淸 情 靜 精 性 生 名 明 命 盈 常

One characteristic of the oldest Chinese texts noted by David Schaberg is significant throughout the history of Chinese culture. During the Shang and early Zhou dynasties, the royal style of command required a special language: “The bronze inscriptions and the oldest Zhou songs favor phrases ending in words with –ng finals, whether or not these words make for rhymes. Words that rhyme in the yang 陽 (OC –ang) dong 東 (OC –ng) and 耕 geng (OC –eng) categories include many of the most important words in this special language”, with –n words (元 yuan, 真 zhen, and 文 wen categories) being drawn into the pattern as well.

While this is not rhyme in the strict sense but rather consonance (the alliteration of word-endings), as Schaberg says, in the DDJ and other texts these words frequently function as rhyme-words. Many -ng and -n words are technical terms in Daoist writing and other Chinese philosophy, and a single phonetic group provides four of the key terms of Daoism: 生 sheng “life”, 淸 qing “clear, pure”, 精 jing “germ, essence”, and 靜 jing “still, peaceful, obedient” (Karlgren 812, Schuessler 2009 #9-25). Furthermore, two words from this phonetic group which are not found in the DDJ — 性 xing “nature” and 情 qing “feelings / reality” — are central for other Chinese philosophers. Other such words in the DDJ include 常”chang constant”, 恆 heng “constant”, 強 qiang “strong”, 命 ming “fate”, 盈 ying ”full”, 正 zheng “right”, 名 ming “name”, 明 ming “bright”, 貞 zhen “firm”, 真 zhen “real” and ding 定 “established”. Likewise, in Confucianism such terms as 讓 rang “deference”, 敬 jing “reverence”, 忠 zhong “loyalty, diligence”, and 誠 cheng “sincerity” were also of central importance. Both these lists could both be extended.

Often -eng and -en words cluster in thematic groups. Two such groups appear in more than one chapter of the DDJ. Chapters 15, 37, 39, 45, and 57 all include at least two words from the group 清静正貞定; chapters 33, 52, and 55 all include at least two words from the group 常明强; and chapter 16 includes words from both groups. (The first of these groups also provides a very high proportion of the rhymes in the “Nei Ye” chapter of Guanzi, which is often thought to be closely related to the DDJ, but none of the rhymes from the second group are used there).淸 情 靜 精 性 生 名 明 命 盈 常

These words are often written in nonstandard forms or replaced by synonyms or near-synonyms, usually from the same rhyme category. This is because of, rather than despite, their cultural weight. According to Chinese custom the use of the personal names of Emperors for a period after their deaths is forbidden, and since honorific terms from the -ng and -n groups were often used as personal names, from time to time one or another of these words would be tabooed. Well-known examples of taboo avoidance in some tests of the DDJ include 常 chang for 恆 heng, “constant”; 滿 man for 盈 ying, “full”; 國 guo for 邦 bang, “state”; and 元 yuan “primal” for 玄 xuan “mysterious”.

In the Guodian and Mawangdui A texts of the DDJ the words 静 and 正 are are almost always replaced by other words or written in nonstandard forms, and it is reasonable to suppose that this is for reasons of taboo. Where the Wang Bi text has the word 静 jing “peaceful, still”, the Guodian text always has a different word. In chapter 45 you see 清 qing “clear”, in chapter 57 you see 青 qing “green”, in chapter 16 you see 中 zhong “center”, and in chapter 15 and 37 you see the mysterious (and uninterpretable by me) 朿 ci “stab, pierce” [?]. In the MWD A text you see 静 in its usual form once, in chapter 57, and in its alternative written form 靚 in chapters 45 and 61, but in chapter 26 you see 清 and in chapters 15 and 37 you see 情 qing “reality / feelings”.

The word 正 zheng “right”, frequently paired with 静, is often replaced by 定 ding “established” or zhen 貞 “firm“. Neither of these words is either a cognate or a synonym, but both are in a “good” rhyme class and both have a recognizably “good” meaning*. When I first found out that in chapter 37 of the Mawangdui text you see 正 where the standard Wang Bi text has 定, I took this to mean 正 was the correct form (since that fit my interpretation). However, later on when the much older Guodian text was discovered, 定 showed up again. Apparently 定 and 正 have been alternating (in an appropriately Daoist fashion) since the beginning of time, making it futile to try to figure out the original version, and that for the same reason, time spent pondering the differences in meaning between 定 and 正 would be time wasted. (However, based on later texts and the preponderance of evidence and in the interest of thematic consistency, I believe that 静 and 正 are the best choices).

