Chinese Rime Tables
Chinese characters are not alphabetic as each character stands for a full syllable. How can one use characters to transcribe the sound of unknown words?
Likely beginning in the fifth century, Chinese scholars invented a system known as fanqie 反切 or “reverse cut spelling,” which works by way of taking the consonant of one character and combining it with the vowel of another. By combining two characters, scholars could organize the entire Chinese language by consonant and vowel sounds. Professor Stalling took the technology built to map the Chinese sound system and applied it to mapping the English sound system.
Chinese characters can be pronounced in many different ways depending on accent and dialect. They can even be pronounced in other languages like Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Yet the Imperial Examination System needed to test a subject’s ability to organize the different tones and rhymes/rimes into standardized patterns. How can poets write formal rhyming poetry if words are pronounced differently in different regions?
The Chinese rime tables synthesized northern and southern dialects and accents into a single synthetic set of standard pronunciations. Yet unlike today, phonology (the study of a language’s sound system) was not meant to be applied to pronunciation, but instead was used only abstractly, to compose poetry following the same set of guidelines for all.
Until the invention of the rime tables, few would have been able to hear tones, let alone compose poetry that regulated a steady oscillation between different tonal categories.
The rime tables organized Chinese in a horizontal and vertical grid. Horizontally, sounds were divided into different consonant categories based on where and how they were pronounced (“lip sounds, teeth sounds, throat sounds” etc). Vertically, sounds were divided into their different vowel+finals and tone categories. Taken together, these classifications were called “rimes.”
Yunjing, 韵镜, Mirror of Rhymes, Song Dynasty rime table. The oldest existing example of a Chinese rime table.