Traditional Chinese linguistics grew out of two distinct interests in language: the philosophical reflection on things and their names, and the practical concern for literacy education and the correct understanding of classical works. The former is most typically found in the teachings of such pre-Qin masters as Confucius, Mozi, and Gongsun Long, who lived between the 6th and 3rd centuries bc, the latter in the enormous number of dictionaries, textbooks, and research works which, as a reflection of the fact that most Chinese morphemes are monosyllabic, are centered around the pronunciations, written forms, and meanings of these monosyllabic morphemes, or zi (“characters”) as they are called in Chinese. Apparently, it was the latter, philological, interest that motivated the bulk of the Chinese linguistic tradition, giving rise to such important works as Shuowen Jiezi and Qieyun, and culminating in the scholarship of the Qing Dynasty (1616–1911). But at the bottom, the philosophical concern never ceased to exist: The dominating idea that all things should have their rightful names just as they should occupy their rightful places in the universe, for example, was behind the compilation of Shuowen Jiezi and many other works. Further, the development of philology, or xiaoxue (“basic learning”), was strongly influenced by the study of philosophical thoughts, or daxue (“greater learning”), throughout its history.
The picture just presented, in which Chinese philosophy and philology are combined to form a seemingly autonomous tradition, is complicated, however, by the fact that the Indic linguistic tradition started to influence the Chinese in the 2nd century ad, causing remarkable changes in the analyzing techniques (especially regarding character pronunciation), findings, and course of development of language studies in China. Most crucially, scholars began to realize that syllables had internal structures and that the pronunciation of one character could be represented by two others that shared the same initial and final with it respectively. This technique, known as fanqie, laid the basis for the illustrious 7th-century rhyme dictionary Qieyun, the rhyme table Yunjing, and a great many works that followed. These works, besides providing reference for verse composition (and, consequently, for the imperial examinations held to select government officials), proved such an essential tool in the philological study of classical works, that many Qing scholars, at the very height of traditional Chinese linguistics, regarded character pronunciation as central to xiaoxue and indispensable for the understanding of ancient texts. While character pronunciation received overwhelming attention, the studies of character form and meaning continued to develop, though they were frequently influenced by and sometimes combined with the study of character pronunciation, as in the analysis of the relations between Old Chinese sound categories and the phonetic components of Chinese characters and in their application in the exegetical investigation of classical texts.
Chinese, with its linguistic tradition, had a profound impact in ancient East Asia. Not only did traditional studies of Japanese, Tangut, and other languages show significant Chinese influence, under which not the least achievement was the invention of the earliest writing systems for these languages, but many scholars from Japan and Korea actually took an active part in the study of Chinese as well, so that the Chinese linguistic tradition would itself be incomplete without the materials and findings these non-Chinese scholars have contributed. On the other hand, some of these scholars, most notably Motoori Norinaga and Fujitani Nariakira in Japan, were able to free themselves from the character-centered Chinese routine and develop rather original linguistic theories.