Shang-Zhou-era ding

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Inscribing on bronzes, either by casting or engraving, is a characteristic of Chinese bronzes which makes them very uniquely different from those made in other cultures. The rich textual repertoire debuted with mostly clan or ancestor names during Shang and early Zhou, and around the mid-period of Western Zhou increasingly adopted the theme of "For Descendents to Forever Cherish", which gradually developed into a standard finishing statement for many inscriptions. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Polished bronze has a golden hue, which is why the term for inscriptions on bronzes is known in Chinese as "chin wen" (literally "golden writing"), an important characteristic of Chinese bronzes. Besides the themes of bronze inscriptions dealing with the worship of ancestors and wishes for descendants to treasure the vessels, other texts cast on bronzes provide first-hand material on war records, dowry and arranged marriages, mandates and ceremonies, cessions of land and treaties, as well as admonitions and awards. These offer actual records and the language of the period, like an unadulterated original version of the ancient "Book of Documents" opened before one's eyes. These historical documents from the ancients are all included in these inscriptions. While reading "chin wen", one can almost feel the presence of the ancients and hear them communicating. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The golden inscriptions are the end results of a series of processes which involve engraving, molding, and finally casting, of the handwritten originals; yet the cast texts still manage to reenact the superb calligraphy of the time. The calligraphic styles reflect the gradual development and forming of da zhuan (large seal script), evolving from powerful spontaneity of Shang and early Zhou, to solemn regularity during the mid-period, Wesernt Zhou, and to refined smoothness from late Western Zhou to early Spring and Autumn period. That more and more long texts appeared during mid to late Western Zhou is also a live illustration of Zhou's "elaborate textual repertoire" "preserved in golden inscriptions". \=/

“Bronze inscriptions also reveal the high art of writing at the time, even though the characters have undergone transformation from being written down initially to their engraving on mold pieces and casting in bronze. The writing style was bold and sturdy from the Shang to early Zhou period. It then became more orderly in the middle Western Zhou. During the late Western Zhou and early Spring and Autumn period (ca. 770~671 B.C.), it become rounded and delicate in the form of large seal script. Bronzes with long inscriptions increased during the middle and late Western Zhou, attesting to the richness and prosperity of Zhou as manifested in its bronze wares.” \=/

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia

Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions

rubbings of inscriptions on cap of Zhou Zhao

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “During the Western Zhou period (11th century-771 B.C.), the patriarchal clan system and the aristocracy played a significant role in the 275-year development of these inscriptions. In the early Western Zhou, inscriptions inherited the short texts and graphs used in the late Shang dynasty. Later in the middle Zhou, with the development of rituals and ceremonies, inscriptions were done in a more orderly and elegant fashion, yet they still remained as vivid as before. Inscriptions often identified the person who had it made, the person conducting the ritual, or the name of the vessel. Longer inscriptions did not appear until the late Zhou. These were even more orderly in appearance, engraved with thin, balanced, and sturdy strokes to create rectangular forms for the characters. Bronzes also increasingly became objects of personal or clan importance to distinguish the merit or status of the owner. Consequently, the length of inscriptions increased considerably. Compared to the fragile materials of other historical texts, inscribed bronzes serve as crucial first-hand evidence for ancient events. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“In the middle Western Zhou, a system of rites concerning ceremonies, military campaigns, feasts, and meetings gradually evolved, and the use of inscribed vessels for commemoration accompanied them. The inscriptions also evolved from the grand style of early ones to more orderly ones. The original pictographic forms of graphs and strokes gradually evolved into more abstract ideographs with even lines accompanied by thick lines and dots. \=/

“Inscriptions of the late Western Zhou followed those of the previous period but became even further standardized and longer. Auspicious phrases from the middle Western Zhou, such as "use for eternal blessings", were replaced by such phrases as "ten thousand years without limit" and "ten-thousand-year longevity". Late Western Zhou inscriptions were even more evenly arranged as characters became rectangular with fine strokes for spacious and linear effects known as the "chopstick style". An alternative style was more unrestrained. However, with the proliferation of bronzes cast by the nobility, inscriptions became increasingly chaotic, reflecting in part the gradual loss of control by the Zhou royalty. \=/

