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.
The German sinologist and general linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) occupies an interesting place at the intersection of several streams of linguistic scholarship at the end of the 19th century. As Professor of East Asian languages at the University of Leipzig from 1878 to 1889 and then Professor for Sinology and General Linguistics at the University of Berlin from 1889 until his death, Gabelentz was present at some of the main centers of linguistics at the time. He was, however, generally critical of mainstream historical-comparative linguistics as propagated by the neogrammarians, and instead emphasized approaches to language inspired by a line of researchers including Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), H. Steinthal (1823–1899), and his own father, Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874). Today Gabelentz is chiefly remembered for several theoretical and methodological innovations which continue to play a role in linguistics. Most significant among these are his contributions to cross-linguistic syntactic comparison and typology, grammar-writing, and grammaticalization. His earliest linguistic work emphasized the importance of syntax as a core part of grammar and sought to establish a framework for the cross-linguistic description of word order, as had already been attempted for morphology by other scholars. The importance he attached to syntax was motivated by his engagement with Classical Chinese, a language almost devoid of morphology and highly reliant on syntax. In describing this language in his 1881 Chinesische Grammatik, Gabelentz elaborated and implemented the complementary “analytic” and “synthetic” systems of grammar, an approach to grammar-writing that continues to serve as a point of reference up to the present day. In his summary of contemporary thought on the nature of grammatical change in language, he became one of the first linguists to formulate the principles of grammaticalization in essentially the form that this phenomenon is studied today, although he did not use the current term. One key term of modern linguistics that he did employ, however, is “typology,” a term that he in fact coined. Gabelentz’s typology was a development on various contemporary strands of thought, including his own comparative syntax, and is widely acknowledged as a direct precursor of the present-day field. Gabelentz is a significant transitional figure from the 19th to the 20th century. On the one hand, his work seems very modern. Beyond his contributions to grammaticalization avant la lettre and his christening of typology, his conception of language prefigures the structuralist revolution of the early 20th century in important respects. On the other hand, he continues to entertain several preoccupations of the 19th century—in particular the judgment of the relative value of different languages—which were progressively banished from linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century.