Rime book

This article is about a type of dictionary in ancient China. For the type of Western reference work used in poetry, see rhyming dictionary.

A rime dictionary, rhyme dictionary, or rime book (simplified Chinese: 韵书; traditional Chinese: 韻書; pinyin: yùnshū) is an ancient type of Chinese dictionary that collates characters by tone and rhyme, instead of by radical. The most important rime dictionary tradition began with the Qieyun (601), which aimed to reconcile the literary reading traditions and poetic practice of north and south China. This work became very popular during the Tang dynasty, and went through a series of revisions and expansions, of which the most famous is the Guangyun (1007–1008).

These dictionaries also record the pronunciation of characters by the fǎnqiè method, using a pair of characters to indicate the onset and remainder of the syllable respectively. In contrast, the later rime tables gave a significantly more precise and systematic account of the sounds of these dictionaries by tabulating syllables by their onsets, rhyme groups, tones and other properties. The phonological system inferred from these books, often interpreted using the rime tables, is known as Middle Chinese, and has been the key datum for efforts to recover the sounds of early forms of Chinese. It incorporates most of the distinctions found in modern varieties of Chinese, as well as some that are no longer distinguished. It has also been used together with other evidence in the reconstruction of Old Chinese (1st millennium BC).

Some scholars use the French spelling "rime", as used by the Swedish linguist Bernard Karlgren, for the categories described in these works, to distinguish them from the concept of poetic rhyme.


I have taken the sounds and the rhymes of the various specialists and the dictionaries of the ancients and moderns, and by arranging what those before me have recorded, I have made up the five volumes of the Qieyun. The splits and analyses are exceeedingly fine and the distinctions abundant and profuse.

Lu Fayan (601), Qieyun preface (tr. S.R. Ramsey)

The earliest rime dictionary was the Shēnglèi (聲類 lit. "sound types") by Li Deng (李登) of the Three Kingdoms period, containing more than 11,000 characters grouped under the five notes of the ancient Chinese musical scale. The book did not survive, and is known only from descriptions in later works.

The most important rime dictionary was the Qieyun, published by Lù Fǎyán (陸法言) in 601, during the Sui Dynasty, based on five earlier rime dictionaries that are no longer extant. According to Lu Fayan's preface, the initial plan of the work was drawn up 20 years earlier in consultation with a group of scholars, 3 from southern China and 5 from the north. However the final compilation was by Lu alone, after he had retired from government service.

As a guide to the recitation of literary texts and an aid in the composition of verse, the Qieyun quickly became popular during the Tang Dynasty. Revisions were produced by Zhǎngsūn Nèyán (長孫訥言) in 677, Wáng Rénxū (王仁煦) in 706, Sūn Miǎn (孫愐) in 720 and 751 (under the title Tángyùn 唐韻), and Lǐ Zhōu (李舟) in 763–784. In 1008, during the Song Dynasty, a group of scholars commissioned by the emperor produced an expanded revision called the Guangyun. The Jiyun (1037) was a greatly expanded revision of the Guangyun.[1]

From early in the Tang Dynasty, candidates in the imperial examination were required to compose poetry and rhymed prose in conformance with the rhyme categories of the Qieyun. However the fine distinctions made by the Qieyun were found overly restrictive by poets, and Xu Jingzong and others suggested more relaxed rhyming rules. For many generations of Chinese versifiers, the standard work to consult was the so-called Píngshuǐyùn (平水韻) first compiled during the Jin Dynasty, a simplified version of the Guangyun reducing the 206 rhyme groups to 106, reflecting contemporary pronunciations.

Until the mid-20th century, the oldest complete rime dictionaries known were the Guangyun and Jiyun, though extant copies of the latter were marred by numerous transcription errors. Thus all studies of the Qieyun tradition were actually based on the Guangyun. Fragments of earlier revisions of the Qieyun were found early in the century among the Dunhuang manuscripts, in Turfan and in Beijing.[2]

When the Qieyun became the national standard in the Tang dynasty, several copyists were engaged in producing manuscripts to meet the great demand for revisions of the work. Particularly prized were copies of Wáng Rénxū's edition, made in the early 9th century, by Wú Cǎiluán (呉彩鸞), a woman famed for her calligraphy. One of these copies was acquired by Emperor Huizong (1100–1026), himself a keen calligrapher. It remained in the palace library until 1926, when part of the library followed the deposed emperor Puyi to Tianjin and then to Changchun, capital of the puppet state of Manchukuo. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, it passed to a book dealer in Changchun, and in 1947 two scholars discovered it in a book market in Liulichang, Beijing. Studies of this almost complete copy have been published by the Chinese linguists Dong Tonghe (1948 and 1952) and Li Rong (1956).


The Qieyun and its successors all had the same structure. The characters were first divided between the four tones. Because there were more characters of the "level tone" (平聲 píngshēng), they occupied two juan (卷 "fascicle", "scroll" or "volume"), while the other three tones filled one volume each. The last category or "entering tone" (入聲 rùshēng) consisted of words ending in stops -p, -t or -k, corresponding to words ending in nasals -m, -n and -ng in the other three tones. These final stops are generally preserved in modern southern dialects, but have disappeared in northern dialects, including the standard language.

Each tone was divided into rhyme groups (韻 yùn), traditionally named after the first character of the group, called the 韻目 yùnmù ("rhyme eye"). The following shows the beginning of the first rhyme group of the Guangyun, with first character 東 ("east"):

Each rhyme group was subdivided into homophone groups preceded by a small circle called a 紐 niǔ ("button"). The entry for each character gave a brief explanation of its meaning. At the end of the entry for the first character of a homophone group was a description of its pronunciation, given by a fǎnqiè formula, a pair of characters indicating the initial (聲母 shēngmǔ) and final (韻母 yùnmǔ) respectively. The formula was followed by the character 反 fǎn (in the Qieyun) or the character 切 qiè (in the Guangyun), followed by the number of homophonous characters.[3] For example, the pronunciation of 東 was described using the characters 德 tok and 紅 huwng, indicating tuwng.[4] In the above sample, this formula is followed by the number 十七, indicating that there are 17 entries, including 東, with the same pronunciation.

The order of the rhyme groups within each volume does not seem to follow any rule, except that similar groups were placed together, and corresponding groups in different tones were usually placed in the same order. Where two rhyme groups were similar, there was a tendency to choose exemplary words with the same initial. The table of contents of the Guangyun marks adjacent rhyme groups as tóngyòng (同用), meaning they could rhyme in regulated verse. In the above sample, under the entry for the rhyme group 刪 in the last part the table of contents (on the right page) is the notation "同用山", indicating that this group could rhyme with the following group 山.

The following are the rhyme groups of the Guangyun, with their modern names and the finals they include (see next section). A few entries are re-ordered to place corresponding rhyme groups of different tones in the same row, and darker lines separate the tongyong groups:

