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Warring States Bamboo Slips from the State of Chu

May 9, 2013

Sam Goldstein




Warring States Bamboo Slips from the State of Chu:

 Piecing Together Ancient Puzzles


There is a large corpus of scholarship, mostly but not all in Chinese, regarding the interpretation and reconstruction of Warring States (~475-221 BCE) bamboo slips from the state of Chu (approximately modern Hubei). This field is currently my main academic focus, and this paper provides a survey of this area of research aimed at a non-specialist audience that has to this point not been available. Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien’s Written on Bamboo and Silk[1] does a marvelous job of presenting a broad picture of the history and practice of “ancient” Chinese writing, that is, writing from archaic times in the Shang dynasty (~1600-1046 BCE) until the firm establishment of paper in the late Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and beyond, from areas that we would consider today as parts of China. Materials used for writing in the period covered by Tsien consisted of, in very rough chronological order, bones, turtle shells, bronze, clay, bamboo, wood, and paper (Tsien xi-xii). The use of bamboo itself overlapped with the use of paper by 300 years, lasting until 6th century CE. (Tsien 97)

            This survey will focus on a specific era— the Warring States, a specific material– bamboo, and a specific local—the state of Chu. A survey of this nature may serve to familiarize readers with a fascinating and important area of research, but more practically, it may serve to synthesize a scholarly process so that the field itself may be viewed comprehensively and coherently. There is no reason that this field cannot be attractive to non-specialists and those with casual interest, as well as accessible to those who may otherwise be intimidated by a field that might at first appear obscure and cliquish, and who would like to use the arguments in this research for their own scholarly disciplines, or perhaps try to break into the field for the first time.

The Warring States period was a chaotic time. Technically, the Zhou dynasty lasted from 1046-256 BCE, but the Zhou dynasty is divided into the Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE) and the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-256 BCE), with the Warring States period taking up a large chunk of this collapsing later dynastic era. For a rough map from 260 BCE see appendix figure 1.

 Despite the virtual independence of the competing states and accompanying political turmoil throughout the Warring States period, it is generally considered a golden age of cultural and philosophical pursuits. Individual states maintained strong cultures of their own, with their own rituals, traditions, and even writing scripts. Within this context, independent scholar-officials sought employ by the various states, gathered disciples, and spread their teachings via the written word.

The  “warring state” of Chu was one of the largest and dominant states for much of the period, until it was finally overrun by the state of Qin in approximately 224 BCE, which allowed the Qin state to unify the realm and establish the Qin dynasty shortly thereafter in 221 BCE. Chu maintained a strong, independent culture for centuries, with distinct music, artistry, and writing. These distinctions are often on brilliant display in excavated Chu tombs, which themselves maintain a distinct Chu style. Along with more recent archaeological evidence, the history of this time period is recounted in such ‘received’ textual sources as the Zhanguo ce 戰國策 (Warring States Annals)[2], and Sima Qian’s Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian)[3].

A received version of a text is a canonical text that has been passed down through history and is accessible to this day. However, sometimes texts are discovered in tombs or other archaeological sites, and these texts are simply referred to as excavated texts (出土文獻 chutu wenxian). If they are determined to be versions of received texts, they may be referred to as excavated versions of the respective text. For example, there is a received version of the Dao De Jing which is part of the Daoist institutional canon, and there are also many excavated versions including the Guodian Laozi, which I will introduce shortly. In large part because of the soil composition in the general Hubei area where the state of Chu once was, tombs tend to be relatively well-preserved. The white clay earth creates a tight seal around the tombs.

Excavations and Acquisitions

Ancient Chinese relics become available to work on in one of two ways: an archaeological discovery, or an acquisition by an institution. China is littered with ancient tombs and deposits of old and interesting things. Textual discoveries are particularly important when we want to collect and popularize evidence of cultural and linguistic development in ancient China. For Warring States discoveries, sometimes writing is found on relics such as stone vessels or jade artifacts, but the most extensive texts are usually found on long, thin slips of bamboo. These slips can vary greatly in length and width.

