Buried Ideas
April 11, 2016 9:46 PM   Subscribe

‘For over two millennia,’ Ian Johnson writes, ‘all our knowledge of China’s great philosophical schools was limited to texts revised after the Qin unification.’ Now a trove of recently discovered ancient documents, written on strips of bamboo, ‘is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.’

Sarah Allan's new book Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts offers a introduction to Chu-script bamboo-slip manuscripts and a translation of their contents. The Tsinghua bamboo slip texts are changing our understanding of Chinese intellectual history.
posted by schneckinlittle (13 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
OMG this is so exciting! The only things that would beat it (strictly from my perspective) would be earlier versions of Middle Eastern texts.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:37 PM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

So roughly on par with finding a cache of lost Greek philosophy contemporary with or antedating Aristotle in both time and import? Wow.
posted by wotsac at 10:46 PM on April 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

But even better, because as far as I know nobody tried to prune Greek philosophy the way Emperor Qin Shi Huang did Chinese; and Greek philosophy was important to European development, but hasn't been a central cultural driving force for more than two thousand years.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:07 PM on April 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

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.

Fascinating, thanks. I knew about Guodian it includes the oldest known copies of the Tao Te Ching( aka Daodejing). Does anyone know of a complete list of the Tsinghua texts? I couldn't find one anywhere. And what about the 1,200 Shanghai strips also mentioned here?

The Guodian Daodejing is interesting. It has many of the chapters of the received text, in 3 partial versions, with almost identical wording (save for a few words made taboo later because an emperor's name sounded similar), but many chapters are missing including the first one ("The Dao that can be spoken/expressed is not the true/eternal Dao.") and the last 15.

The Guodian collection also included a related text of 14 strips called “Taiyi shengshui” (“The Great One produced water“). Some scholars believe that the last six bamboo slips grouped in with it might actually have been part of the Guodian Daodejing, based on holes where string bound them together, chapter endings and textual similarities. I wrote an article about this here.
posted by msalt at 11:43 PM on April 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

Greek philosophy was important to European development, but hasn't been a central cultural driving force for more than two thousand years

Well, you could make a case that it was in the Renaissance, I guess.
posted by thelonius at 11:47 PM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

For those who know nothing about Chinese history (like me): great podcasts about sources of early Chinese history, and Chinese legalism by Melvin Bragg and his distinguished guests. It gave me a little context to this spectacular find.
posted by ouke at 11:49 PM on April 11, 2016 [11 favorites]

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.

It will be my completely indulgent book purchase for this year, once it's back in stock.
posted by clawsoon at 5:31 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

clawsoon - according to a reviewer at Amazon, the book is available now via The University of Hawaii Press: vol. 1; vol. 2.
posted by misteraitch at 6:03 AM on April 12, 2016

msalt, your post about the '太一生水' strips is really interesting. I found more discussions about them here and here. '太一生水' is a cosmology distinct from other well-known ancient cosmologies, as it proposes that the Great One generates water, and water in turn helps the Great One to generate sky/terra, gods & spirits, yin-yang, four seasons (天地、神明、阴阳、四时) and thus water is the mother of all things.

The Laozi texts that passed down to us says The Way brought out one, one brought out two, two brought out three, three brought out multiples, (“道生一,一生二,二生三,三生万物”). Compared to that simply additive process, the Water one is more active and complex.

Interestingly, the scholar here argues that Han Fei (韩非) must have been the one who expanded the Daodejing text to the 5000-odd character version we know today, from the shorter Guodian (郭店) version. That scholar thinks that 韩非 must have cut the '太一生水' part because he demonstrably had no interest in cosmology, since cosmology isn't discussed in any known writings of 韩非. In comparison, another plausible candidate for the Daodejing text editor 荀况 did discuss cosmology in passing in his writings.

Anyhow, a contemporary consensus seems to be that finding both Laozi and Confucian texts buried in the same tomb is evidence that these schools of thought used to cohabit harmoniously, at least in Chu. (Chu is in the southern region of China and both Laozi and Confucian thoughts were imports; their native belief was shamanism.) It's only later, maybe from Han dynasty onward that they were held as conflicting beliefs.
posted by of strange foe at 10:33 AM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Thanks! I don't read Chinese, which makes your scholar re: Han Fei an exciting challenge to parse as I have to rely on Google Chrome's built-in translation I enjoy passages such as
"But in the south of Chu, the club from the palace to the inside, from the gentleman to the villain, witch school still favored. Changsha bullet library Chu Tombs out of the silk book is authentic witch school books."
("witch school" meaning shamanism, I'm guessing?) But I get a little lost when modern bioscience corporations enter the picture.
"Levin old son's whereabouts roughly from north to south, has been in seclusion Monsanto, to avoid old age at the south. Levin old son as write books, Sima Qian said there is " fifteen " , Ban said there is " sixteen " , I do not know what Yes. Monsanto now part of Jingmen. Jingmen ancient Levin old son seclusion..."
posted by msalt at 2:45 PM on April 12, 2016

I may have undermphasized textual differences between the Guodian Daodejing and the next one I know of, the Mawangdui Silk Texts (roughly 180 BCE).

This 2006 thesis from U. Mass. Amherst concludes that the 3 bundles found at Guodian were selections from a longer text comprising chapters 2-70 of the received version (or maybe 1-70), with a thematic focus to each. (The general consensus is that the Guodian tomb belonged to the tutor of the Prince of Chu, or his heir.) The thesis starts getting to the point around p. 13.

The author (Dan Murphy) finds a number of thematic differences between those versions -- more acceptance of the inevitability of war at Guodian, but less emphasis on the power of the feminine and of the "powerful, mystical or cosmological Dao." It also notes the absence of several chapters "which describe a cosmologically powerful "One" yi" or "contain material that may have been offensive to the GD Laozi 's ruling class audience."

I remember reading other sources noting that certain words had been substituted in the later edition that seem mock or put down Confucian thought, sharpening the conflict between the two schools as you note.
posted by msalt at 3:14 PM on April 12, 2016

The only things that would beat it (strictly from my perspective) would be earlier versions of Middle Eastern texts.

St. Leibowitz delivers!
posted by Apocryphon at 9:24 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Actually that's a good example of how fortuitous discoveries and smart thinking change the way we look at history. When I was a kid, a lot of archeologists presumed that Biblical texts were from the Babylonian exile or later, because hardly any Hebrew texts had been found in Judaea. Now we have good reason to think that they were highly literate, but maybe the climate wasn't conducive to the survival of the materials (e.g., parchment, papyrus) they used for writing, and the whole place had been turned over so many times that most inscriptions had been lost.

Among the reasons for that is research like the one you linked, but also things like the Lachish letters – in one of which the author goes off at his commander for implying that he's illiterate (inasmuch as my lord said Don't you know how to read a letter? As YHWH lives if anyone has ever tried to read me a letter!). So we haven't found, e.g., The Book of the Wars of the Lord, but we have been able to deduce that there could have been such a book.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:51 PM on April 12, 2016

« Older "To be honest I'm not sure who won."   |   Go Puff Yourself Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments