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  • About the Cover
  • David L. Howell

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details: Ge Zhongxuan 葛中選, “Da zhuang” 大壯, in Tailü 泰律, 12 juan 卷 in 6 vols. (ce 冊) (n.p.: Yunnan tushuguan, 1914), v. 3, j. 5, p. 2a (seq. 3),

Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The first time I saw the image on the cover of this issue of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, I had an uncanny feeling. Was that odd character in the center of the diagram real? Strange as it looked, how could it not be real, appearing as it did in a seventeenth-century text? Still, it brought to mind the artist Xu Bing’s 徐冰 Book from the Sky (Tianshu 天書), which looks like a set of old woodblock-print books but turns out to be composed entirely of gibberish characters of the artist’s own creation.

As it turns out, the character is not real, at least not in the sense of being legible as script. Rather, it is a compound phonetic symbol developed by Ge Zhongxuan 葛中選 on the model of qin 琴 (zither) tablature. As Nathan Vedal explains in his article in this issue, Ge developed his phonetic notation system with the aim of representing all sounds in speech, including those that had no corresponding Chinese characters. His choice of qin tablature reflected his understanding that a cosmological link connected linguistic speech and musical pitches. He developed these ideas in his magnum opus, Tailü 泰律 (Grand pitches, 1618).

The diagram conveys linguistic information contained in rhyme tables presented elsewhere in Tailü. The character in the center is an amalgam of components, each representing a particular linguistic sound; put together, the components represent a syllable inexpressible using existing Chinese characters. The diagram’s outer circle contains the names of musical pitches, including some of Ge’s own creation, each of which he believed could be correlated with a particular part of the syllable. Topping it all off are the characters da zhuang 大壯 (great strength), referring to a hexagram from the Yijing 易經. Ge created sixty-four of these diagrams, each corresponding to one of the Yijing’s sixty-four hexagrams, for each rhyme group in an attempt to catalog all possible sounds in the universe.

The linking of phonetics to the cosmology of the Yijing—not to mention the use of pseudo–Chinese characters to represent the [End Page vii] sounds—places Ge’s system off the family tree that would eventually yield the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, we should not conclude that his work was any less sophisticated than that of his European counterparts. Indeed, his linking of linguistic sounds and musical pitch anticipated by well over a century the work of philologists like Joshua Steele, who published his Prosodia Rationalis in 1779.1 The taxonomic urges of the early modern world took form in late Ming China, no less than in Georgian England. HJAS thanks the Harvard-Yenching Library for its kind permission to reprint the image. [End Page viii]


1. Joshua Steele, Prosodia Rationalis: or, an Essay towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech, to Be Expressed and Perpetuated by Peculiar Symbols, 2nd ed. (London: J. Nichols, 1779).



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