“The National Palace Museum has over three hundred bronzes from the Western Zhou, and inscriptions are found on about half of them. Among them, the Mao-kung Ting has the longest text, composed of 500 characters; the San P'an is the most exotic; and the Sung Hu best illustrates the record of a king's orders. This display of bronzes reveals not only forms and styles of Western Zhou bronzes and inscriptions, but it also helps to unlock the mystery surrounding ancient Chinese characters. For a pictorial introduction to these works, see the gallery guide in Chinese entitled "Expression in Bronze--Ancient Inscriptions of the Western Zhou". For a complete, detailed illustration and discussion of the works in the exhibition, see "Catalogue of Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions in the National Palace Museum". \=/

Writing in Ancient China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Chinese characters are one of the world's most unique forms of writing. They reflect the perfect fusion of idea and image. Although cuneiform and hieroglyphics disappeared with the civilizations that produced them, Chinese has continued down to the present day, evolving into a beautifully aesthetic system of lines and dots the incorporates such calligraphic styles as seal, clerical, cursive, running, and standard script for visual appeal. Using the brush to create them results in one of the world's most beautiful forms of writing. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Writing is one of the pillars by which a civilization is judged. Words and the way they are written down also preserve many aspects of the culture that produced them by incorporating elements of time and space. The system of Chinese characters remains one of the most important threads that ties together its three thousand years of written history. \=/

Forms of ancient Chinese writing include: 1) oracle bone writing; 2) bronze writing bronze writing; and 3) writing on bamboo slips.Some of the more famous examples of these are: 1) bronze writing from Mao-pi Yi; 2) Bronze Writing from Sung Hu; 3) the Ch'u Bamboo Slips; and the Ch'u Bamboo Slips from Ching-meng Pao-shan. \=/ Forms of ancient Chinese script include: 1) Small Seal Script; 2) Clerical Script; 3) Running Script; 4) Standard Script and 5) Cursive Script. Some of the more famous examples of these are: 1) Small Seal Script from Mt. T'ai; 2) Clerical Script in the “Stone Gate Eulogy”’ 3) Running Script in the “Lan-t'ing Preface”; 4) Standard Script in the “Record of Niu Chueh”; and 5) Cursive Script in “Essay on Calligraphy.” \=/

“In China, writing before the Ch'in dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. evolved to become the clerical script of the Ch'in and Han dynasties, making these ancient forms difficult to decipher. At around 100 AD, Hsu Shen of the Eastern Han compiled "An Etymology Dictionary" of 9353 small-seal characters and included ancient forms or equivalents. This first effort at understanding ancient characters laid the foundation for the study of bronze inscriptions from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. "The Stone Classics in Three Scripts" from the 3rd century AD not only corrected characters in the Classics, but more importantly provided a link between contemporary and ancient writing. \=/

“Deciphering Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions has consistently relied on Hsu's dictionary. Even the discovery of script on unearthed oracle bones from the late Shang relied on his text. Just as important, however, oracle bone script has also made corrections to the dictionary itself. The study of ancient characters involves investigating the original appearance, addressing problems of pronunciation, and researching issues of meaning and grammar. \=/

20080223-evolution of chinese characters.jpg
Evolution of Chinese characters

Examples of the Origins and Evolution of Chinese Characters

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The pictograph for the character of father in Chinese suggests a hand holding an ax or adz (also pronounced fu). The pictograph is like an early stone adz, which was a tool of the ancient Chinese used in farming. Therefore, the hand suggested the action of physical labor. Since males were the prime source of labor in patriarchal families, this graph was used to represent father. The pictograph of the character for man in Chinese is similar to a stick figure shown frontally with hair tied up, suggesting a man of distinction. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

