Understanding Cave Script: Six

Guidance from the Rites of Zhou

The Rites of Zhou is a book about the administration of government. It is attributed to the Duke of Zhou, and therefore thought to be around three thousand years old.

In paragraph 113 of the section devoted to the responsibilities of the Minister of Earth1, we are told that the office of Bǎoshì 保氏 was responsible for rearing the emperor’s children (It is worth noting at this point that Bǎoshì 保氏 is comprised of the characters for protect or preserve and clan name). This responsibility included teaching them the liùshū 六書 six writings.

My understanding is that Rites of Zhou does not contain an explanation of what the six writings were. The list and explanation comes down to us via the commentaries on the text. The list is therefore attributed to the librarian Liu Xin in the catalogue know as the Qilue 七略 seven epitomes. However, the catalogue itself is only partially extant.

Perhaps because the Rites of Zhou is a book about government, the list of six seems to have been taken as instruction on how to construct Chinese script. I think that the task of adding new characters to the Chinese lexicon would have been delegated to scholars. It would arguably have been more important for an emperor’s son to be able to decipher ancient texts. He would then be in a position to understand and challenge the work of his scholars and advisors. My hypothesis is therefore that the list may be a recipe for analyzing and deciphering old texts.

The six principles are still taught today. Scholars struggle with and engage in debate over interpretation of the principles just as they have done for centuries. However, what I find delightful is that the principles provide guidance on deciphering Cave Script.

In my view the term liù shū 六書 could be interpreted as follows:

Liù is normally taken to mean six. However, an alternative meaning is to list. I would favour that interpretation, so perhaps: list; or analyze; or breakdown. The character itself is made up of symbols meaning top and divide.

Shū means document

Thus my preferred translation is: how to decipher documents.

In the liù shū we have a systematic approach to translation work. Some of the principles are obvious; some less so. What results is a very useful check list for all scholars from the emperor down.

Three Han Dynasty Scholars  
Chinese Characters
My Interpretation
象形 Xiàng Xíng Shape
Shì Action
Shēng Sound
轉注 Zhuàn Z Orientation
假借 Jiǎ Jiè Borrow

The above table summarises my own view of the six principles based on a chart by Jan Vihan which lists the terminology used by three different scholars including Xǔ Shèn2. Each scholar used different terminology, but for each principle certain characters are consistent throughout.

For three of the principles, shape; orientation, and; borrow each scholar uses identical characters. For the remaining three principles, action; sound, and; thoughts/values, the scholars use one common character with their own interpretation for the second character.

In preparing the table, I also referred to the notes in Édouard Biot’s translation of the Rites of Zhou3.

The aim of this website is not to debate the correct interpretation of the six principles. I have given you my view and my interpretation. Before leaving the subject, I will illustrate how the list can be used to interpret the meaning of the owl in the Chauvet Cave.

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett



In my rough black and white drawing, he looks a bit like a small gentleman in a pin striped suit carrying a rolled umbrella. However, if we go back 35,000 years we get a different interpretation:

Shape: Long eared owl: No obvious eyes

Action: Head turned to look behind: The character gǔn , meaning to drop

Sound: Not applicable

Orientation: Body facing away from the viewer: Head facing towards the viewer

Thoughts/Values: Be alert: Be careful

Borrow: The artist used the edge of the rock panel as the owl’s perch.

Context: The owl currently sits above a large sink hole.

With the aid of the six principles, and most importantly knowing the context, it is possible to interpret the artist’s message.

The owl is not in a position to swoop down, but perhaps represents the idiom ‘watch your back’. In the context, we can understand that it was important to stay alert because of the risk of falling into the sink hole which would have been difficult to see.


Image Credit:

Chauvet Owl: Drawing: Lynn Fawcett, November 2013: After Photo: Jean-Marie Chauvet © Ministère de la culture et de la communication, Direction régionale des affaires culturelles Rhône-Alpes: Source: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/fr/owpt16.htm: Accessed: 28 November, 2013


1. Édouard Biot, 1851: Protecteur (Pao-chi): Le Tcheou-li, ou Rites des Tcheou Tome I, XIII, p. 204, Paris, Imprimerie nationale: Digital Version: Jean-Marie Tremblay, 2005: Bibliothèque Paul-Émile-Boulet, Université du Québec, Chicoutimi: http://classiques.uqac.ca/: Accessed: 6 October 2011

2. Jan Vihan, 2012: Dissertation: Language, Likeness, and the Han Phenomenon of Convergence, p.16: Harvard University, DASH Repository: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:9830346: Accessed: 6 September, 2013

3. Édouard Biot, 1851: 13.(141) Comm. A et glose explicative: Les six formes d’écriture: Le Tcheou-li, ou Rites des Tcheou Tome I, XIII, p. 388, Paris, Imprimerie nationale: Digital Version: Jean-Marie Tremblay, 2005: Bibliothèque Paul-Émile-Boulet, Université du Québec, Chicoutimi: http://classiques.uqac.ca/: Accessed: 6 October 2011