Review of A Phonological History of Chinese

A Phonological History of Chinese. By Zhongwei Shen. Cambridge, New York, Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2020.


Reviewed by Zev Handel

University of Washington, Seattle


A Phonological History of Chinese is an important and welcome contribution, which attempts to fill a glaring gap in English-language scholarship on Chinese language history. It is intended for “both the general phonologist and specialist of Chinese studies, as well as both beginners and experts” (p. xxxiv). The book is divided into six parts. The first presents the complex and daunting set of concepts and terminology that arise from the peculiar history of phonological analysis of Chinese. Mastering this knowledge is essential to an understanding of key source materials and the secondary scholarship derived from them. The remaining five parts correlate with the traditional phonological periodization of Chinese phonology: Old Chinese, Middle Chinese, the transitional period from Middle Chinese to Mandarin, Old Mandarin, and Modern Mandarin.


For scholars interested in the history of Chinese language pronunciation, especially over the last 1,000 years, this book will be a foundational and indispensable guide and reference. Shen’s wide-ranging knowledge of source materials in a variety of languages and scripts, his command of secondary scholarly literature, and his detailed understanding of patterns of relationship and change in the history of Chinese, all combine in this impressive work.

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