Buried Ideas.

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!”

The texts are different, the past can’t be taken for granted, we have to think and analyze rather than accept and memorize: sapere aude, as they said back in the Enlightenment. (Via MetaFilter.)


  1. some philosophers believed that rulers should also be chosen on merit, not birth

    There were always people with disruptive ideas, which were rightly laid to rest by tradition. It’s no use going back in history to find dissenters. What matters is that their voices disappeared from the record.

  2. But now they’re back!

  3. January First-of-May says

    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”

    You should have heard about the Shuanggudui strips.
    They already weren’t preserved as well as some of the others, but then they got excavated during a rainstorm, the chamber they were in had to be pumped, and apparently some of the fragments were in the pumped water. And I think there were some later complications involved (not sure of the details).
    It is said that it was a miracle that anything was recovered from these texts (admittedly, they in any case postdated the Qin dynasty, but they would still have been important early sources had they survived better).

    I recently read, in a book about the decipherment of Linear B (can’t recall the book title), that a few of the Linear B tablets were left outside overnight directly after excavation – and destroyed by a sudden rain, before the text could have been copied. Another sad story about the loss of history.

  4. David Marjanović says

    “The Way and Its Power”

    I thought “Way-/Virtue-book”? Like Yijing (I Ching), “Ode-book”?

    But now they’re back!

    No doubt the Communist Party is already claiming it’s selecting all leaders purely on merit – even though, taken as a whole, it is rather reminiscent of a dynasty itself, or at least of the adoptive emperors of ancient Rome.

  5. Yes, but virtue in the Latin/Italian sense, meaning ‘inner strength, power’. Using virtue to translate 德 nowadays is extremely misleading; we still talk of the virtue of a drug, but the virtue of a person means something completely different. So yes, Way Power Classic, or The Way And Its Power.

    You are also conflating the 诗经 Shījīng, or Book of Odes/Poems, with the 易经 Yìjīng, or Book of Changes.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Oh. Oops.

  7. The route you can traverse
      isn’t a static route.
    The name you can dereference
      isn’t a universal name.

    Namelessness is the root of everything.
    Names are the mother of everything.

      the unchanging, seen from outside the box,
        reveals its inner nature;
      the unchanging, seen from inside the box,
        reveals its outer form.

    These two are alike in origin,
      but different in name.
    Their unity is called “the mystery”.

    Mystery of all mysteries,
      the gate to all wonders.

    Unix Power Classic 1

  8. I’ll copy this from this thread, since it’s obviously needed here; Boodberg’s translation of the Daodejing starts:

    Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forwonted lodehead;
    Namecall namecall-brooking : no forwonted namecall.
          Having-naught namecalling : Heaven-Earth’s fetation,
          Having-aught namecalling : Myriad Mottlings’ mother.
    Desired—for to descry in view the minikin-subliminaria,
    Desired—for to descry in view the circuit-luminaria…

  9. David Eddyshaw says


    The Tao that is seen
    Is not the true Tao, until
    You bring fresh toner.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Boodberg’s translation of the Daodejing starts:

    Sounds accurate. Classical Chinese is nerve-wrackingly terse.

    Poor Boodberg…

  11. I used to be very pedantic about pointing out to people that it’s “UNIX” (although the fault, in this case, is not in John’s self, but in his stars… I mean, his source).

  12. My source is myself. But the traditional style was capital U, small caps NIX, not all-caps UNIX, and that’s just a stylization of “Unix”, so that’s the spelling I use. It’s not an acronym, after all.

  13. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    My source is not myself:

    Some people are confused over whether this word is appropriately ‘UNIX’ or ‘Unix’; both forms are common, and used interchangeably. Dennis Ritchie says that the ‘UNIX’ spelling originally happened in CACM’s 1974 paper The UNIX Time-Sharing System because “we had a new typesetter and troff had just been invented and we were intoxicated by being able to produce small caps.” Later, dmr tried to get the spelling changed to ‘Unix’ in a couple of Bell Labs papers, on the grounds that the word is not acronymic. He failed, and eventually (his words) “wimped out” on the issue. So, while the trademark today is ‘UNIX’, both capitalizations are grounded in ancient usage; the Jargon File uses ‘Unix’ in deference to dmr’s wishes.

    As we quip in Dutch, “UNIX, Unix, Unox; het zal me een worst wezen.”

  14. Does that mean that it will make a sausage for you to eat, or that it will turn you into a sausage?

  15. Augustus Maria von und zu Blattburg says

    The purpose of the sossage is unclear:

    Literally “that would be sausage to me”, this expression is used to say that you couldn’t care less about something. Note that you cannot use it to say that you don’t care about somebody.

    Note that Unox is the major local brand of frankfurters and such.