Back in the day, bamboo slips were prepared by first cutting bamboo into cylinders of uniform length, then cutting the cylinders into strips of uniform width. The green outer cuticle would then be stripped off, followed by drying of the slips over a fire. The outer convex surface would most commonly be used for writing, but sometimes the inner surface would also be used. Scribes would utilize both a knife and a brush, the knife most likely made of bronze. Knives would be used for cutting slips and for engraving on harder materials such as jade, but they would also be used to erase characters by physically scraping or shaving. The brush would be used for writing. A “book” (juan) would then be bound by string made of silk, hemp, or leather would then be bound by string made of silk, hemp, or leather. (Tsien 113-124)

After excavation or acquisition on the black market a group of texts is typically secured by an institution, often a museum. Over the past 60 years, there have been several discoveries of important texts dating to the Warring States from the state of Chu. The names (the location of the discovery or when that is unknown, the holder of the texts) and discovery dates of the most important of these texts are: Wulipai 五里牌 1951, Yangtianhu 仰天湖 1953, Yangjiawan 陽家灣 1954, Changtaiguan 長台關 1957, Wangshan 望山1965, Shuihudi 水湖地 1975, Suixian 隨縣 1987, Fangmatan 放馬灘 1986, Baoshan 包山 1987, Guodian 1993, and the Shanghai Museum Collection 1994 (Tsien 101-103). The last two of these are the ones that have received the most scholarly attention and are arguably the most important.

Archaeological Excavation: The Example of Guodian

An archaeological discovery might be made in any number of circumstances. In the case of the Guodian slips found in 1993, the tomb in which they were found was in one of several burial mounds in an ancient graveyard. Because this particular tomb was robbed several times, water began to leak in, and thus it was thought prudent to excavate. The excavation was not part of a plan to deal with all the tombs in the area. Besides the bamboo slips for which the site is known, the tomb also contained many beautiful artifacts such as weapons, household items, and vessels. Archaeologists did a thorough job of examining and cataloguing all aspects of the tomb in their report Jingmen Guodian yihao Chu mu荆门郭店一号楚墓 (Jingmen Guodian Tomb Number One)[4] from 1997. Based on evidence collected from the tomb, several conclusions could be drawn. See appendix figure 2 for a sketch of the tomb from the report.

Dating: Late fourth or early third century BCE. This conclusion was drawn based on the typically “Chu” orientation and style of the tomb; thus, because the state of Chu was defeated by the state of Qin in 278 BCE, we can be relatively certain that the tomb predated this defeat. Moreover, because the artifacts discovered are very similar to artifacts discovered in other Chu tombs, namely those of Baoshan Tomb Number 2 (316 BCE) and Wangshan Tomb Number 1 (332 BCE), and seeing as these tombs had been previously dated based on other evidence, the date of the tomb can be further approximated to the middle-late 4th century BCE. Some of these artifacts which were very similar to those in other Chu tombs included a lacquer cup, and two different wooden combs. (Hubei 47) See figure 3 for a picture of some of the artifacts from the tomb.


Identity of entombed: Member of the lowest aristocratic class (shi 士), possibly the tutor of either King Kaolie or King Qingxiang of Chu. This conclusion can be drawn based on three main pieces of evidence. First, the tomb had a mound and was not flat, thus distinguishing it from the tomb of a commoner. Second, the coffin had two layers—according to early texts, this was customary for members of the shi class. Lastly, a cup was discovered in the tomb with an inscription stating “Teacher of the Eastern Palace.” Scholars noted that this was the residence of the heir to the Chu throne. Thus, based on the aforementioned dating, it could have only been one of these two kings.

Furthermore, based on the content of the texts discovered, we can speculate as to the occupation and personality of the tomb’s occupant. The tomb contained texts now considered Confucian, along with the earliest known version of the Laozi, as well as a new metaphysical text dubbed by the excavators “Taiyi sheng shui” 太一生水 (The Great Unity Ascends to Water), which is similar to the Laozi in content. Some would contend that this collection is the most significant Warring States discovery in modern Chinese history. Based on the texts, we can reasonably guess that the entombed very well could have been a teacher. Robert Hendricks points out that unlike many other Chu tombs, which contain divination records and inventories, this tomb contained a veritable “philosophical library” of bamboo slips[5] (Hendricks 3-5).

The Guodian site was unlucky in that it was robbed twice before excavation was undertaken, but lucky in that the excavation was done professionally. Other sites were not as lucky. Make no mistake, the antiquities market in China is very big and very shady. In the case of the Guodian tomb, several artifacts and some bamboo slips were stolen before the tomb was excavated. Who knows what happened to them. Some of them may very well be sitting one someone’s mantelpiece.