Rhyme groups by tone[5] Finals by distribution class[6]
平 level 上 rising 去 departing 入 entering I/IV II mixed pure III
1-1. 東 dōng 3-1. 董 dǒng 4-1. 送 sòng 5-1. 屋 -uwng/k -juwng/k
1-2. 冬 dōng 4-2. 宋 sòng 5-2. 沃 -owng/k
1-3. 鍾 zhōng 3-2. 腫 zhǒng 4-3. 用 yòng 5-3. 燭 zhú -jowng/k
1-4. 江 jiāng 3-3. 講 jiǎng 4-4. 絳 jiàng 5-4. 覺 jué -æwng/k
1-5. 支 zhī 3-4. 紙 zhǐ 4-5. 寘 zhì -j(w)(i)e
1-6. 脂 zhī 3-5. 旨 zhǐ 4-6. 至 zhì -(j)(w)ij
1-7. 之 zhī 3-6. 止 zhǐ 4-7. 志 zhì -i
1-8. 微 wēi 3-7. 尾 wěi 4-8. 未 wèi -j(w)ɨj
1-9. 魚 3-8. 語 4-9. 御 -jo
1-10. 虞 3-9. 麌 4-10. 遇 -ju
1-11. 模 3-10. 姥 4-11. 暮 -u
1-12. 齊 3-11. 薺 4-12. 霽 -(w)ej
4-13. 祭 -j(w)(i)ejH
4-14. 泰 tài -(w)ajH
1-13. 佳 jiā 3-12. 蟹 xiè 4-15. 卦 guà -(w)ɛɨ
1-14. 皆 jiē 3-13. 駭 hài 4-16. 怪 guài -(w)ɛj
4-17. 夬 guài -(w)æjH
1-15. 灰 huī 3-14. 賄 huì 4-18. 隊 duì -woj
1-16. 咍 hāi 3-15. 海 hǎi 4-19. 代 dài -oj
4-20. 廢 fèi -j(w)ojH
1-17. 真 zhēn 3-16. 軫 zhěn 4-21. 震 zhèn 5-5. 質 zhì -(j)in/t
1-18. 諄 zhūn 3-17. 準 zhǔn 4-22. 稕 zhùn 5-6. 術 shù -(j)win/t
1-19. 臻 zhēn 5-7. 櫛 zhì -in/t
1-20. 文 wén 3-18. 吻 wěn 4-23. 問 wèn 5-8. 物 -jun/t
1-21. 欣 xīn 3-19. 隱 yǐn 4-24. 焮 xìn 5-9. 迄 -jɨn/t
1-22. 元 yuán 3-20. 阮 ruǎn 4-25. 願 yuàn 5-10. 月 yuè -j(w)on/t
1-23. 魂 hún 3-21. 混 hùn 4-26. 慁 hùn 5-11. 沒 méi -won/t
1-24. 痕 hén 3-22. 很 hěn 4-27. 恨 hèn -on
1-25. 寒 hán 3-23. 旱 hàn 4-28. 翰 hàn 5-12. 曷 -an/t
1-26. 桓 huán 3-24. 緩 huǎn 4-29. 換 huàn 5-13. 末 -wan/t
1-27. 刪 shān 3-25. 潸 shān 4-30. 諫 jiàn 5-15. 鎋 xiá -(w)æn/t
1-28. 山 shān 3-26. 產 chǎn 4-31. 襉 jiàn 5-14. 黠 xiá -(w)ɛn/t
2-1. 先 xiān 3-27. 銑 xiǎn 4-32. 霰 xiàn 5-16. 屑 xiè -(w)en/t
2-2. 仙 xiān 3-28. 獮 xiǎn 4-33. 線 xiàn 5-17. 薛 xuē -j(w)(i)en/t
2-3. 蕭 xiāo 3-29. 篠 xiǎo 4-34. 嘯 xiào -ew
2-4. 宵 xiāo 3-30. 小 xiǎo 4-35. 笑 xiào -j(i)ew
2-5. 肴 yáo 3-31. 巧 qiǎo 4-36. 效 xiào -æw
2-6. 豪 háo 3-32. 晧 hào 4-37. 號 hào -aw
2-7. 歌 3-33. 哿 4-38. 箇 -a -ja
2-8. 戈 3-34. 果 guǒ 4-39. 過 guò -wa -jwa
2-9. 麻 3-35. 馬 4-40. 禡 -(w)æ -jæ
2-10. 陽 yáng 3-36. 養 yǎng 4-41. 漾 yàng 5-18. 藥 yào -j(w)ang/k
2-11. 唐 táng 3-37. 蕩 dàng 4-42. 宕 dàng 5-19. 鐸 duó -(w)ang/k
2-12. 庚 gēng 3-38. 梗 gěng 4-43. 映 yìng 5-20. 陌 -(w)æng/k -j(w)æng/k
2-13. 耕 gēng 3-39. 耿 gěng 4-44. 諍 zhèng 5-21. 麥 mài -(w)ɛng/k
2-14. 清 qīng 3-40. 靜 jìng 4-45. 勁 jìng 5-22. 昔 -j(w)ieng/k
2-15. 青 qīng 3-41. 迥 jiǒng 4-46. 徑 jìng 5-23. 錫 -(w)eng
2-16. 蒸 zhēng 3-42. 拯 zhěng 4-47. 證 zhèng 5-24. 職 zhí -(w)ing/k
2-17. 登 dēng 3-43. 等 děng 4-48. 嶝 dèng 5-25. 德 -(w)ong/k
2-18. 尤 yóu 3-44. 有 yǒu 4-49. 宥 yòu -juw
2-19. 侯 hóu 3-45. 厚 hòu 4-50. 候 hòu -uw
2-20. 幽 yōu 3-46. 黝 yǒu 4-51. 幼 yòu -jiw
2-21. 侵 qīn 3-47. 寑 qǐn 4-52. 沁 qìn 5-26. 緝 -(j)im/p
2-22. 覃 tán 3-48. 感 gǎn 4-53. 勘 kàn 5-27. 合 -om/p
2-23. 談 tán 3-49. 敢 gǎn 4-54. 鬫 kàn 5-28. 盍 -am/p
2-24. 鹽 yán 3-50. 琰 yǎn 4-55. 豔 yàn 5-29. 葉 -j(i)em/p
2-25. 添 tiān 3-51. 忝 tiǎn 4-56. 㮇 tiàn 5-30. 怗 tiē -em/p
2-26. 咸 xián 3-53. 豏 xiàn 4-58. 陷 xiàn 5-31. 洽 qià -ɛm/p
2-27. 銜 xián 3-54. 檻 kǎn 4-59. 鑑 jiàn 5-32. 狎 xiá -æm/p
2-28. 嚴 yán 3-52. 儼 yǎn 4-57. 釅 yàn 5-33. 業 -jæm/p
2-29. 凡 fán 3-55. 范 fàn 4-60. 梵 fàn 5-34. 乏 -jom/p

