Xu Shen’s Scholarly Agenda A New Interpretation of the Postface of the Shuowen jiezi

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Timothy O'Neill



This article puts forward a new interpretation of the lexicographic method of the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 by rereading the original text and traditional commentaries through the lens of authorial intention. Within the paradigm of traditional Chinese hermeneutics, intentionality serves as the linchpin of philological methodology. The central argument of the article is that the lexicographic macrostructure and microstructures of the Shuowen are designed to prove that the changes in the writing systems are historically and graphemically observable, and consequently that the original intentions of the sages who used guwen to write the classics are literally recoverable by working backwards through the reforms and changes in writing to a proper understanding of how they classified and used their words in the guwen writing system. An annotated translation of the “Shuowen Postface” in light of this new interpretation concludes the discussion.

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