Acquisition on the Black Market: The Example of the Shanghai Museum Collection

In the case of the Guodian tomb, it has been recognized as an ancient tomb and was robbed as such. Because of all the construction taking place in China, many previously unknown sites are often found as building sites are prepared. When a tomb is happened upon by building contractors, they can contact the relevant authorities, and have their project halted until a complete archaeological excavation is conducted. Or they can sell off the artifacts to professional dealers, who sell them on the black market. Because of this, China’s rapid development can be seen as both a boon and a curse for the fields of archaeology and paleography in China. On the one hand, the drive to exploit and transform more and more space and the digging that accompanies this increases the likelihood that tombs and artifacts may be discovered. On the other hand, the chances for irresponsible or illegal mishandling of such artifacts also drastically increases. There is without doubt a tension between economic development and cultural preservation in China today.

One of the most important sets of Warring States Chu texts was purchased in Hong Kong by the Shanghai Museum in 1994. The collection is called the Shanghai Bowuguan cang Chu Zhushu 上海博物館藏楚竹書 (Shanghai Museum Collection Chu Bamboo Slips.) The collection was purchased for an undisclosed sum (probably millions of dollars), with the support of a wealthy donor. Unfortunately, the market for such antiquities is in part sustained by institutions such as the Shanghai Museum that are willing to buy them and a climate in which this kind of acquisition of historical artifacts is not widely condemned. In any case, when museums are the buyers, it is more likely that they will try to purchase them in such a way that the integrity of the texts is preserved as much as possible, which is why the collection was purchased as a whole.

Both the bamboo and the writing on excavated slips are very fragile. The slips have to be stored in liquid as soon as they are excavated. If they are mishandled or stored incorrectly, irreversible damage may be inflicted on the texts to the point where the writing may no longer be legible. Contact with oxygen, sunlight, and changes in humidity may cause significant damage to bamboo slips, including discoloration and fading, thus, great care must be taken in cleaning and storing these slips. In order to prevent fading, the slips are treated with a sodium dithionite solution, preserved with the chemical EDTA, then stored in this liquid solution[6].(Li 59-61)

The Paleographer’s Turn: Initial Publications

The Guodian Bamboo Slips were discovered in 1993, and the initial publication was produced in 1998 by the Jingmen Museum[7], shortly following the publishing of the archaeological report. The discovery contained 804 complete or partial bamboo slips with over 13,000 characters.[8] There was also a large conference on the Guodian discovery in May 1998 at Dartmouth, which helped to spur great international interest in the texts.[9]

The Shanghai Museum Collection Chu Warring States Bamboo Manuscripts (《上海博物国楚竹[10]) were published for the first time beginning in 2001. It was produced in nine volumes by Ma Chengyuan from the Shanghai Museum, with the most recent volume being published in 2012. This collection contains altogether over 1,200 slips and slip fragments, with over 35,000 characters.[11] The initial publication of a set of bamboo slips with writing will include an attempt to organize the slips, as well as an interpretation of the texts, along with images of them. The breakdown of the entire collection of slips into separate discrete “texts” is sometimes relatively obvious to trained scholars, and sometimes subject to fierce debate. Stand-alone texts from the time period were usually not terribly long, and this makes it relatively convenient to break the texts down and produce reconstructions on a text-by-text basis. The organization and interpretation together may be considered a “reconstruction” of the text. The purpose of the initial publication, beyond offering a first attempt at a reconstruction, is to get the text out into the scholarly environment. Once this is done, then further scholarship may commence.

The initial reconstruction is invariably picked apart and reinterpreted. However, one privilege assigned to the initial scholar is the right to name the texts, as well as the right to assign numbers to the slips. When re-interpreting the texts, scholars will usually use the names and numbers assigned to the slips and slip fragments by the initial publishing scholar.

Interpretation and Reconstruction

The interpretation process, shidu 釋讀 (a compound of words for “interpret” and “read”), is the meat of the scholarly endeavor. It is largely undertaken by those with paleographical expertise, and a firm grasp of Classical Chinese, as well as the specific script of the texts (in this case the Chu script of the Warring States period) is essential. However, in addition to paleographers, the work of archaeologists, as well as linguists, etymologists, and classicists is also important in answering as many questions about the texts as possible. In order to do good work, one may have to consult with experts in a wide array of disciplines, making this field particularly collaborative.

If an archaeological excavation was undertaken, the reports may serve as a starting point for information to be gleaned about the text. Precise dating, the identity of the entombed, as well as the location of the slips within the tomb may all also serve to provide scholars with valuable information.

Once the slips are outside their tombs, they can enter into the paleographical stage of analysis. This analysis is in some ways like putting together an ancient, invaluable, incomplete puzzle. In searching for evidence to develop and support arguments regarding the correct organization, interpretation, and reconstruction of bamboo texts, scholars must remain open to all sorts of potential information, all at the same time. Some basic fundamentals of Warring States writing are that characters are written top to bottom, and the slips are read moving from right to left. Each slip is wide enough for one vertical line of characters. For the sake of argument, I will now attempt to break this process down into digestible chunks.

