Zhòuwén refers to a set of 220 or so examples of ancient characters reproduced in the etymological dictionary , based on fragments of a compendium of roughly 800 BCE known as the , which was written in the late script. Zhòuwén refers to the ''characters'' from that compendium; it is not the name of the book, nor is it the general name of the script in use at that time ; rather, it is the name of a particular ''example'' of that script. The zhòuwén characters help supplement the far larger quantity from late Western as evidence of late W. Zhōu script.
Traditional holds that around the end of the Western Zhōu, the ’s historian, Sh?zhòu , Historian Zhòu, compiled the written characters into a lexicon of fifteen piān , sections. This account has been questioned by some scholars who thought the script structure and style do not match that period; however, others disagree and uphold the traditional dating. also questioned the traditional interpretation of zhòu as the historian’s name, pointing out that in ancient times, according to Shuōwén, it had the same meaning as 讀 dú . According to this view, the title of the book was likely taken from the first sentence of the text , which presumably contained ‘the historian studies…’. However, numerous scholars believe that Sh? Zhoù was the historian listed as Sh? Liú in the ’s chapter on Notable Persons Past and Present. Confirmation of the historical existence of a Historian Liú from the correct period of time has been found on an ancient d?ng tripodal cauldron in the collection of the Shànghǎi Museum, leading to the conclusion that the Sh?zhòupiān was indeed likely written by a Historian Zhòu.
The zhòuwén characters have been described as generally symmetrical and balanced, and are on average more complex than the later seal characters. They contain many swirls and circles in place of later squared or rectilinear forms.