Making Friends with the Kangxi ZidianAn IntroductionTimothy Billings, Middlebury College April 2007 Begun by imperial commission in 1710 and completed in 1716, the Kangxi zidian (Kangxi Dictionary) was one of the great literary achievements of the Kangxi reign (1661-1722), along with the Peiwen yunfu (Rhyme Treasury of the Honoring Literature Library) completed in 1711, the Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems) completed in 1705, the Gujin tushu jicheng (Collection of Old and New Illustrations and Books) completed during the following reign in 1726, and the Manchu translation of the Xiyou ji (Journey to the West)all projects, writes Jonathan Spence, that gave lucrative employment, or at least short-term commissions, to numerous scholars. The Kangxi zidian was begun under the directorship of two eminent officials, Zhang Yushu (1642-1711) and Chen Tingjing (1639-1712), whose names are the only two listed in the work under the rubric of Zuanyue guan (Director General), even though both had passed away only a couple of years into the project. The dictionary contains an impressive number of 47,035 characters organized under 214 classifiers, which simultaneously expanded the scope of previous lexicons while making it easier to find characters under a reduced number of classifications. As with all comprehensive Chinese dictionaries, this reckoning of characters includes a significant percentage of graphic variantsabout 20,000 in the case of the Kangxi zidian (about 40%)as well as many hapax legomena and obsolete or rarely used characters. The oldest comprehensive dictionary and the classic of all Chinese lexicons is the Shuowen jiezi (An Explanation of Graphs and Analysis of Characters) by Xu Shen (c. 55 - c. 149), probably written between 100 to 125 AD, which contains 9,353 characters (according to Xu himself in a famous postface), of which 1,163 were variant forms, and also a dizzying number of 540 classifiers. Subsequent dictionaries all, naturally, based on the Shuowenhad gradually swollen the numbers. The Yupian (Jade Leaves) of 543, by Gu Yewang (519-581), had increased the number of characters to 22,561 under 542 classifiers; and the Leipian (Classified Leaves) of 1066, by Sima Guang (1019-1086) and others, increased the number further to 31,319 characters under 544 classifiers. Character classifiers were first reduced to a sensible number in the Zihui (Word Compilation) by Mei Yingzuo (fl. 1570-1615), published in 1615, which arranged characters under 214 classifiers, and was also the first to introduce the method used today of listing the number of strokes left after the classifier is isolated. The Kangxi zidian was printed in forty ce (volumes) and bears a preface from the red brush of the Kangxi emperor himself, as follows: Preface to the Kangxi Dictionary, Made by Imperial Command The Commentary on the Book of Changes says: In the earliest antiquity, they tied knots in string in order to rule, and in later generations the sages changed it into writing. When a hundred officials use it for ruling, innumerable citizens can see it. The unofficial history of the Offices ofMaking Friends with the Kangxi Zidian
the Zhou spread writing and names to all corners. When Lord Bao raised a prince, he taught him the six kinds of writing and examined literature, arranging it into three ranks. He probably did this to make a unifying rule for all things, and it was sufficient for helping disseminate his teachings on government. The small seal and the secretary scripts of ancient writing were passed down and altered with the generations, and it was only in the Han that there was first An Explanation of Graphs by Master Xu. But he emphasized meaning and somewhat neglected pronunciation, which is why people say that the Confucian scholars of the Han knew writing and characters but they did not know child and mother [i.e. finals and initials]; the Confucian scholars east of the Yangtze knew the four tones, but did not know the seven sounds. The diffusion of the seven sounds originated in the western regions and use the thirtysix characters for their initials, from which came the four tones, crossed by the seven sounds, and afterward all the sounds of the world came together in this. Often when I examine what is contained in the Book of Guanzi with respect to the people of the five areas, their speech is either clear or murky, or high or low, each one similar to the valleys or high plains, springs or soil, shallow or deep, broad or narrow, where it was born. For this reason the five sounds certainly have biases, and those who can completely master the seven sounds are few. These past eras of mutual commentaries to get the sounds have thus never been able to [establish rules] as clearly as a single stroke. After An Explanation of Graphs, those who were excellent