Reconstructing a Text: The Example of the Kongzi shilun

I will use the Kongzi shilun as an example text throughout this discussion. This text is part of the Shanghai Museum Collection and may serve as a useful guinea pig in our English language context simply because some English scholarship has been published on it, namely by Professor Theis Staack from the University of Hamburg.[12]

If slips are found together, especially if they are actually physically bound together, then this is clear evidence of slip order. However, bound slips dated to the Warring States are extremely uncommon (to my knowledge). But it is common for slips from the same text to be unearthed in the general vicinity of each other. If slips from the same tomb are of uniform length and width, then this may serve as evidence that the slips belong together. Moreover, although the physical bindings may have long since rotted away, the binding points will invariably still be evident. Slips were commonly bundled together with horizontally oriented lines of string. The slips would be weaker along these points from centuries of contact with the binding material, and thus more likely to break at these points. For examples of a Han bamboo text with bindings intact, and a text from the Shanghai Museum Collection reconstructed with the binding points obviously visible, see appendix figures 4 and 5 respectively. Complete slips were cut at the ends in an orderly fashion, and the slip ends are thus clearly evident, as is the orientation of any slip fragment as long as there are characters readable on it. Therefore, because the length of the complete slips may be determined, and because the distance between bindings may also be determined, this information may serve a vital purpose in helping to organize the slips in the order that they were meant to be read. . Some slips are strikingly different in their physical characteristics in terms of length, width, texture, color, and handwriting. For example, in figure 6 see an example from the text titled Xingqing lun性情論 from the Shanghai Museum Collection to compare to the Shilun slips.

Each text presents it’s own special challenges and characteristics. The Shilun was bound with three lines of string. The only unbroken Shilun slip was 55.5 cm long, with all of the slips having approximately the same width (0.6 cm) and thickness (0.11-0.13cm). (Staack 861) In contrast, the slips of the Guodian Laozi were grouped into three bundles, all with two binding points, with the slips from Laozi A being  32.3cm long, the Laozi B being 30.6cm long, and the Laozi C being 26.5cm long. (Hendricks 7-8)

Blank Ends

In the case of the Shilun, Liao Mingchun argued that because certain slips that many considered part of the Shilun should actually be considered part of the text titled Zi gao instead because they were similar to this text in physical appearance, length, content, and handwriting (Staack 866). This argument is based on the notion that the two texts were originally part of the same bundle (juan) of texts. This is a fairly compelling argument, but it should be noted that even if slips were in the same bundle, this doesn’t mean that they were necessarily intended to be read together as one text. Perhaps they were simply similar in content, or it was just convenient for the creators to bundle them together. It is common for one text to end and another to begin on the same slip. When this happens, sometimes the scribe will make an ink blot on the slip to signify this. Other than these sporadic marks, there is nothing that could be construed as modern punctuation in any Warring States Chinese texts. This is one element that adds to the challenge of reconstructing ancient Chinese writings.

With regards to the specific slips in question, the majority of scholars include these slips as part of the Shilun. They are referred to as “blank end” slips; they are slips that only have visible characters on part of the slip. Most of the slips are full of characters, and so scholars naturally questioned the nature of these strange slips (for an example, see appendix figure 7). Staack himself agrees with Ji Xusheng and puts his stock in the idea that there were at one time characters on the slips, but they were rubbed or scraped off intentionally, perhaps by scraping with a knife). Still others such as Li Xueqin argued that the characters could have worn off via a natural process after the slips were buried. (Staack 864-866) Jiang Guanghui argues that the text that the scribe was copying from was itself incomplete, and so the scribe left spaces blank in anticipation of the possibility of filling them in later when a more complete version became available to copy from, or to simply imply respect for missing content.[13] (Jiang 32) One problem that Staack sees with this argument is that we simply have no way of knowing precisely how the text was transmitted. He says, “we do not know whether the scribe was copying from another source, was writing from memory, or during recitation or dictation.”(Staack 865) One confusing point is that Staack states that there are “several hints that some kind of scraping was applied to the ends of these slips. Many scholars who closely studied the photographs or even had the opportunity to look at the original slips in the Shanghai Museum reported to have seen such traces” (Staack 866), whereas Jiang states that scholars who examined the slips said that “the slips have absolutely no trace of ever having a single character written on them”. (Jiang 32) Perhaps a more scientific examination could determine whether there is evidence of scraping on the slips, but this has yet to be done. This just goes to show how work on this text is still relatively preliminary although the initial publication has been available for over a decade. It’s also worth noting that this emphasizes the fact that scholars must often rely on each other’s work in lieu of direct access to the original slips, which may be difficult, or at least inconvenient to get.