Phonological system

The rime dictionaries have been intensively studied as important sources on the phonology of medieval Chinese, and the system they reveal has been dubbed Middle Chinese. Since the Qieyun itself was believed lost until the mid-20th century, most of this work was based on the Guangyun.

The books exhaustively list the syllables and give pronunciations, but do not describe the phonology of the language. This was first attempted in the rime tables, the oldest of which date from the Song dynasty, but which may represent a tradition going back to the late Tang dynasty. Though not quite a phonemic analysis, these tables analysed the syllables of the rime books using lists of initials, finals and other features of the syllable. The initials are further analysed in terms of place and manner of articulation, suggesting inspiration from Indian linguistics, at that time the most advanced in the world. However the rime tables were compiled some centuries after the Qieyun, and many of its distinctions would have been obscure. Edwin Pulleyblank treats the rime tables as describing a Late Middle Chinese stage, in contrast to the Early Middle Chinese of the rime dictionaries.

Structural analysis

In his Qièyùn kǎo (1842), the Cantonese scholar Chen Li set out to identify the initial and final categories underlying the fanqie spellings in the Guangyun. The system was clearly not minimal, employing 452 characters as initial spellers and around 1200 as final spellers. However no character could be used as a speller for itself, and one could assume, for example, that since 德 was used as an initial speller for 東 that these words must have had the same initial. By following chains of such equivalences Chen was able to identify categories of equivalent initial spellers, and similarly for the finals. More common segments tended to have the most variants. Words with the same final would rhyme, but a rhyme group might include between one and four finals with different medial glides, as seen in the above table of rhyme groups. The inventory of initials Chen obtained resembled the 36 initials of the rime tables, but with significant differences. In particular the "light lip sounds" and "heavy lip sounds" of the rime tables were not distinguished in the fanqie, while each of the "proper tooth sounds" corresponded to two distinct fanqie initial categories.[7]

