Early etymological research as exemplified by xushen's etymological dictionary "shuo wen jie zi"was based primarily on "xiaozhuan"forms from about 200 B.C. In this script the division of characters into components is generally clearer that the "kaishu"script which subsequently became popular and remains the standard .By referring back to the earlier forms, xushen's research made remarkable progress toward clarifying the origins of most characters. But for many characters the components are indistinct even in the "xiaozhuan"forms, requiring considerable guessing. In the last century archeologists have unearthed ancient "jia gu wen"writings and other early writings which can help better decipher "hui yi"and "xing sheng"characters, while also gaining more insight into the evolution of "xiang xing"and "zhi shi"characters. While traditional etymologies are not always supported by modern research, they are still important as well-known reference points with which newer discoveries can be compared.
The most controversial aspect of traditional etymologies are the stories which purport to explain how the combination of particular components can help suggest a character’s meaning. Influenced by the phonetic tradition of Western linguistics, many modern linguists believe that Chinese characters are primarily a phonetic system and that such traditional explanations are highly suspect. They argue that many "hui yi"characters are in fact "xing sheng"characters in that they have a component part which at one time suggested the character’s pronunciation. The opposite argument has been made by many traditional etymologists in the nearly two millennia since "xu xhen". While not denying the phonetic element of characters ,they argue that many "xing sheng"characters are also"hui yi"characters in that both parts of the character contribute to the character’s meaning.
Having read many thousands of traditional etymologies and having arranged the characters into the "zi pu",I must adrnit my sympathies lie with the less dogmatic position of traditional etymologists. I have included traditional stories in this dictionary primarily because they are useful for both learning Chinese and understanding Chinese culture, but I do believe that they offer underappreciated insight into the development of Chinese characters.