Anyways, making a solid argument for the nature of these blank ends is essential to the process of reconstructing the Shilun, since if one argues that the slips with blank ends hold some special position, then this is material evidence for the organizing of the slips. But if one’s argument concludes that the slips were either at one time full of characters or characters were left off by the scribe, then the slips could go anywhere within the text.

Textual Parallelism

Another type of evidence that can be used especially effectively in the case of parts of the Kongzi shilun, is textual parallelism. The Kongzi shilun is supposedly composed of comments by Confucius about a wide range of poems of the type transmitted in the Shijing詩經 ( Book of Poetry). The Shijing itself is the primary source for reconstructing the rhyme groups of Old Chinese although there is no complete received version. It is therefore no surprise that the text is full of instances of rhythmic prose. In several instances, the author utilizes parallel sentence structures. Therefore, in places where there are questions as to how to organize the slips or how to fill in missing sections, evidence based on textual parallelism can be used. In the Shilun, the traditional so-called “ode-categories” of the Shijing are mentioned, with comments made about the categories or about specific poems within the categories. The comments are often made in an orderly, rhythmic fashion. Here is an example of how Staack illustrates this textual parallelism:

Example: “頌,平德也,多言…” (#2)

“大雅,盛德也,多言…” (#2)

Formula: “[ode category]XX也多言…” (#2 and 3)

(occurring twice completely, once partly)


(Staack 874)


Here is a Romanization of this example:

Example: “song, ping de ye, duo yan…” (#2)

“da ya, cheng de ye, duo yan…” (#2)

Formula: “[ode category]XX ye duo yan …” (#2 and 3)


In this illustration, the parenthetical numbers refer to Ma’s original slip number. The “XX” refers to the short descriptive characterization of whichever ode category, while “song” and “da ya” are the names of two ode categories. This example of textual parallelism occurs partly on slip number 3, and Staack makes a very convincing argument that this pattern can be extended to the blank end on slip number 3, since one half of the pattern occurs on the portion of the slip with characters visible. Staack infers that the missing part of the pattern would have been scraped off according to his blank end theory. Moreover, because the inclusion of the xiao ya ode category on the blank end of slip 3 can be inferred because it is traditionally associated with da ya, If no characters where ever written on the blank ends, then an entire missing slip would have to be inferred between slips 2 and 3. This would entail a commentary of 40 characters for da ya and xiao ya, which is inordinately long. Because of this, Staack views this instance of textual parallelism as further evidence for his theory that there once were characters on all the blank ends. (Staack 874-875) Textual parallelism can be viewed as an example effective and innovative technique that can be used in some cases to support one’s reconstruction of bamboo slip texts.

The “Liding” Process

            When attempting to understand a text, a correct reading of individual characters is essential. Certain characters invariably are more problematic to interpret than others, and entire academic debates are often spurred by questions regarding the correct interpretation of a single character. Some scholars relegate the discussion of interesting or problematic characters to either footnotes, or to an endnote section, with many scholars, especially Chinese scholars, assigning a complete section to the discussion of interesting characters. This process is also essential to the process of organizing the slips, and discussions of the correct interpretation of specific characters often continues indefinitely. Sometimes a more satisfactory interpretation of a character will not necessitate a rearrangement of the slips, but it very well may, and either way, it most certainly affects how one reads the text, as well as how one would potentially translate it into another language. This kind of reinterpretation may illustrate the continual nature of textual interpretation..

When interpreting individual characters, scholars utilize a technique called “liding隸定. This term comes from the word lishu隸屬, which is the name for the so-called “clerical script” which was the popular, standardized script starting in the Han dynasty, with its roots in the Warring States period Qin state. Used as a verb, the term liding means to analyze and identify the constituent etymological components of a pre-Qin character, and construct a new character in the standard Chinese script. After this new character is created, then one may interpret the character as representing a word that has a certain meaning. This is a term which has maintained relevance to this day. Instead of transcribing the new characters into the clerical script, they are now transcribed into a form that when printed or typed will look like a modern (although perhaps strange) character. Sound etymological arguments add to the corpus of textual evidence which may then be cited in the future.

