Language, Likeness, and the Han Phenomenon of Convergence

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Language, Likeness, and the Han Phenomenon of Convergence

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Title: Language, Likeness, and the Han Phenomenon of Convergence
Author: Vihan, Jan
Citation: Vihan, Jan. 2012. Language, Likeness, and the Han Phenomenon of Convergence. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Although in the classical Chinese outlook the world can only be made sense of through the means devised by the ancient sages and handed down by the tradition, the art of exegesis has long been a neglected subject. Scholars have been all too eager to dispute what their chosen text says than to pay attention to the nuanced ways in which it hones its tools. This dissertation aims to somewhat redirect the discipline's attention by focusing on Xu Shen's Shuowen Jiezi. I approach this compendium of Han philology, typically regarded as a repository of disparate linguistic data, as underlied by a tight theoretical framework reducible to one simple idea. I begin with the discussion of the competing visions of the six principles, for two millenia the basis of instruction in the arts of letters. I identify the relationship between abstraction and representation and the principle of convergence as the main points of contention. I take Xu Shen's convergence to pertain to the Han practice of relating words through sound similarity. This in turn I interpret as one particular manifestation of dispositional categorization (類情), a fortunes turning term in the exegetical tradition of the Change. The third chapter illustrates Xu Shen's twin techniques of relating and differentiating along with the worldview of the Change from which they derive. It introduces the concepts of matching and extension, and pits them against their counterparts of mirroring and analogy. The leitmotifs of the fourth chapter are Xu Shen's argument against the arbitrariness of sign and the relationship between linguistic and cognitive categorization. The fifth chapter compares the Shuowen to other works of Han lexicography, character primers in particular. The phenomenon of paronomastic glossing is examined here in detail. I argue that Xu Shen's ordering of classical vocabulary on the basis of graphic resemblance and the concomitant explanations are but projections of paronomasia into the realm of semiotics. The final chapter situates this likeness driven interpretative strategy against earlier attitudes to language. I close by intimating the creative potential entailed in Xu Shen's recasting of fragmentary diachronic knowledge as a comprehensive synchronic system.
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