Tradition holds that rime tables were invented by Buddhist monks, who were inspired by the Sanskrit syllable charts in the Siddham script they used to study the language. The Song Dynasty Yunjing and Qiyin lüe are the oldest extant rime tables. Based on numerous internal similarities, linguists conclude they shared a common prototype of phonological tables with accompanying texts, a tradition that may date back to the late Tang Dynasty. (Baxter 1992: 41)
Within a table, syllables are classified using other features:
To illustrate the significance of děng, the science of classifying vowels is called děngyùn (等韻 "division rime") and traditional phonology is děngyùnxué (等韻學 "division rime study").
For example, Yùnjìng comprises 43 charts covering 16 rime groups. The following is the first chart (the arabic numerals are modern annotations):
The five big characters on the right-hand side read Nèi zhuǎn dìyī kāi (內轉第一開). In Yùnjìng, each chart is called a zhuǎn (lit. "turn"). The characters indicate that the chart is the first (第一) one in the book, and that the syllables of this chart are "inner" (內) and "open" (開).
Although the preface of Yunjing lists 36 onsets, the table contains only 23 columns, which means some columns represent more than one onset. This is possible because some onsets only combine with some particular grades of rime: say onset A only combines with grade 1 and 4, and onset B only with grade 2 and 3, then the same column can represent both onset A and B. This kind of space-saving representation can cause confusion, and results in so-called jiǎděng (假等 "pseudo-grade"): for example, a syllable shown to be grade-4 on the table is in fact grade-3, and finds itself at the grade-4 position only because the slot has been occupied by another syllable.
The 16 rows are grouped by tone into four yùn, or rimes (represented by the level-toned 東, the rising-toned 董, the departing-toned 送, and the entering-toned 屋). Each yùn has a row for each of the four grades. The symbol ○ indicates that there is no character with that particular syllable.
The pronunciation of a character as indicated by fanqie spelling can be known by looking at such a chart. However, due to sound change, the traditional fanqie spellings and the rime tables may become incongruous. In such cases some special rules, called menfa 門法, have been made to resolve the incongruities.
|Bilabials||幫 *[p]||滂 *[pʰ]||並 *[b̥]||明 *[m]|
|Labio-dentals||非 *[f]||(敷 *[fʰ])||(奉 *[v̥])||微 *[w̃]|
|Alveolar stops||端 *[t]||透 *[tʰ]||定 *[d̥]||泥 *[n]|
|Palatals||知 *[tʲ]||徹 *[tʲʰ]||澄 *[d̥ʲ]||娘 *[nʲ]|
|Alveolar||精 *[ts]||清 *[tsʰ]||從 *[d̥z̥]||心 *[s]||邪 *[z̥]|
|Velars 牙||見 *[k]||谿 *[kʰ]||羣 *[ɡ̊]||疑 *[ŋ]|
|Gutturals 喉||影 *[ʔ]||喻 *[x]||曉 *[ɣ̊]||匣 *(null)|
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