Here is a simple liding example. This is the character commonly written today as 其: (Ma 13). This character is reconstructed as “丌”. Using the notation common among scholars in the field, we could represent this character as[丌], and the word interpreted from this character as{其}. This is not a controversial character. This is the common way that the word {其} was written in Chu texts. In classical Chinese, this word is a third person possessive signifier. The character used for the word that is nowadays written {其} took many different forms before the establishment of standard script in the Qin dynasty. Other pre-Qin examples of the character look like a winnowing basket, and the character actually originally was used with this meaning. For images of several variations of the character used to represent this word, see appendix figure X. The character was then used for the word for the possessive third person because the two words sounded similar. It was only later that the character used for “basket” had a bamboo radical added to distinguish it, as  {箕}. For a table showing several forms of the character [丌], as it appeared in different states and at different times, see figure 8.

Here is an example of a character from the Shilun that was a bit controversial and received scholarly attention: (Ma 13). There is a consensus that the character had been reconstructed incorrectly by Ma Chengyuan. He mistakenly interpreted the character as 止 on top of 言, when it should really be interpreted to have a 之 on top instead.[14] (Ji 7) This character is the Chu script way to write {詩},poetry, and here refers to the Shijing (詩經), the Book of Poetry,.

In making phonological arguments for how to interpret characters, a traditional style of argument based on the construction of rhyme groups for Old Chinese by the Qing Dynasty scholars, Wang Niansun and Jiang Yougao is often used. They constructed a system of rhyme groups based on the ancient rhyme dictionary the Qieyun, as well as the Shijing.[15](Baxter 62) All together, they came up with thirty rhyme groups. The rhyme groups have names. Evidence from the ancient 1st century BCE dictionary Shuowen Jiezi说文解字is also often included. This dictionary may include a brief definition typically based on the components of the character, indicating whether the component is a phonetic or root. The Chinese language(s) from the time that the Qieyun was written is referred to as zhonggu hanyu中古汉语 (Middle Chinese). The language(s) in use in pre-Qin times are referred to as shanggu hanyu上古汉语 (Old Chinese).

After the state of Qin overran the state of Chu in around 224 BCE, it consolidated power and took full empirical control of China, with emperor Qin Shihuang establishing his Qin dynasty. The Qin emperor destroyed literature all over the country; he also oversaw the standardization of Chinese script, establishing what became known as small seal script  (xiaozhuan小傳), which would soon be replaced in popularity by the clerical script. For a comparison of xiaozhuan and lishu see figure 9. Because of this significant literary event, much written history was lost, and much of what was preserved was held in people’s memories. In recalling pre-Qin texts, scribes would record from their own memories or record the words of others. Because they may not have known exactly what the words meant, they would often record characters whose pronunciation in their own dialect sounded like the words they were hearing, but in reality may have been written with a different character that would have made more etymological sense. Thus, after Qin, we see a large number of these so-called “loan characters” come into the corpus. Small seal script was eventually supplanted in popularity by clerical script in the Han Dynasty. Both of these scripts are relatively legible to a contemporary reader of Chinese, compared to the pre-Qin scripts used by speakers of Old Chinese.

Sometimes mistakes are made that are quickly corrected by other scholars, and sometimes there is no final consensus as to how a certain character should be read. One problem with this style of argument is that it is based on linguistic evidence from sources, the Shuowen and Qieyun, which were written hundreds of years after the Warring States. Moreover, one could argue that a finer understanding of the pronunciation and rhyming of characters and the words that they represented will help to clarify many of the etymological issues in Warring States texts. If we incorporate linguistic evidence based on older sources, then we will be able to construct a more accurate and fine-grained picture of the writing of the Warring States period. Scholars in the Qing dynasty left us with a tremendously valuable tool that allows us to accurately distinguish words that did rhyme, basing their rhyme tables on the rhymes evident in the Shijing, but, as William Baxter and Laurent Sagart point out, these scholars failed to take account of words that, at the time, did not rhyme, and then later merged. Moreover, only a small percentage of words rhymed with each other, and in order to accurately understand and reconstruct pre-Qin texts, we need to be open to information from all relevant sources, including phonology. Baxter and Sagart point out “from the scripts of recently discovered pre-Qin documents, we now have more and better evidence about Old Chinese phonology than was available to earlier researchers, and we can see the importance to Old Chinese reconstruction of careful paleographic research. In some cases, the standard script simply fails to give enough information; in other cases it is positively misleading, because it reflects the phonology of Qin and Han rather than Old Chinese.” (Baxter 75)

One important example of how innovative techniques of phonological analysis may help us to determine how to read characters from Warring States texts is the reconstruction of the character  勢shi. When it appears in pre-Qin texts, this word is usually translated as “power”, “authority, “influence”, or “circumstances”. It has many possible senses, and it has often proven difficult to translate. However, Baxter and Sagart discovered that this character was connected etymologically to the character 設she.  According to Qiu Xigui, this character was in several instances written with an element that was the ancestor to the word that is now written 埶yi, to plant, which is the top component of the character 勢. This discovery clarified the connection between 設 and勢, proving that all three words had the same beginning consonant sound,  with 勢 taking on the sense of  “the way nature has set things up”. (Baxter 76-77) This discovery could not have been made without taking into account pre-Qin sources of information.

