While none of the Western sinologists knows that Chinese character set is a root-based axiomatic system, is any Chinese philologist who knows or knew that fact? The answer is Yes and No.
It is Yes because that the ancient Chinese knew that fact. In the chapter 15 of the book 說 文[(So-Wen), published around 140 a.d.], the author wrote, “the teacher Mr. 保 [during the 周 (zhōu) dynasty, before Confucius, recorded in the book 周禮] taught kids with 六 書 (six ways of constructing Chinese words). … However, the 六 書 was no longer taught during the 戰 國 (the Warring States) period, as the written system was no longer unified.” For this reason, the author of 說 文 did not truly know the substance of 六 書 although he did wrote six sentences about them.
In fact, no one in the next 1,900 years made any advancement on the issues of 六 書 before the publication “Chinese Word Roots and Grammar” in 2006 (US copyright TX 6-514-465). Thus, the answer is No for the above question for the period of 2,000 years.
However, in the book 說 文, it
1. listed 540 部 首 (leading radicals),
2. listed 9,353 characters (1,163 were repeated).
For those 9,000 characters, 80% of them was classified as 象 形, and we know, now, that it is wrong. The book also provided the phonetic value for each character by pointing out its sound tag. That is, 說 文 did show the three dimensions of Chinese characters;
a. the word form,
b. the word meaning,
c. the word sound.
Thus, I was greatly surprised by the fuss of those Western sinologists (such as, Dr. DeFrancis, Dr. Unger, etc.) on the phonetic dimension of Chinese characters. Seemingly, none of them read the book 說 文.
Today, 99% of Chinese college graduates will not have used 康 熙 字 典 (Kangsi dictionary) which was published around 1680 a.d., after 20 years of hard works of over 200 Chinese philologists. In fact, most of those college graduates will not be able to comprehend the writing in the 康 熙 字 典, let alone to use it. However, the 康 熙 字 典 is the most comprehensive source for the Chinese etymology. It,
i. listed 214 部 首 (leading radicals),
ii. listed over 48,000 characters,
iii. listed the usages of each character (up to that point). This is the major difference between the 康 熙 字 典 and the 說 文. 說 文 describes each character with its word form and word sound to derive its word meaning. 康 熙 字 典 describes the meaning of each character from its usages.
In fact, the 康 熙 字 典 is a thesaurus, dealing two of the most difficult issues of 六 書 (six ways of constructing Chinese words),
a. 轉 註 (synonymize) is 異 字 同 義 (different words with the same meaning),
b. 假 借 (borrowing) is 同 字 異 義 (one word with different meaning). In this case, it is similar to homonyms [similar-sounding words (often with the same spelling) with different meaning].
Yet, Chinese characters go beyond the above. When a Chinese character is used in a way different from its original meaning, it, often, acquires a “new sound,” and this goes beyond the 六 書. This is called 殊 聲 (different sound for the same word) or 破 音 (breaking the phonetic value). Thus, 康 熙 字 典 provides more information than the scope of 六 書 and is mainly based on the phonetic dimension of the Chinese characters.
However, 康 熙 字 典 does not give its reader an impression that Chinese character set is a root-based axiomatic system. In fact, with its huge data base, it would give an impression similar to Dr. DeFrancis’: “Ideographic writing, however, requires mastery of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of symbols that would be needed for ideographic representation of words or concepts without regard to sound. A bit of common sense should suggest that unless we supplement our brains with computer implants, ordinary mortals are incapable of such memory feats.”
While the essence of 康 熙 字 典 is about the phonological aspect of Chinese characters (that word meaning arises phonologically), it lists all characters under 214 部 首 (leading radicals), not via the phonetic arrangement. The book that lists Chinese characters phonetically is the 韻 書(the rhyme book). In an edition of the book 廣 韻 (the unified rhyme book), it lists over 50,000 characters. However, no word meaning is giving in any 韻 書. Again, the 韻 書 is a huge data base and does not give an impression that Chinese character set is a root-based axiomatic system.
There is a school using the phonological reconstruction, with the rhyme books to reconstruct the phonetic evolution and to rediscover the original meaning of a character. In the West, the Pulleyblank's "Middle Chinese: a study in historical phonology" and the Baxter's "A handbook of Old Chinese" represent the key works of this school. However, this school did not rediscover the essence of 六 書 that Chinese system is a root based axiomatic system.
With the above three books (說 文, 康 熙 字 典, 韻 書), the entire Chinese character set is wholly described. Yet, no one before the year 2006 rediscovered that Chinese word set is a root-based axiomatic system. In 1920s,
1. 魯 迅 (lǔ xùn, the greatest Chinese linguist, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lu_Xun ) wrote, 漢 字 不 廢, 中 國 必 亡 (without abandoning Chinese character system, China will surely vanish).
2. 錢 玄 同 (Qian_Xuantong, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qian_Xuantong ), one of the greatest Chinese philologist in 1930s, even promoted the replacement of Chinese with Esperanto.
3. 胡 適 (Hu Shih, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hu_Shih ) and 林 語 堂 (Lin Yu Tang, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin_Yu_Tang ) agreed with Dr. Northrop that Chinese words are denotative and solitary -- no logical ordering or connection the one with the other.
With their pushes, the simplified Chinese system was launched in 1960s. That is, no one in 1960s in China knew that the Chinese word set is a root-based axiomatic system which is the easiest language to learn in the world.
Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gonghttp://www.chinese-word-roots.org/