The Etymology of Chinese Chen2 kaishu Chén

LTBA Volume 18.2


This issue is devoted entirely to an extraordinary monograph by Richard S. Cook, Jr., on the etymology of Mandarin chén, the fifth of the twelve "earthly branches" among the Chinese zodiacal symbols. Joining an impressive command of the Chinese philological and graphological tradition to a familiarity with matters astronomical and arachnological, Cook succeeds in demonstrating that chén actually represents a scorpion ready to strike, and is to be identified with the first magnitude red giant star Antares in the "breast" of the constellation Scorpio.

The monograph is interesting from many points of view, offering insight into such diverse matters as the traditional componential analysis of Chinese characters in the Shuowen, the connections between Chinese astronomical notions and those of the ancient Middle East, and the cultural associations of the scorpion in the Chinese worldview. The final section (# 12), admittedly the most speculative, undertakes a preliminary comparison of Chinese etyma related to 'scorpion' with those that can be reconstructed from Tibeto-Burman languages.

The erudition of the author is everywhere apparent, not least in the extensive apparatus of notes. Typographically, this is the most complex document ever published in LTBA. Produced entirely from the author's camera-ready copy, it includes small-seal, bronze, and oracle-bone Chinese characters, as well as Sumerographs, Cyrillic, Greek, and Arabic fonts, starmaps, and a variety of other illustrations and tables.

Exhaustive as it is, this monograph is conceived of as only the first part of a much larger work covering all 22 of the calendrical signs of the Sexagesimal Cycle of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (tiangandizhi). LTBA is pleased to help get this project off to its celestial start.

James A. Matisoff
Berkeley, January 1997

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Copies of LTBA Volume # 18.2 may be ordered by filliing out the order form at the LTBA website.

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