Unaware of Chen's work, the Swedish linguist Bernard Karlgren repeated the analysis identifying the initials and finals in the 1910s. The initials could be divided into two broad types: grave initials (labials, velars and laryngeals), which combine with all finals, and acute initials (the others), with more restricted distribution. Like Chen, Karlgren noted that in syllables with grave initials, the finals fell into two broad types, now usually referred to (following Edwin Pulleyblank) as types A and B. He also noted that these types could be further subdivided into four classes of finals distinguished by the initials with which they could combine. These classes partially correspond to the four rows or "divisions", traditionally numbered I–IV, of the later rime tables. The observed combinations of initials and finals are as follows:

Co-occurrence of classes of initials and finals in the Qieyun
Final class
Type A Type B
I/IV II mixed pure III
grave labials yes yes yes yes
acute dentals yes
retroflex stops yes yes
lateral yes yes
dental sibilants yes yes
retroflex sibilants yes yes
palatals yes
grave velars and laryngeals yes yes yes yes
Rows of the rime tables I IV II II–IV III

Some of the "mixed" finals are actually pairs of type B finals after grave initials, with two distinct homophone groups for each initial, but a single final after acute initials. These pairs, known as chongniu, are also marked in the rime tables by splitting them between rows III and IV, but their interpretation remains uncertain. There is no also consensus regarding which final of the pair should be identified with the single final occurring after acute initials.

Reconstructed sound values

Karlgren also sought to determine the phonetic values of the abstract categories yielded by the formal analysis, by comparing the categories of the Guangyun with other types of evidence, each of which presented their own problems. The Song dynasty rime tables applied a sophisticated featural analysis to the rime books, but were separated from them by centuries of sound change, and some of their categories are difficult to interpret. The so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations, readings of Chinese loanwords in Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, were ancient, but affected by the different phonological structures of those languages. Finally modern varieties of Chinese provided a wealth of evidence, but often influenced each other as a result of a millennium of migration and political upheavals. After applying a variant of the comparative method in a subsidiary role to flesh out the rime dictionary evidence, Karlgren believed that he had reconstructed the speech of the Sui-Tang capital Chang'an.

Later workers have refined Karlgren's reconstruction. The initials of the Qieyun system are given below with their traditional names and approximate values:

Stops and affricates Nasals Fricatives Approximants
Tenuis Aspirate Voiced Tenuis Voiced
Labials [p] [pʰ] [b] [m]
Dentals [t] [tʰ] [d] [n]
Retroflex stops [ʈ] [ʈʰ] [ɖ] [ɳ]
Lateral [l]
Dental sibilants [ts] [tsʰ] [dz] [s] [z]
Retroflex sibilants [tʂ] [tʂʰ] [dʐ] [ʂ] [ʐ]
Palatals [tɕ] [tɕʰ] [dʑ] [ɲ] [ɕ] [ʑ] [j]
Velars [k] [kʰ] [ɡ] [ŋ]
Laryngeals [ʔ] [x] / [ɣ]

In most cases, the simpler inventories of initials of modern varieties of Chinese can be treated as varying developments of the Qieyun initials. The voicing distinction is retained in Wu Chinese dialects, but has disappeared from other varieties. Except in the Min Chinese dialects, a labiodental series has split from the labial series, a development already reflected in the Song dynasty rime tables. The retroflex and palatal sibilants had also merged by that time. In Min dialects the retroflex dentals have merged with the dentals, while elsewhere they have merged with the retroflex sibilants. In the south these have also merged with the dental sibilants, but the distinction is maintained in most Mandarin Chinese dialects. The palatal series of modern Mandarin dialects, resulting from a merger of palatal allophones of dental sibilants and velars, is a much more recent development.

