By Jack Lynch
The Erya (or Erh Ya) - the name means “approaching what is correct, proper, refined,” though it's sometimes translated as The Ready Guide - is the oldest dictionary of the Chinese language. The author is a mystery, and the traditional attribution to the Duke of Chou isn't taken seriously. The date, too, is a puzzler, though “scholars generally agree that it was written by Confucian scholars sometime between the Spring and Autumn period and early Han Dynasty (8th through 2nd centuries B.C.)” (Xue, p. 152). The third century BCE is a pretty good guess.
Erya contains glosses on just over 4,300 words drawn from pre - Qin Dynasty Chinese literature. It's hard to make reliable claims about works this old, but some have called it the first-ever monolingual dictionary in the world. It originally had twenty chapters, though only nineteen survive.
Chinese lacks an alphabet; the logographical system doesn’t have any obvious order. For a long time, Chinese dictionaries have been ordered according to the “radicals” of the Chinese characters, making it possible (though hardly easy) to find them in a reference book. When the Erya was compiled, though, that system had not yet been developed, so the anonymous creator organized his work by subject. This places the work in a middle ground between a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an encyclopedia. The first three chapters cover "common words" (verbs and grammatical function words), and chapters 4 through 19 define words from specialized areas: tools, plants, animals, kinship, the calendar, and so on.
Typical entries (I can't vouch for the diacritical marks, I'm afraid):
A woman calls her husband’s father jìu, and her husband’s mother gū. While alive they are called jūnjìu and jūngū. after their death they are called xiānjìuand xiāngū.
Water feeding into a stream is called xī, feeding into a xī is called gù, feeding into a gù is called gōu, feeding into a gōu is called kùai, feeding into a kùai is called dú.
The fèi fèi (baboon) looks like a human being. It has dishevelled hair, walks rapidly and eats humans. (Xue, p. 153)
The Erya's shortcomings — it's a fascinating book, but not especially useful as a practical reference — led to a series of commentaries over many centuries, including Guo Pu's Erya Zhu(Annotations on Erya, early fourth century), Xing Bing's Erya Shu (Explanations of Annotations on Erya, late tenth or early eleventh century), and Hao Yixing's Erya Zhengyi (Meaning Verification of Erya, late eighteenth century).
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Eryawas named one of the Thirteen Confucian Classics.
Xue Shiqui, “Chinese Lexicography Past and Present,” Dictionaries 4 (1982): 151–69
Endymion Porter Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Asia Center, 2000
Heming Yong and Jing Peng, Chinese Lexicography: A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008)
Jack Lynch is professor at Rutgers University in Newark, and author both scholarly and popular books. His blog is a companion to his in-progress book “You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Babylon to Wikipedia” forthcoming from Walker & Co. in 2013. This article was published in “You Could Look It Up” and is presented here by permission of the author.
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