Mnemonic Aspects.” In: P. A. Kolers et al. (eds): Processing of Visible Language 2. London 1980, pp. 43–66, esp. p. 57.

63 Here are two determinatives, one is a “sparrow” and the other is a “man”.

64 A. Gardiner considered the sparrow as the “bad bird”. See Gardiner 1957, p. 471.

65 Gardiner sign-list Aa2.

66 Here implying that the bird is ready to eat.

67 Cf. G. Möller: Hieratische Paläographie. Vol. I. Leipzig 1965, No. 565, 566 vs. 582.

68 R. O. Faulkner: A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford 1981.

69 A. Erman/ H. Grapow: Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache. 5 vols. Berlin 1926–1931.

70 A. David: De l'infériorité à la perturbation. L'oiseau du « mal » et la catégorization en Égypte ancienne. Wiesbaden 2000, pp. 6–9.

71 Ibid., Chapters II, III, IV, pp. 15–48.

72 B. Kemp: 100 Hieroglyphs. Think like an Egyptian. London 2005, p. 56.

73 Xiaozhuan 小篆, lesser seal script, or small seal script, is an archaic form of Chinese calligraphy. It was standardized by Li Shi (李斯 c. 280–208 bce), the prime minister under the first Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (秦始皇 259–210 bce).

74 Duan Yunheng: “The Chinese Characters with Radical of the ‘Dog’ and Their Cultural Connotations.” In: Wenxuejie (The Literature World) 8 (2012), pp. 229–232.

75 In Muslim cultures, dogs are normally considered to be a kind of unclean animal. In China, only Korean and Han nationalities eat dogs, and other nationalities seldom eat dogs.

76 nḏs, a term characteristic for First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom documents, meaning “small man”, has been in the focus of many studies. However, the precise meaning of the word nḏsw still remains debatable. Detlef Franke pointed out that “Dem Lexem nḏs ‘der Kleine’ kommt keine soziologisch exakt definierbare Bedeutung als Bezeichnung einer Schicht oder Klasse zu, und es gibt folglich auch kein eigenes ‘Wert-system’ des nedjes.” See D. Franke: “Kleiner Mann (nḏs) – was bist Du?” In: Göttinger Miszellen 167 (1998), p. 46.

77 See David 2000, chapter IV, pp. 35–49. Much of that historical reconstruction, however, is very hypothetical; until now the exact causes for the decline of the Old Kingdom remain uncertain.

78 David 2000, introduction, p. 1.

79 Cf. Xiong Weimin: “The Movement of Killing Sparrows in 1950s in China.” In: Shehuikexue Luntan (Forum of Social Sciences) 8 (2012), pp. 179–195; Lei Yi: “The Sparrow Has Stories.” In: Yanhuang Chunqiu 2 (2009), pp. 60–63.

80 J. A. Wiens: “Granivorous Birds. A Perspective on Research Priorities.” In: International Studies on Sparrows 1 (1987), p. 13.

81 Cf. Goldwasser 2002, chapter 5, pp. 91–110.

82 E. Rosch: “Principles of Categorization.” In: E. Rosch/ B. Lloyd (eds.): Cognition and Categorization. Hillsdale 1978, pp. 28–49.

83 Goldwasser 2002, p. 19.

84 Ibid., p. 29.

85 Ibid., p. 20.

86 David 2000, pp. 31–33.

87 Rosch 1978, p. 35.

88 E.-S. Lincke: Die Prinzipien der Klassifizierung im Altägyptischen. Wiesbaden 2011, p. 29.

89 Cf. ibid., pp. 45–46; Anhang 2, pp. 151–159.

90 Ibid., pp. 37–43.


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