The pictograph for the character of mother in Chinese represents the form of a female kneeling with her hands on her knees (the related pictograph for girl). The addition of two dots suggests breast feeding, thereby making the distinction of motherhood in traditional Chinese society. A horizontal line above suggests a hairpin, also indicating adulthood. \=/

The pictograph of the character for farm shows a field with weeds being removed by hand using a shell tool. Before the invention of tilling, the ancient Chinese used shells to dig out the weeds from their fields. Close examination of this character shows therefore shows that it is actually the earliest representation of farming. \=/

Content and Dating of Bronze Inscriptions

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Most bronze inscriptions of the late Shang dynasty and the early Western Zhou are quite short. They simply record the type of worship or an honor for a certain family. In the middle and late Zhou, blessings of "longevity" and "treasured by descendants" were added to signify the ending of inscriptions. These are mainly formulated as follows: 1) Clan insignia: A pictogram that signifies a clan; 2) The person who had the vessel made; 3) The character for "tso" meaning "to make"; 3) The recipient: usually a combination of the parent’s name and year; 4) The type of bronze vessel; and 5) A blessing. For example, according to the above formula, the inscription on a typical bronze reads: "Mao-pi of the Ch'ou clan made this yi vessel for Mother Wu"[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Today in China, the use of characters that indicate the "heaven stems" and "earth branches" is still used to name the years, but in bronze inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou, they were used to indicate the day. Years were calculated on the basis of the number of the ruler's reign years (such as, Third Year of King Wei). The year, month, and day were often written at the beginning of bronze inscriptions from the Western Zhou, but sometimes the year was omitted. \=/

In China, the ancient sexagenary system of sixty years was employed in bronze inscriptions to describe a cycle of sixty days. These sixty days represent a permutation of the decimal cycle (based on ten) known as the "ten heaven stems" and the duodecimal cycle (based on twelve) known as the "twelve earth branches". Therefore, five duodecimal cycles (5 x 12) or six decimal cycles (6 x 10) make for a complete cycle of sixty years, and this is known as the "Stem and Branch" system. A list of Stem and Branch cycles appears as early as the late Shang dynasty on a turtle shell oracle.

rubbings of inscription a a ding

Royal Rewards and Auspicious Phrases in Bronze Inscriptions

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Two of the most important events for a state in ancient China were rituals and warfare. Kings and their nobles participated in rituals every year, and the ceremonies that surrounded them were often lavish and grand. The ancient Classics describing rituals suggests just how complex they were. Warfare often ensured the existence of a state and the life and property of its inhabitants, and thus was not a matter looked upon lightly. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“An individual's merit deserved reward. In the early Western Zhou, joining a campaign or offering a sacrifice merited reward, as shown in the Hsiao-ch'en-x Kui. It records that Hsiao-ch'en-x conquered the Eastern Yi and therefore was rewarded monetarily. Later inscriptions expanded to include more information on rank. After the middle Western Zhou, ceremonies were standardized gradually, and the rewards conferred also became regulated. For example, the inscription on the Mao-kung Ting describes how Duke Mao of Yin was ordered by King Hsuan of the Zhou to lead the forces of a hundred officials responsible for Zhou affairs and decrees. Such an important task involved lavish rewards, including precious objects and personal decor, which were enumerated in the inscription.” \=/

Both in ancient as well as modern times, the Chinese people have endeavored for good fortune. Bronze inscriptions detail desire of the ancient Chinese to preserve personal or family rank and their honors for eternity. Auspicious words often used in early periods are Yung-pao ("cherish forever") and Yung-pao ("keep forever"). After the middle Western Zhou, Wan-nien ("ten thousand years") and Yung-hsiang ("enjoy") were included. In addition, phrases like Yung-fu ("forever happy") and Ssu-shou ("rewarded longevity") appeared. During the later part of the middle period to the late period, Mei-shou ("longevity"), Yung-ling ("forever good"), Tuo-fu ("many blessings") and Ling-chung ("happy ending") were widely employed. Auspicious words Wan-nien wu-chiang ("ten thousand years without limited") and Mei-shou wan-nien ("ten thousand-year longevity") were used in the late period. \=/

