"Six Scripts" is a literal translation of the Chinese liu4-shu1, the traditional classification system for the Chinese characters. These six things are not entire scripts but types of character. The name has also been translated as "Six Principles" and "Six Classes of Script".

There are several competing versions of this classification surviving from ancient times, but the best known is that of Xu Shen (c. 55-c.149), from the postface to his Shuowen Jiezi. Xu is the first person to have left an actual explanation of the classification system

The meanings of some of these terms is disputed, and the system as a whole is now thought to be needlessly complex. Zhishi and huiyi are both kinds of ideogram that are not simple pictographs. Jiajie and perhaps also zhuanzhu appear to be kinds of usage rather kinds of structure. Ancient Chinese intellectuals had a great love of numbered lists (the "Six Arts" that were the educational program young gentlemen, the "Six States", which were the late Warring States competitors to Qin, etc. etc.). Probably the shape of the Six Scripts list has more to with pedagogical practice than with analytical precision.

The modern scholar Qiu Xigui lists several kinds of character that do not fit into the Six Scripts classification:

  • signs, such as most numerals, which have no intrinsic connection to what they represent other than convention;
  • semi-signs, formed by the combination of a sign with a recognizable character;
  • new graphs derived by altering an old graph in a non-traditional way, to indicate a syllable related in sound to the old graph;
  • phonetic fusions - characters created by combining two existing characters, each of which contributes something to the sound of the word being represented, often on the fanqie principle;
  • characters with two phonetic elements - this comes about when a phonetic element in an existing character is not recognized as such and a new phonetic is added.


For more reading:

  • QIU, Xigui. Chinese Writing. Translated by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Society for the Study of Early China.
  • Boltz, William. "Early Chinese Writing". In The World's Written Languages edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 191-199.

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