This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
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 such as Confucius, Xunzi, and Gongsun Long; 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. But at the bottom, the philosophical concern never ceased to exist: the dominating idea that everything 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 above picture, 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
Chinese, with its linguistic tradition had a profound impact in ancient East Asia. Not only did traditional studies of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese 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. However, 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.