The 青 qing phonetic group is of special interest for an additional reason. The words of this group are not just phonetically cognate, their meanings are also related, or are thought to be. Furthermore, and none of them are neutral terms – all have moral, aesthetic, or political weight, and usually all three. Life is nature, life is green, nature is essence, essence is alive, essence is nature, feelings are nature, and life is (or should be) clear and still. In his etymological dictionary (2007, pp. 431-2, 459, 532) Schuessler finds cognates of many of these words in several Tibeto-Burman language related to Chinese (albeit rather distantly), and he even finds some of the same semantic associations as in Chinese between Tibeto-Burman words in this family. (Which is perhaps not terribly surprising: in French and English “green / vert” also can mean “fresh, new, young, full of vigor”).

The reader may have noticed that I have been giving the contemporary Chinese pronunciations of these words. This is only possible because these rhymes have all survived into modern Chinese, making it unnecessary to use the reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciations. In Chinese linguistic history this is not at all typical – many or most of the traditional written phonetics have been rendered useless by phonetic evolution. For example, in Old Chinese the characters 殆, 怡, 始, 治, and 笞were respectively pronounced ləʔ, lǝ, lhǝʔ, r-lǝ, and r-lhǝ, all sharing the 台 phonetic and the lǝ sound (Schuessler 4-30) , but in Modern Chinese there is no phonetic relationship between them at all: dai, yi, shi, zhi, and chi. This is an extreme case, but only a minority of the Old Chinese phonetics are helpful for someone learning modern Chinese.

If you allow speculation free rein, you find yourself wondering whether the central cultural importance of so many of the -ng and -n words might be one of the reasons why words in these rhyme categories remained stable while other phonetic groups were fragmenting into dissimilar groups. For example, it is said that the reason why English has two different –th– sounds (now written identically, though they were distinguished in Old English) is that the few words still written with the initial consonant of “the, this, that, then, they” (rather than the initial consonant of “thing, theory, thank, through”) are used so often and have such central importance that their pronunciation hasn’t evolved according to the normal pattern, which would have led to the eventual disappearance of the phoneme. Perhaps these words and their associations are deeply buried in the linguistic subconscious, not just in the ancient (but still living) language of Chinese high culture but all the way back to proto-Sino-Tibetan.

Finally, a second speculation. Our English-language literate culture is written in a Germanic language, but to trace it to its earliest roots you have to pass through French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Egyptian, and Sumerian. At each cultural transition some of the linguistic particulars and poeticisms of the earlier language were stripped away and lost, eventually producing a lexically- and phonetically-mixed language and culture which has forgetten most of the archaic poeticisms and word-associations of the earliest time. By contrast, when you trace Chinese literate culture back to its beginnings you will always be dealing with some version of Chinese – influenced but never replaced by Buddhist languages and by the neighboring non-Chinese languages. Thus, 3000 years of Chinese writing have continuity not only in written form and in content, but even in phonetics and poetics. Tsheng is qing, dzengʔ is jing, sengh is xing and sreng is sheng, all of them still cognates, and it’s 青清情靜精性生正 all the way down.


It would seem that a word group as big as GSR 976 would have a few negative words in it, but very few of the qing jing xing sheng words have a fundamentally bad meaning or even an imaginable bad meaning. The best slurs I could come up from this lexicon are 腥 狌 xingsheng “rotten weasel“ and 悻 猩 xingxing “enraged chimp” (and thelatter sound exactly the same as the actual name of that animal). Perhaps better examples could be found in Arthur Smith’s Proverbs and Sayings.

Sometimes the reliance on phonetic associations becomes excessive. I have seen 明 ming “bright” glossed with 冥 ming “dim”, and 名 ming “name” glossed with 鳴 ming “call, cry”.


Bernhard Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa, Stockholm, 1952.

Christopher Lupke, ed., The Magnitude of Ming, Hawai’i, 2005.

David Schaberg, “Command and the Content of Tradition”, in Lupke, pp. 23-48 (especially “Sound Patterning”, pp. 37-41).

Axel Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese, Hawai’i, 2009.

Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, Hawai’i, 2007. pp. 24, 431-2, 459, 532.

Published in: on November 20, 2009 at 8:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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