Ian Johnson’s NYRB review of Sarah Allan’s book Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts discusses an exciting find I was unaware of; it begins with the discovery of “hundreds of strips of bamboo, about the size of chopsticks, that seemed to date from 2,500 years ago” and their painstaking decipherment (even knowing it comes out OK in the end, my heart was in my mouth reading about the strips “developing black spots—fungus that within a day could eat a hole through the bamboo”), and continues to the heart of the matter:
The manuscripts’ importance stems from their particular antiquity. Carbon dating places their burial at about 300 BCE. This was the height of the Warring States Period, an era of turmoil that ran from the fifth to the third centuries BCE. 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 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. […]
These 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 BCE). 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. 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.
There’s a good deal about the political implications of the texts; I was quite moved by this bit near the end:
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!”