The Current State of the Thesaurus Linguae Sericae


Christoph Harbsmeier

Comparative conceptual history is a vast subject with a long history in Europe. The currently available Thesaurus Linguae Sericae (henceforth TLS), is inspired by Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (1572) and Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (1740), and aims to provide a reliable platform for discussion of classical Chinese philology and conceptual history as these are relevangt to current developments in intellectual history.

The large corpus of classical Chinese TLS texts are arranged - like poetry - by normally four to ten Chinese character lines next to their translations wherever available and publicly publishable in this form. This is designed to facilitate quick comparison of each line of text with details of the best available translation.

One is thus not here faced with blocks of text next to a similar size blocks of translations, but with short (roughly dated) lines of text with their short translations. Each of these lines is open for systematic grammatical, lexicographic and rhetorical analysis on many levels within the database.

Each Chinese word in these lines can be linked to the TLS lexicon and can be annotated with regard to what exactly the words mean in the context, what rhetorical devices are present in the given line, and what systematic relations (like antonymy) are instantiated in these given lines.

The arrangement of the Chinese vocabulary in the TLS dictionary is in terms of semantic fields so that every word is placed next to other semantically related near-synonyms with which it should be compared for proper comprehension of the nuances of meaning.

The detailed meanings and nuances of Chinese words (always considered within their given semantic field) are defined in the TLS synonym dictionary of classical Chinese compiled under the general supervision of Jiang Shaoyu (Peking University).

For example, TLS starts out from the assumption that one understands the English word “beautiful” exactly to the extent that one understands how exactly “beautiful” differs from “pretty”, “nice”, “handsome”, “sexy” and how it is opposed to antonyms like “ugly”, “hideous”, “unattractive” etc. Similarly for classical Chinese words like 美,好 , and .

A central part of TLS thus has to be a comprehensive, succinct and systematic synonym dictionary of classical Chinese.

In addition an antonym dictionary is provided which aims to capture all text passages in which antonyms are in explicit contrast with each other.

In order to give an overall account of the cognitive features of the classical Chinese lexicon, TLS provides a taxonomic system of all semantic fields (or synonym groups) in which every semantic field has its logical place in a metalinguistically construed overall taxonomic ontology of semantic fields (or concepts).

On the basis of this abstract cognitive taxonomy the conceptual schemes of Chinese are made automatically comparable to those described in Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Synonyms of the Main Indo-European Languages (1942). All synonym groups are linked to Buck’s standard handbook and are defined so as to apply to any natural language.

Each semantic field (or synonym group) is attached to a bibliography/library of comparative linguistic material on the relevant conceptual schemes in different languages of the world.

So far, particular attention has been paid to the comparison of conceptual repertoires of Greek, Latin, French, Russian and German.

Chinese words are notoriously polysemous, i.e. they have many distinct meanings. Our best dictionaries like the Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典 and the Hanyu da zidian 漢語大字典 simply number these meanings in one flat numbered series. From the point of view of cognitive linguistics and systematic lexicography this is deeply unsatisfactory.

TLS attempts to explicitly derive all the meanings of a word directly or indirectly from its basic meaning(s). TLS thus constructs for each word a labelled taxonomic tree of derived meanings within different synonym groups. Every meaning attributed a word has an explicit labelled path of derivation back to a basic meaning. More than 1500 such labelled taxonomic trees for the diverse meanings of given Chinese characters have been drafted so far.

TLS thus attempts to show up the extent to which the polysemy of Chinese words is systemic and predictable - and thus learnable as a coherent and transparent system rather than as an unstructured and opaque list that needs to be blindly memorised.

The syntactic functions of Chinese words are found to differ significantly even among near synonyms. On the basis of three basic functional classes (nominals, verbals, and particles), TLS defines a systematic repertoire of syntactic functions in classical Chinese. (See C. Harbsmeier, “A Summary of Classical Chinese Analytic Syntax: the System of Basic Syntactic Categories” Problems in Chinese and General Linguistics, Sergey Yakhontov anniversary volume in honor of his 90th birthday, St. Petersburg: Studia NP-Print, 2016, pp. 525-577) Every word in TLS is assigned a set of syntactic functions which it has so far been registered to perform, in all cases with detailed reference to the primary sources with a working translation.

Rhetoric plays a central part in the hermeneutics and the linguistics of classical Chinese texts. TLS contains a taxonomically organised system of trans-cultural definitions for rhetorical devices from Chinese and Western rhetorical traditions. It has thus become possible to compare in detail the range and frequency of rhetorical devices in different Chinese text types, and between the Chinese and the Graeco-Latin traditions.

Historical phonetics is central everywhere, but especially within the realm of rhetoric. For all characters TLS offers Guangyun fanqie 《廣韻》反切 spellings, reconstructions of Old Chinese (by Pan Wuyun), Han Chinese (by A. Schuessler), Early Middle Chinese, and Late Middle Chinese (by E. Pulleyblank). However, we are aware that on historical phonology more detailed on-line resources have become available elsewhere.

The current state of the database may be consulted at

Christian Wittern, Kyoto University, is currently preparing an on-line version of this TLS version with a vastly enlarged textual corpus that will be annotatable by any number of registered users on-line. TLS will then make available for detailed systematic on-line annotation a fairly comprehensive reliable version of ancient Chinese texts.

All this is designed make classical Chinese accessible for cooperative comparative historical linguistics, comparative rhetorical analysis, and especially comparative conceptual history in the rich tradition of German Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history).

Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History. Translated by Todd Samuel Presner and Others, Foreword by Hayden White, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004 can give an idea how philological conceptual hermeneutics can become a crucial methodology for historical studies in general. TLS aims to create an infrastructure to make this feasible and pleasurable for the study of Chinese history in comparative perspective.