A Revolutionary Discovery in China (NYRB)

This article on the NYRB website by Ian Johnson, one of the first I’ve seen, describes the rescue and piecing together of these ancient bamboo manuscripts (like the Vindalia bark manuscripts from the UK), called the Tsinghua slips, the understanding Chinese culture as well as early literacy and recording of texts in ancient China. If the dating holds up, these manuscripts may push back the dates of early texts like the Tao te Ching. As Johnson notes, “The manuscripts’ importance stems from their particular antiquity. Carbon dating places their burial at about 300 BCE…the height of the Warring States Period, an era of turmoil…” which was also a period of intellectual ferment and the development of China’s great intellectual schools were developing, including Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), Legalism, and Mohism. Despite questions of authenticity and ethics (in supporting looting), the manuscripts were acquired for Tsinghua University in Beijing. Apparently the manuscripts represented a conservation nightmare–they were waterlogged and, when transferred to water baths, developed mold. The fuller story is in Johnson’s review.

On their intellectual significance, Johnson writes:

The newly discovered texts challenge long-held certainties about this era. Chinese political thought as exemplified by Confucius allowed for meritocracy among officials, eventually leading to the famous examination system on which China’s imperial bureaucracy was founded. But the texts show that some philosophers believed that rulers should also be chosen on merit, not birth—radically different from the hereditary dynasties that came to dominate Chinese history. The texts also show a world in which magic and divination, even in the supposedly secular world of Confucius, played a much larger part than has been realized. And instead of an age in which sages neatly espoused discrete schools of philosophy, we now see a more fluid, dynamic world of vigorously competing views—the sort of robust exchange of ideas rarely prominent in subsequent eras.

Their discovery is both exciting and troubling (not to mention slightly confusing; writes Johnson:

In 1993, tomb robbers were thwarted in the village of Guodian, in central China’s Hubei province. Archaeologists stepped in and found eight hundred bamboo slips. The next year, 1,200 slips were smuggled to Hong Kong and bought by the Shanghai Museum. The Tsinghua strips followed in 2008, numbering nearly two thousand full slips (the final number is in flux as fragments are being pieced together). All three finds likely came from the same region of China near the Yangtze that used to be occupied by the state of Chu. Carbon dating shows that all three were buried around 300 BCE, right around the time that Confucius’s chief disciple, Mencius, died.

Johnson notes that these bamboo slips aren’t as old as the well-known “oracle bones” (tortoise shells inscribed with characters for divination), but these certainly are among the oldest literary texts found so far. The manuscripts also raise questions about the antiquity of certain texts as written (as opposed to orally transmitted) texts:

But the new discoveries [from Guodian] should give pause to this skepticism [about the antiquity of Chinese civilization]. Allan argues that the texts were indeed primarily written down, and not transcribed oral tales. Besides the Daodejing [Tao te Ching], only a few of the texts excavated over the past twenty years have mnemonic devices or rhyme. She writes that even the texts that claim to be speeches of ancient kings originated as literary compositions. And as the Guodian texts show, works like the Daodejing took a written form earlier than skeptics believed, possibly even as early as the traditionalists have always claimed.”

The article includes a disturbing image of an 18th C painting showing Emperor Qin Shi Huang “burning all the books and throwing scholars into a ravine” in 221 BCE. (Although the ravine looks a bit like the flames consuming the books.)

Read the entire article at the New York Review of Books website.

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Published by Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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