The Pei Wen Yun Fu

The <em>Pei Wen Yun Fu</em>

By Will Noel

Many of the treasures of Princeton University Library’s East Asian Library are housed in Special Collections in Firestone Library, and so last year its Director, Martin Heijdra, gave a tour of highlights to Special Collections staff.  Among all the wonderful things that he showed, I most admired the original manuscript of the Pei wen yun fu.

Pages of a book with Chinese characters
Pei wen yun fu, ca. 1713. East Asian Library Rare Books.

The Pei wen yun fu is a famous word dictionary compiled under the Kangxi emperor in the early eighteenth century. The compilation was completed around 1711, and it was printed in 1713 by Cao Yin’s printing office. Unlike most Chinese dictionaries, the units described are not single characters, but phrases: 560,000 items under 10,257 entries. Arrangement is according to the rhyme of the last, not the first character; standardized rhyme schemes being known to the literati in order to write poetry. The basic meaning of the phrases (of 2, 3, or 4 characters) is followed by numerous quotations, themselves arranged according to the traditional 4-category system. The Pei wen yun fu lies behind many of the current large word dictionaries. Princeton’s manuscript (complete in 104 volumes!) is the final working manuscript of the dictionary, with corrections, emendations, editorial discussions, and supplements tipped in (or pasted over). Hanlin officials presented their work daily to the emperor. The final printed version, however, contains additional revisions.