Fan3-qie4, generally pronounced fan3-qie1 in Taiwan; also spelled fan-ch'ieh, faanchieh.

A traditional "sound gloss" or pronunciation formula used in traditional China from the 2nd century onward. Since China did not have any sort of alphabet until the 'Phagspa system was introduced under the Mongols, indicating pronunciation with precision was difficult.

The principle of the fanqie is to "spell" a given syllable by using the parts of two other syllables. The spelling formula looks like this:

A, B C fan3


A, B C qie4

The final elements fan and qie simply mark the other characters A-B-C as part of a fanqie gloss and are not otherwise relevant. The formula says that character A is to be pronounced by combining the initial part of syllable B with the final part of syllable C. For instance, a character pronounced tang might be "spelled"

tang, to lang fan3

It might also be spelled

tang, tiet kang fan3
tang, tra pang fan3
tang, ti sang fan3

or any number of other ways. Fanqie thus differs from an alphabet, syllabary, or abugida in that it does not assign one symbol to one sound - one sound may be represented with any of dozens of different characters.

The organization of fanqie was rarely systematic, and there are times when we are not sure exactly what phonological information was intended. The tone of character A was the same as character C, because tone in Chinese is considered a feature of the vowel and ending of a syllable. But certain important vocalic features (particularly medial vowels uand i) were not always treated with consistency.

In different periods there were different styles of fanqie-composition that have been identified by modern scholars. For instance, in the Song dynasty it became usual for character B to be in the same tone as character C, whereas before that time character B might be in any tone at all. There are certain patterns evident in the earliest fanqie that suggest that ease of pronunciation or writing were of importance: characters B and C were usually common characters, and often of few pen-strokes. Character B rarely ends in -m or -p and most often ends in open syllables or in -ng or -k. Character C is rarely aspirated.

Even today there are occasionally disagreements about what a given ancient fanqie represents. The first modern attempt to untangle the phonology underlying one set of fanqie seems to have been by the Qing dynasty geographer Chen2 Li3 (1810-1882), who wrote out all the examples he found in a long 11th century dictionary and applied a kind of algebraic treatment to them. Later scholars have improved on his work.

There are a couple of myths associated with the fanqie. It is often said that fanqie could transcend dialect differences, and even today make sense in any variety of Chinese, because even though Chinese dialects vary greatly in their phonetics, phonologically they are all equivalent and isomorphic with the medieval language. That is not so. Fanqieoften fail to predict actual readings in modern dialects, for many reasons; and it is also simply not true that dialects are all phonologically isomorphic. Probably there were dialects even in ancient times that mucked up certain fanqie.

Another probable myth is that fanqie were introduced by Buddhists, known to have been a great force for cultural exchange throughout all the lands in which they have travelled. But although Buddhist monks in China took a great interest in phonology, no Buddhist origin for the fanqiehas ever been conclusively shown (unlike the later 36 initials). Also, since Sanskrit phonology relies on the abugida as the basic tool of spelling, it is unlikely that Sanskrit influence would have led to such a wild non-system as the fanqie. Fanqie must be fundamentally of Chinese invention.

Some terminological notes:

  • Fan3 "to turn" was originally used as the marker, but after the great An Lushan rebellion in 755 it became semi-taboo, as it means "to rebel". Thereafter, qie4 "to take altogether" was used as the marker.
  • Qie4 can also be read qie1 "to cut", but it is not clear that that was ever its sense here.
  • In English, characters B and C are sometimes referred to as the "fanqie upper" and "fanqie lower". These English terms, humorously reflecting Chinese originals, were introduced by the linguist Yuen Ren Chao (1892-1982).