“Expensive and lasting works of bronze bearing inscriptions of wonderful blessings must have been part of the best dowry that they could offer to their daughter, her new family, and their future descendants.With the need to maintain political status and the strength of the state, dowry bronzes appeared in large numbers during the late Western Zhou and the Spring and Autumn period as a consequence of arranged marriages among the nobility. Inscriptions on dowry bronzes follow a set pattern that can be divided into three sections; 1) the time (sometimes omitted), 2) who cast it and for whom, and 3) a congratulatory speech. For example, the inscription on the E-hou Kui (Kui of Duke E) reads, "Duke E presents this dowry to Chi of Wang. May her descendants treasure it for 10,000 years." Here, Chi is the surname of the duke's daughter and Wang is the name of her husband's state. What better way 2,800 years ago for a noble to commemorate his new alliance and his daughter's betrothal?” \=/

2,500-Year-Old Bamboo Strips

China’s version of the Dead Sea scrolls are several thousand bamboo strips with ancient writing on them dated to pivotal Warring States period and unearthed in the 1990s and 2000s. Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “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 [now at Tsinghua University] 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 B.C., right around the time that Confucius’s chief disciple, Mencius, died. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, April 21, 2016 ~]

“Although their significance is not widely understood in the West, in China they have already aroused popular interest, with newspapers and television reporting as these texts are edited and published.1 And yet the implications of these unearthed texts are so profound that they will take decades to digest. The manuscripts’ importance stems from their particular antiquity. Carbon dating places their burial at about 300 B.C.. This was the height of the Warring States Period, an era of turmoil that ran from the fifth to the third centuries B.C. ~

“During this time, the Hundred Schools of Thought arose, including Confucianism, which concerns hierarchical relationships and obligations in society; Daoism (or Taoism), and its search to unify with the primordial force called Dao (or Tao); Legalism, which advocated strict adherence to laws; and Mohism, and its egalitarian ideas of impartiality. These ideas underpinned Chinese society and politics for two thousand years, and even now are touted by the government of Xi Jinping as pillars of the one-party state.” ~

The bamboo texts “are not China’s oldest writings. Chinese characters first appeared on “oracle bones”—tortoise shells that were used for divination, mainly in the Shang dynasty (circa 1600–1050 B.C.). They are useful for understanding that era, but the core texts of Chinese civilization came later. They were written on bamboo or wood strips that could be bound with string and rolled up, allowing for the creation of complex works of legend, philosophy, and history.

These are not easy manuscripts to decipher. They contain many irregular characters, leading paleographers to debate the exact meaning of important passages. The Tsinghua texts, for example, are being issued in volumes with a version agreed upon by Professor Li’s team but also with dissenting views. (Only about a third of the Tsinghua slips have been published, with one volume released each year. Another ten are projected.) Academics in China have responded with thousands of books and articles, discussing every detail of the new texts. Western scholars have joined in a bit more slowly. But, perhaps with the benefit of distance, they are drawing broader and more provocative conclusions. ~

“Do these old texts matter today? They do in several ways. One has to do with the antiquity of China’s written culture. In the West, many classic texts, for example by Homer or stories in the Bible, are widely accepted as having been oral works that later were written down.” Some scholars “have tended to dismiss traditional views that important works in China were written down early on, or even composed as written texts. For many of these skeptical Westerners, Chinese efforts to prove the antiquity of their culture is closet chauvinism, or part of a project to glorify the Chinese state by exaggerating the antiquity of Chinese civilization. But the new discoveries should give pause to this skepticism.” Sarah “Allan argues that the texts were indeed primarily written down, and not transcribed oral tales. Besides theDaodejing, 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.