Common Notation and Added Punctuation

I have touch upon one element of common notation used in this field, namely the use of brackets when discussing characters and their interpretations as words. When scholars reconstruct a text, the textual product may look overly confusing and complicated. After all, the slips themselves are elegant, concise, clear, and orderly! In reality, the reconstructions are not overly complicated. Good scholars who are intending to communicate with each other simply want their work on the text to be as transparent as possible. Here is how Thies Staack reconstructed a section of the Shilun:


And his translation:

The “change” of Guan ju, the “right time” of Jiu mu, the “prudence” of Han guang, the “homecoming”151 of Que chao, the “protection” of Gan tang, the “longing” of Lü yi, the “feelings” of Yan yan, what [about them]? Implementing them, [these odes] are all [becoming] more virtuous than they were at the be- ginning. In Guan ju, the rules of conduct are explained through sexual desires. […] two [a pair?]. This is explained in the fourth stanza. By the delight in zither and harp, lustful desires are imitated; by the enjoyment of bells and drums […] fondness. Someone who turns and channels [these feelings] according to the rules of conduct, is he not also capable of changing? In Jiu mu, the blessings are thus with the gentleman. Is it not [also …? In Han guang …] achievable, not to go about something one is not able to do; is it not also knowing things, which cannot be changed? If one leaves [accompanied] by a hundred chariots, [as described in] Que chao, is it not still a departure? In Gan [tang …] and his [the Duke of Shao’s] people, respected and cared for his tree. His protection [of the people] was powerful. The care in Gan tang is founded on the Duke of Shao [… Lü yi Yan yan …] feelings and affection.

(Staack 894-96)


The Shilun is a discussion of various poems. In the Chinese reconstruction, notice how double brackets are used around titles of poems. In order to make the text more comprehensible, punctuation may be added to the reconstruction.  He has also included reconstructed punctuation for the convenience of the reader. The empty boxes with brackets around them simply represent missing characters, either because this is a so-called “blank end” or because Staack thinks there is a missing slip fragment. The “…”  represent gaps where it is not possible to determine the exact number of missing characters. In the English translation, notice where he says “[… Lü yi Yan yan …]”, this is him utilizing evidence based on textual parallelism to offer his reconstruction of missing text. These words aren’t actually on any slips, but he believes that these are the missing characters.

Recent Scholarship

            Scholarly publications are produced throughout the process of reconstructing texts, from archaeological reports, to initial publication, to extended scholarly debate in articles and books. In general, after a significant amount of Chinese language scholarship has been undertaken, we may see English language scholarship emerge, including translations. A complete translation of the Guodian Laozi was published by Robert Hendricks in 2000, and just this past year, Scott Cook from Grinnell College has published a translation of the entire Guodian slip collection in two volumes titled The Bamboo Texts of Guodian[16]. English language work on the Shanghai Museum Collection is not as far along. Staack has offered us a very preliminary translation of the Kongzi shilun, and he is one of only a couple non-Chinese scholars to publish his own reconstruction of any of the Shanghai Museum Collection texts. I am also aware of English language scholarship on the Zi gao text[17], as well as the Zhou yi text.[18] As far as an English-language audience is concerned, the next logical step would be to see an English translation of the entire Shanghai Museum Collection. There have been numerous full-scale Modern Chinese interpretations, notably that of Professor Ji Xusheng and his colleagues[19]. This English translation would be a massive task, however, and it is perhaps too early to start considering this undertaking considering the many textual questions which have not been answered satisfactorily to this point. Moreover, because the Guodian discovery contained the oldest known version of the Laozi, there was a significant potential English language readership.

