To Observe History With Words: from Chen Yinke’s View That “To Interpret a Character Is to Write a Cultural History”
Hou Xudong;Department of History, School of Humanities, Tsinghua University;
Chen Yinke's(陈寅恪) comments on the works of his contemporaries can be only one or two sentences but with profoundness. In April, 1936, Chen returned a letter to Shen Jianshi(沈兼士), making a comment on Shen's essay entitled An Exploration on the Original Meaning of the Character "鬼"(《"鬼"字原始意义之试探》), in which he said that to interpret a character is to write a cultural history. This is a good example of his comments on his contemporaries. His saying not only offered praise to Shen's essay, but also suggested an approach to observe history with characters or words. As most scholars at that time were deeply influenced by Western linguistics, they emphasized phonocentrism(语音中心主义). So few scholars responded to and followed Chen's inspiration. Today, when we review Chen's statement and make a study of the key words of general users and the occasions of their usages, we should not only focus on the evolution of Chinese characters, but also analyze their development. With the rethinking of the relationship between the Chinese language and Chinese characters, with the advancement of the research on Chinese common words, and with their continuous development in historical studies, to view history with words is expected to become a possible approach to historical studies.