Book: “Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts” by Sarah Allan, State University of New York Press, 2016]

bamboo book

Discovery and Preservation of 2,500-Year-Old Bamboo Strips

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “As Beijing prepared to host the 2008 Olympics, a small drama was unfolding in Hong Kong. Two years earlier, middlemen had come into possession of a batch of waterlogged manuscripts that had been unearthed by tomb robbers in south-central China. The documents had been smuggled to Hong Kong and were lying in a vault, waiting for a buyer. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, April 21, 2016 ~]

“Universities and museums around the Chinese world were interested but reluctant to buy. The documents were written on hundreds of strips of bamboo, about the size of chopsticks, that seemed to date from 2,500 years ago... But their authenticity was in doubt, as were the ethics of buying looted goods. Then, in July, an anonymous graduate of Tsinghua University stepped in, bought the soggy stack, and shipped it back to his alma mater in Beijing. University administrators acted boldly. They appointed China’s most famous historian, seventy-five-year-old Li Xueqin, to head a team of experts to study the strips. On July 17, the researchers gingerly placed the slips in enamel basins filled with water, hoping to duplicate the environment that had allowed the fibrous material to survive so long. ~

“The next day, disaster struck. Horrified team members noticed that the thin strips had already started developing black spots—fungus that within a day could eat a hole through the bamboo. Administrators convened a crisis meeting, and ordered the school’s top chemistry professors to save the slips. Over the following weeks, the scientists worked nonstop through the eerily empty campus—the students were on vacation, and everyone else was focused on the Olympic Green just a few miles east. With the nation on high alert for the games, security officers blocked the scientists from bringing stabilizing chemicals into the locked-down capital. But the university again put its weight behind the project, convincing leaders that the strips were a national priority. By the end of the summer, Professor Li and his team had won their prize: a trove of documents that is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.” ~

Revelations from the 2,500-Year-Old Bamboo Strips

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “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. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, April 21, 2016 ~]

“These competing ideas were lost after China was unified in 221 B.C. under the Qin, China’s first dynasty. In one of the most traumatic episodes from China’s past, the first Qin emperor tried to stamp out ideological nonconformity by burning books. Modern historians question how many books really were burned. (More works probably were lost to imperial editing projects that recopied the bamboo texts onto newer technologies like silk and, later, paper in a newly standardized form of Chinese writing.) But the fact is that for over two millennia all our knowledge of China’s great philosophical schools was limited to texts revised after the Qin unification. Earlier versions and competing ideas were lost—until now. ~

“One example is The Bamboo Texts of Guodian, an epic, 1,200-page annotation and translation of all eight hundred slips from Guodian by Scott Cook of Yale- NUS College in Singapore. This is the most complete rendering of the Guodian discovery in any language, including Chinese, and is an example of the sort of cross-cultural work now possible among paleographers who share their ideas and views on blogs and in chatrooms. Most notable among the Guodian texts is a version of the Daoist classic, Laozi’s Daodejing (better known in the West by the older Romanization form as Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, or “The Way and Its Power”). Cook writes that the discoveries at least partly confirm traditional views of the antiquity of the Daodejing, a hotly debated subject for the past century, especially in the West. ~

“This is because antiquity doubters like Gu influenced many of the West’s most important sinologists of the twentieth century. In his highly influential 1963 Penguin translation of the Daodejing, for example, D.C. Lau arbitrarily adds 196 subheadings to the text, arguing that these were independent sayings with only a “tenuous” connection to each other, and were only collected much later, and in a haphazard manner. The newly excavated texts, however, show that at least large chunks of the Daodejing were circulating in China in the Warring States Period. Some Chinese scholars like Cook and Li believe that the full text existed at that point. ~