Conclusion: Prospects for Future Scholarship

The Shanghai Museum Collection, despite containing a wide array of fascinating texts, simply does not have the same impact value as the Guodian Laozi. One reason for the high interest in the Laozi among western readership may be a general interest in mystical Daoist literature. The majority of the texts from the Shanghai Museum Collection are not really mystical, with many of them being considered part of the Confucian canon. After all, many of the reveived versions of the excavated texts have been received as part of the vast Confucian classic, the Liji禮記 (Book of Rites). However, there is one text, namely the Min zhi fumu, which touches on undeniably mystical concepts. The text is an excavated version of the Liji text Kongzi Xianju 孔子閒居 (Confucius at Home at Leisure). In this text, the voice of Confucius speaks of the undeniably mystical concepts of practicing  “music without sound”,  “ceremony without embodiment”, and “mourning without garb”.[20] In his book Original Dao, Harold Roth successfully pushes the idea that texts within larger “non-Daoist” works may be considered essentially Daoist,  or as part of a “mystical hermeneutic”. [21](Roth 3-5) He presents the Nei ye內業 (Inward Training) section of the Guanzi, a large legalist work whose received version originated in the Han dynasty, as an example of an expression of early Daoist mystical practice. There is no reason why the Kongzi xianjuand Min zhi fumu民之父母 Parent of the People) excavated version cannot be classified in the same way. Roth says, “if we are to truly understand early Taoist thought and its relationship to the later Taoist religion, we must include a much wider range of early philosophical texts in our analysis.” (Roth 6) An innovative reconstruction and translation of the Min zhi fumu may help to expand our notion of Chinese mysticism.

            As China continues to develop both economically as socially, we can expect more Warring States texts to pop up in the future. Hopefully, the social environment may develop in a positive way so as to better promote the preservation of these texts, and hopefully the scholarship in this field, in both Chinese and in other languages, may take advantage of more innovative analytical techniques such as those utilized by Theis Staack, as well as a more fine-grained understanding of Old Chinese phonology. There is a lot of excellent Chinese scholarship on Warring States texts, but if the tendency to be overly reliant on traditional modes of analysis can be overcome, then the products of such scholarship may be more well-rounded, and attractive to a wider audience.



[1] Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin. Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

[4]湖北省荊門市博物館。荆门郭店一号楚墓。文物, vol. 7 (1997) 35-48.

[5] Hendricks’ Robert G. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian. New York: Columbia University Press,  2000.

[6] 李玲, 擾亂古墓出土竹簡考古整理過程中的保護技術。中国文物科学研究。vol. 2, 2011。 59-61.

[7] [7]湖北省荊門市博物館, 郭店楚墓竹簡北京:文物出版社 , 1998.

[8] 郭店楚墓竹簡。 accessed April 30, 2013

[9] See: Allan, Sarah, and Crispin Williams, eds. The Guodian Laozi: Proceedings of the

International Conference, Dartmouth College, May 1998. Early China Special

Monograph Series 5. Berkeley, 2000.

[10]馬承源。上海博物館藏楚竹書vols. 1-9. 上海:上海古籍出版社, 2001-2012

[11] Kern, Martin. Early Chinese Poetics in the Light of Recently Discovered Manuscripts. Recarving the Dragon: Understanding Chinese Poetics. Ed. Olga Lomová. Prague: Karolinum, 2003. 27-72.

[12] Staack, Thies. Reconstructing the Kongzi shilun: From the Arrangement of the

Bamboo Slips to a Tentative Translation. Asiatische Studien vol. 64 issue 4 (2010): 857-906.

[13] Jiang Guanghui. Problems Concerning the Rearrangement, Interpretation, and Orientation of the Ancient Preface to the Poetry (Shixu). Contemporary Chinese Thought. Vol. 39, no. 4 (2008): 30-48.

[14]季旭昇, et al. 《上海博物館藏楚竹書》讀本 vol. 1. 臺北:萬卷樓, 2004.

[15] Baxter, William H., and Laurent Sagart [in press]. Old Chinese: a new reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press.


[16] Cook, Scott. The Bamboo Texts of Guodian: A Study and Complete Translation. Vols. 1 and 2. University of Hawaii Press, 2012.

[17] Allan, Sarah. Not the Lun yu: The Chu Script Bamboo Slip Manuscript, Zigao, and

the Nature of Early Confucianism. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African

Studies vol. 72 no. 1 (2009): 115-51.

[18] Shaughnessy, Edward L. A First Reading of the Shanghai Museum Bamboo-Strip

Manuscript of the Zhou Yi. Early China. Vol. 30 (2005-06): 1-24.

[19] 季旭昇, et al. 《上海博物館藏楚竹書》讀本 vols. 1-3. 臺北:萬卷樓, 2004.

[20]Legge, James, trans.《孔子閒居 – Kongzi Xian Ju》 Chinese Text Project. Accessed 4/30/13

[21] Roth, Harold D. Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

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