The Erya is the oldest extant Chinese dictionary. Bernhard Karlgren (1931: 49) concluded that "the major part of its glosses must reasonably date from" the 3rd century BC.

Chinese scholars interpret the first title character er" (; "you, your; adverbial suffix") as a phonetic loan character for the homophonous er (; "near; close; approach"), and believe the second ya (雅; "proper; correct; refined; elegant") refers to words or language. According to W. South Coblin (1993: 94): "The interpretation of the title as something like 'approaching what is correct, proper, refined' is now widely accepted." It has been translated as "The Literary Expositor," "The Ready Rectifier" (both by James Legge), and "Progress Towards Correctness" (A. von Rosthorn).

The book's author is unknown. Although it is traditionally attributed to the Duke of Zhou, Confucius, or his disciples, scholarship suggests that someone compiled and edited diverse glosses from commentaries to pre-Qin texts, especially the Shijing. The Erya was considered the authoritative lexicographic guide to Chinese classic texts during the Han Dynasty, and it was officially categorised as one of the Thirteen Confucian Classics during the Song Dynasty. The best-known textual annotations include the Western Jin Dynasty Erya zhu (爾雅注; "Erya Commentary") by Guo Pu (郭璞; 276-324 CE), the Northern Song Dynasty Erya shu (爾雅疏; "Erya Subcommentary") by Xing Bing (邢昺; 931-1010), the Song Dynasty Eryayi (爾雅翼; "Wings to the Erya") by Luo Yuan (羅願; 1136-1184), and the Qing Dynasty Erya zhengyi (爾雅正義; "Correct Meanings of the Erya") by Shao Jinhan (邵晋涵; 1743-1796) and Erya yishu (爾雅義疏 "Subcommentary on Meanings of the Erya") by Hao Yixing (郝懿行; 1757-1825).

The Erya has been described as a dictionary, glossary, synonymicon, thesaurus, and encyclopaedia. Karlgren (1931: 46) explains that the book "is not a dictionary in abstracto, it is a collection of direct glosses to concrete passages in ancient texts." The received text contains 2094 entries, covering about 4300 words, and a total of 13,113 characters. It is divided into nineteen sections, the first of which is subdivided into two parts. The title of each chapter combines shi ("explain; elucidate") with a term describing the words under definition. Seven chapters (4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 18, and 19) are organized into taxonomies. For instance, chapter 4 defines terms for: paternal clan (宗族), maternal relatives (母黨), wife's relatives (妻黨), and marriage (婚姻). The text is divided between the first three heterogeneous chapters defining abstract words and the last sixteen semantically-arranged chapters defining concrete words. The last seven – concerning grasses, trees, insects and reptiles, fish, birds, wild animals, and domestic animals – describe more than 590 kinds of flora and fauna. It is a valuable document of natural history and historical biogeography.


Chapter Chinese Pinyin Translation Subject
1 釋詁 Shigu
 Explaining Old Words
verbs, adjectives, adverbs, grammatical particles
2 釋言 Shiyan
 Explaining Words
verbs, adjectives, adverbs
3 釋訓 Shixun
 Explaining Instructions
adjectives, adverbs, mostly with reduplication
4 釋親 Shiqin
 Explaining Relatives
kinship, marriage
5 釋宮 Shigong
 Explaining Dwellings
architecture, engineering
6 釋器 Shiqi
 Explaining Utensils
tools, weapons, clothing, and their uses
7 釋樂 Shiyue
 Explaining Music
music, musical instruments, dancing
8 釋天 Shitian
 Explaining Heaven
astronomy, astrology, meteorology, calendar
9 釋地 Shidi
 Explaining Earth
geography, geology, some regional lore
10 釋丘 Shiqiu
 Explaining Hills
topography, Fengshui terms
11 釋山 Shishan
 Explaining Mountains
mountains, famous mountains
12 釋水 Shishui
 Explaining Rivers
rivers, navigation, irrigation, boating
13 釋草 Shicao
 Explaining Plants
grasses, herbs, grains, vegetables
14 釋木 Shimu
 Explaining Trees
trees, shrubs, some botanical terms
15 釋蟲 Shichong
 Explaining Insects
insects, spiders, reptiles, etc.
16 釋魚 Shiyu
 Explaining Fishes
fish, amphibians, crustaceans, reptiles, etc.
17 釋鳥 Shiniao
 Explaining Birds
wildfowl, ornithology
18 釋獸 Shishou
 Explaining Beasts
wild animals, legendary animals
19 釋畜 Shichu
 Explaining Domestic Animals
livestock, pets, poultry, some zoological terms

In the history of Chinese lexicography, nearly all dictionaries were internally organized with systems of character radicals, first introduced in the Shuowen Jiezi. However, a few notable exceptions followed the Erya's arrangement by semantic categories like Heaven and Earth. The Ming Dynasty scholar Lang Kuijin (郎奎金) categorized and published the Wuya (五雅 "Five [Er]yas"): Erya, Xiao Erya ("Little Erya"), Guangya ("Expanded Erya"), Piya ("Increased Erya"), and Yìyǎ ("Lost Erya" or the Shiming). Chinese leishu ("reference works arranged by categories; encyclopedias"), such as the Yongle Encyclopedia, were also semantically arranged.

Owing to its laconic lexicographical style, the Erya is the only Chinese classic that has not been fully translated into English. However, there are several unpublished PhD dissertations translating particular chapters.

See also


  • Coblin, W. South. (1993). "Erh ya" in Michael Loewe (ed.), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, pp 94–99 (Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China) ISBN 1-55729-043-1.
  • Karlgren, Bernhard. (1931). "The Early History of the Chou Li and Tso Chuan Texts". Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 3: 1–59.
  • Von Rosthorn, A. (1975). The Erh-ya and Other Synonymicons. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 10.3, 137–145.

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