2,500-Year-Old Bamboo Strips on Meritocracy Versus Hereditary Rule

bamboo book unfolded

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “One school of Chinese thought, Mohism, advocated meritocracy in the appointment of officials, while other schools referred to ancient kings who handed rule to sagacious ministers rather than their sons. These legends of abdication were also incorporated in the work of Mencius. He accepted hereditary rule, but with the caveat that if a ruler was very bad, then the people could abandon him and the “mandate of heaven” could pass to a better ruler. But overall the transmitted texts support hereditary rule; revolt was meant to be a measure of last resort to depose a tyrant or a grossly incompetent ruler. Abdication was consigned to the primordial past. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, April 21, 2016 ~]

“The new texts reveal that other philosophers took much more radical positions. Some contend that every ruler eventually should abdicate in favor of the most talented person in the land. And not just that, but at least one of the new texts is explicitly Confucian in origin, forcing us to revise our view of that school of thought. Sarah Allan makes the case for this in her bold new book, Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts. This is a translation of four texts, all previously unknown, all firmly in the intellectual world of the followers of Confucius, but all arguing strenuously in favor of meritocracy—even for rulers. ~

“One of the texts, Tang Yu Zhi Dao, or The Way of Tang Yao and Yu Shun, from the Guodian excavation, is a philosophical discourse that is based on a well-known myth of King Yao yielding power not to his evil son, but to his wise minister, Shun. But instead of being presented as an exception, as it is in the previous transmitted texts, the story is told as a model for all rulers in every era: “To abdicate and not monopolize is the fullest expression of sagehood.” ~

“Allan also analyzes two texts from the collection in the Shanghai Museum. One is a meritocratic discussion in the form of questions and answers between Confucius and his disciple Zigao. In the known Confucian texts that contain stories of Confucius’s life—primarily the Analects and the Mencius—Zigao is described as a ne’er-do-well and a marginal figure. But here he is a welcome interlocutor of the sage and asks him about the issue of abdication, which Confucius supports—a view never attributed to Confucius before. This text also shows Confucius discussing esoteric issues such as divine insemination and miraculous birth—a direct challenge to the conventional view of Confucius as a secularist who, as “The Analects” put it, “did not talk about uncanny events, feats of strength, disorders, or spirits.” ~

“The other text from Shanghai, the Rongchengshi, is a long narrative describing an idealized time when all served according to their ability, not according to their birth. The final text, the Bao xun from the Tsinghua collection, is an instruction from a king to his son, reminding him that abdication is a high ideal. In her lucid introduction and conclusion, Allan cautions that these texts do not form a coherent philosophical school. But they do make references to people and arguments found in the extant canon, making it plausible that Mencius’s “mandate of heaven” was a direct response to these kinds of writings, a kind of compromise that protected hereditary rule by incorporating some of the meritocrats’ views. Such stories, Allan writes, “served to promote abdication as an alternative to hereditary rule. This paradigm of abdication is the only alternative to the idea of dynastic cycle found in the Chinese tradition and it did not survive the Qin and Han dynasties as an idea for an alternative form of succession. ~

Relevance of the 2,500-Year-Old Bamboo Strips to Today

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “When China’s imperial system collapsed in the early twentieth century, iconoclasts used the lack of ancient texts to question everything about China’s past. Led by one of China’s most influential historians of the twentieth century, Gu Jiegang, this “doubt antiquity” (yigu) movement cast aspersions on the received history that Chinese had learned for millennia, from the existence of its first dynasties to the uniformity of the great philosophical texts. For Gu Jiegang and his allies, Chinese history was much like the West’s, founded in myth and oral traditions that only slowly evolved into written works at a much later date. These were plausible theses, but Gu had no archaeological evidence to back his ideas, instead relying on close readings of the transmitted texts to find inconsistencies. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, April 21, 2016 ~]