Assigning phonetic values to the finals has proved more difficult, as many of the distinctions reflected in the Qieyun have been lost over time. Karlgren proposed that type B finals contained a palatal medial /j/, a position that is still accepted by most scholars. However Pulleyblank, noting the use of these syllables in the transcription of foreign words without such a medial, claims the medial developed later. A labiovelar medial /w/ is also widely accepted, with some syllables having both medials. The codas are believed to reflect those of many modern varieties, namely the glides /j/ and /w/, nasals /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/ and corresponding stops /p/, /t/ and /k/. Some authors argue that the placement of the first four rhyme groups in the Qieyun suggests that they had distinct codas, reconstructed as labiovelars /ŋʷ/ and /kʷ/. Most reconstructions posit a large number of vowels to distinguish the many Qieyun rhyme classes that occur with some codas, but the number and the values assigned vary widely.[8]

The Chinese linguist Li Rong published a study of the early edition of the Qieyun found in 1947, showing that the expanded dictionaries had preserved the phonological structure of the Qieyun intact, except for a merger of initials /dʐ/ and /ʐ/. For example, although the number of rhyme groups increased from 193 in the earlier dictionary to 206 in the Guangyun, the differences are limited to splitting rhyme groups based on the presence or absence of a medial glide /w/.[9]

However the preface of the recovered Qieyun suggests that it represented a compromise between northern and southern reading pronunciations. Most linguists now believe that no single dialect contained all the distinctions recorded, but that each distinction did occur somewhere.[10] For example, the Qieyun distinguished three rhyme groups 支, 脂 and 之 (all pronounced zhī in modern Chinese), although 支 and 脂 were not distinguished in parts of the north, while 脂 and 之 rhymed in the south. The three groups are treated as tongyong in the Guangyun and have merged in all modern varieties. Although Karlgren's identification of the Qieyun system with a Sui-Tang standard is no longer accepted, the fact that it contains more distinctions than any single contemporary form of speech means that it retains more information about earlier stages of the language, and is a major component in the reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology.


Tangut was the language of the Western Xia state (1038–1227), centred on the area of modern Gansu. The language had been extinct for four centuries when an extensive corpus of documents in the logographic Tangut script were discovered in the early 20th century. One of the sources used to reconstruct the Tangut language is the Sea of Characters pinyin: Wénhǎi), a rhyme dictionary written entirely in Tangut, but with the same structure as the Chinese dictionaries. The dictionary consists of one volume each for the Tangut level and rising tones, with a third volume of "mixed category" characters, whose significance is unclear. As with the Chinese dictionaries, each volume is divided into rhymes, and then into homophone groups separated by a small circle. The pronunciation of the first Tangut character in each homophone group is given by a fanqie formula using a pair of Tangut characters. Mikhail Sofronov applied Chen Li's method to these fanqie to construct the system of Tangut initials and finals.

See also



Works cited

External links

  • Scanned books at the Chinese Text Project:
    • dictionary lookup
    • , by Chen Li (1842)
  • Bibliothèque nationale de France:
    • (BNF link): prefaces of the Qieyun and Tangyun
    • (BNF link): part of the preface, rhyme index and start of the first rhyme group (東 dōng)
    • (BNF link): fragment of volume 5 showing the 怗 tiē, 緝 and 藥 yào rhyme groups
  • Qieyun fragments brought from Dunhuang by Aurel Stein, now in the British Library (only S.5980 has been scanned):
    • : substantial portion of the level, rising and entering tones.
    • : preface (dated 677) and first 9 rhymes of the level tone, with somewhat fuller entries than S.2071.
    • smaller fragments: , , , , , , .
  • Qieyun fragments from Turfan, Tuyoq and Kucha, now in the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (in the , select "Short Title" and choose "Qie yun or Rhyme dictionary"; see Takata (2004) for discussion):
    • , , , , , , , , : manuscript fragments
    • , , , , , , : fragments of a block print edition
    • : fragment from an enlarged edition used by Uighurs
  • Sea of Characters, a Tangut rhyme dictionary:
    • Andrew West.
    • "Untangling the Web of Characters", by Andrew West, April 2010.
    • Marc Miyake, June 2011.
    • fragments held by the British Library: , ,
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.