in characters and writingthrough Jade Leaves in the Liang, through Vast Rhymes in the Tang, through Collected Rhymes in the Song, through Five Sounds Collection of Rhymes in the Jin, through the Rhyme Gathering in the Yuan, and through Correct Rhymes in the Mingall spread their knowledge in their time so that they could help later [generations] study. Those who transmitted [their knowledge] but were never popular still number in the tens to a hundred. Those editors all say they have not the slightest regret, but later scholars will offer criticism, and very many books agree or disagreesome that the number of included characters misses the mark by being too many or too few, some that the quotation of sources has not standard and is indiscriminate or negligent, some that there are characters that have several meanings that are not explained, and some that the pronunciation has several analyses that are not providedso that, never having had one [book] that was both excellent and beautiful, there was nothing to be presented as a standard classic that would endure. Every time I read widely in the commentaries on the classics, the pronunciations and meanings are complex and obscure, and each person protects his own explanations according to his individual view, so that it is not likely that any will communicate everything without gaps. Thus I have ordered the scholar officials to acquire all the old documents, then to arrange them and revise them. [In order to] determine pronunciations and analyze meanings, they used both An Explanation of Graphs and Jade Leaves, [as well as] Vast Rhymes, Collected Rhymes, Rhyme Gathering, and Correct Rhymes, in addition to individual pronunciations and explanations from other lexicons, so that nothing would be left behind or missed. When the quoted sources from all of these books were not enough, then from the classics, the histories, and the many offspring even of the Han, Jin, Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming, even including what poets and literary writers had to say, they left no page unturned if it was useful to be cited. Afterward, the dissimilarities between ancient and new character forms and the differences between the sounds in dialectics were separated into parts and arranged into classes so that you could open the book and immediately understand it without a single meaning that is unexplained or a single pronunciation that is not provided. After a total of five years, the book was finally finished. The imperial order says: A dictionary is undertaken to clarify the governing [of a country] through the use of a unified writing system, to enable anyone who studies and examines antiquity to gain full knowledge of the sources of [the different kinds of] characters, and so that senior officials, minor officials, and the people have something to follow. Thus, the preface.
Making Friends with the Kangxi Zidian
The nineteenth day of the third month of the fifty-fifth year, intercalary, of the Kangxi reign .
      Unsurprisingly, the emperors preface emphasizes that this lexicographical project belongs to the long tradition of ruling well by establishing the correct terms (the Confucian zheng ming ), but the more modern concern (beginning in the Tang dynasty) is the correct determination of pronunciationno small problem for a language that spans so much time and space. It is interesting to note that Teng and Biggerstaff report that the chief sources for the Kangxi zidian were the Zihui (1615) and the Zhengzi tong (1627), whereas the emperor names the more illustrious progenitors, Xu Shens Shuowen (c. 100) and Sima Guangs Leipian (1066). Despite (or perhaps because of) the many lexicographic precedents on which to base the dictionary, five years may have been too short a time for such an ambitious projectwhich was, according to one source, the amount of time granted by the emperor for it to be completed. The resulting haste produced a dictionary that, notwithstanding its fame, Victor Mair has described as actually quite sloppy and full of mistakes. These mistakes, largely misquotations of source passages, would remain for another century until the 1831 publication of a supplement, the Zidian kaozheng (Character Dictionary Textual Research), under the editorship of Wang Yinzhi (1766-1834), which corrected an estimated 2,588 errors. Deng Siyu
Making Friends with the Kangxi Zidian
and Knight Biggerstaff describe the further shortcomings of the Kangxi zidian as its inconvenient arrangement, the complicated, and occasionally inaccurate indication of pronunciation, and the frequently illogical classification of characters under certain radicals. Such imperfections may be regrettable for scholars, but they have not lessened the iconic value of the Kangxi zidian in the popular imagination as the last great modern d