“In China, this skeptical approach to the past was displaced by the Communist victory in 1949. History was interpreted through another unbending lens: Marxism’s rigid eras of primitive, slave, feudal, and capitalist societies that would culminate in communism. Although this schema can still be seen in some Chinese museums, few people have truly believed in it since the disasters of the Mao era discredited Communist ideology. But over the years since then, as China struggles to create a new identity, a “believe in antiquity” (xingu) movement has slowly taken hold—one promoted today by the Communist Party, which idealizes a neat past of filial piety and harmony, a harmless, fairy-tale world, anesthetized and dull. The discovery of ancient texts has begun a challenge to these simplistic positions. ~

“Another point of contention is the scope of ancient Chinese civilization. In traditional history, China was seen as stretching from Beijing in the north to Guangdong in the south, and from its coastline to today’s Sichuan province. Some Westerners have dismissed this, saying that it did not make sense to speak of “China” before the Qin unified China in the third century B.C.. Instead, they argue, the states that existed before the Qin should be viewed as separate cultures. But the discovery of these manuscripts at least partially backs the traditionalists. They are almost certainly from the southern state of Chu, which had one of the most distinctive local cultures. The implication is that the various kingdoms engaged in the same philosophical debates and discussions, perhaps making it defensible to speak of one greater cultural area. ~

“And yet the texts also challenge the traditionalists. Even today, Mencius’s “mandate of heaven” is essentially the argument used by the Communist Party to justify its rule: the Kuomintang had become corrupt and ineffective, thus the Communists were justified in usurping power. The Party’s continued rule is likewise justified by China’s economic development, which proves heaven’s support (“history’s judgment,” in Communist parlance). But true to Chinese tradition, the Party makes clear that its rule is hereditary. This is true not only broadly in the sense that other parties cannot take power, but narrowly in the creation of a quasi-hereditary class that has coalesced around “red” families that helped found the Communist state. The old texts, however, show that even in ancient China, a significant group of writers disapproved of such practices, arguing for rule based purely on merit rather than membership in a group. ~

Study of the 2,500-Year-Old Bamboo Strips

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: I went “to the main offices of China’s National Archives are located just north of the Forbidden City... in 2014 to hear a public talk by Liu Guozhong, one of Professor Li’s chief deputies. Almost every year, the team gives a public update on its work...Liu told a crowd of about one hundred the story of how he and other members of the team saved the strips from rot in 2008. He showed pictures of how the strips were now being held in trays in a dark room and how the university was building a museum and research center. Then he outlined some of the new texts soon to be released: a chart for multiplying and dividing complex numbers, as well as new books of divination. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, April 21, 2016 ~]

“Liu spoke carefully and avoided grand conclusions. In person at their offices or at international conferences that they organized, team members speak freely, but their writings and comments are focused on very specific issues. At one conference, I sat next to Sarah Allan, who noticed the same thing.“I don’t know if it’s especially Chinese, or a result of the past decades [of political turmoil], but people often don’t try to make bigger conclusions,” she told me. “They write the papers and do the research with the big picture in their head, but rarely write it down.” ~

“And yet many people do seem to get the implications. Paleography is a popular field, attracting some of the best young Chinese academics. When I asked Professor Liu about this, he told me that up until the 1970s, “We had these classics like the Shangshu[the Ancient Documents], and for two thousand years they didn’t change. Now we can see them before that and the texts are different!” ~

“At his lecture, Professor Liu said the work will keep him busy until he returns, adding: “But then you and others will be debating this for the rest of this century.” He then concluded and bowed to the audience. People rushed the stage, peppering the young academic with questions. There was a man from the I Ching Research Society asking how they should treat the new texts on divination. A journalist asked about a chart that could be used as a calculator. A graduate student from Peking University eagerly asked about the political implications of abdication. Professor Liu answered them all, while handing out name cards. When the last of his stack was gone, people began to pass them around, snapping photos of his card with cell phones. The room was lit now only by the dim winter sun. The guards at the back waited to lock the door, but the crowd wouldn’t let Professor Liu leave. For them, he held a key to the present: the past.” ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2021

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