  16. Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forwonted lodehead…

    That’s even more flabbergasting than Antoine Fabre d’Olivet’s translation of Genesis:

    At-first-in-principle, he-created, Aelohim (he caused to be, he brought forth in principle, HE-the-gods, the-Being-of-beings), the-selfsameness-of-heavens, and the-selfsameness-of-earth. And-the-earth was contingent-potentiality-in-a-potentiality-of-being…

  17. David Marjanović says

    I didn’t know that das ist mir Wurs(ch)t was so widespread!

    That’s even more flabbergasting than Antoine Fabre d’Olivet’s translation of Genesis:

    Less, actually. It’s just an attempt to be brutally literal – without secondarily expanding it into contingent-potentialities-in-a-potentiality-of-being.

    While I don’t understand “lodehead”, I was taught dào kě dào fēi cháng dào as “[the] Dào [you] can [call] Dào [is] not [the long > ] eternal Dào” – omit needless!

  18. The OED has zero occurrences of “lodehead”; I suspect it was invented by Boodberg, but why??

  19. Trond Engen says

    We used to calque what could be calqued from German, but here we have Det er ett fett (for meg), literally “that is one fat for me”. I’ve imagined it’s from something to do with making sausages, though.

  20. My version is based on the idea that the second instance of dào is functioning as a verb: dào kě dào ‘the way you can walk’, and so in the computer age “the route you can traverse”.

  21. “Lodehead” seems to be based on an analysis of the character 道 (“Way”) into its components: 辶 (“path,” rendered using “lode” in an archaic sense) + 首 (“head”) = 道 (“lodehead”). “Minikin-subliminaria” for 妙 (“mystery/wonder”) and “circuit-luminaria” for 徼 (“boundary”) are apparently based on similar analyses.

  22. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    Something breasts something something bosom;
    Something bust something bosom something;
    Breast something something caterpillar something;
    A look of doubt crosses the old scholar’s face.

    (from Frank Kuppner, A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty which really ought to be reprinted so that I can get a copy. It kind of ticks me off the way modern poetry stages or enacts a pseudo-scarcity of something almost nobody actually wants anyway.)

  23. David Marjanović says

    Oh, character etymology. *grumble*

  24. from Frank Kuppner, A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty which really ought to be reprinted so that I can get a copy.

    What, you don’t want to pay $28.01?

  25. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    What, you don’t want to pay $28.01?

    It was a fiver new! *weeps gentle but unmistakably bitter tears*

  26. I know, and I feel your pain, but (and there’s no way to break this to you gently) if it gets reprinted it’s going to be considerably more than a fiver.

  27. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    I am willing to make allowances as to how it isn’t 1985 anymore, but your everyday Bloodaxe/Carcanet/Faber book of pomes goes for a tenner or so, which is less painful. (And you can get a bulk deal on shippings from actual retail outlets.)

  28. Well, I join you in your hope for a reprint, because I too wouldn’t mind having a copy.

  29. Boodberg’s translation of the beginning of the Daodejing is from his paper “Philological Notes on Chapter One of The Lao Tzu”, published in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, December 1957. It’s available here if you have JSTOR access. If you don’t have JSTOR access you can get a MyJSTOR account and add it to your shelf.

    His discussion of the first character of the first stichos, “道”, begins:

    S 1.1 The etymological background of Tao 道 is usually dismissed by scholars fascinated by its exalted metaphysical status with a brief twofold statement: that the primary and concrete meaning of the word tao < d‘ôg is “way,” “path” (“la voie,” “der Weg,” “via”) and that its graph is a compound of two graphic elements, “head,” shou < śjôg, used as a phonetic, and the semantic “to proceed,” “walk.” Though essentially correct, the statement is in need of amplification and closer philological scrutiny. In ancient scriptions of the graph, “proceed” (classifier 162) interchanges with 行 “march in order,” “act” (classifier 144) and occasionally the two classifiers are telescoped together. Shuo Wen 2B offers as a ku wen form of tao a diagram of “head” and 寸, modern classifer 041 ts‘un, “inch,” but anciently an allogram of 手 shou < śjôg, “hand.” Some Bronze scriptions have this fork-like “hand” element added to tao with C144, while in a few of them the “hand” appears to emerge as a graphic modification of the lower “footstep” element (modern 止, C077) in the telescoped C162 + C144. This “tao with the hand element” is usually identified with the modern character 導 tao < d‘ôg, “to lead,” “guide,” “conduct,” and considered to be a derivative or verbal cognate of the noun tao, “way,” “path.” The evidence just summarized would indicate rather that “tao with the hand” is but a variant of the basic tao and that the word itself combined both nominal and verbal aspects of the etymon. This is supported by textual examples of the use of the primary tao in the verbal sense “to lead” (e.g. Analects 1.5; 2.3) and seriously undermines the unspoken assumption implied in the common translation of Tao as “way” that the concept is essentially a nominal one. Tao would seem, then, to be etymologically a more dynamic concept than we have made it translation-wise. It would be more appropriately rendered by “leadway” and “lode” (“way,” “course,” “journey,” “leading,” “guidance”; cf. “lodestone” and “lodestar”), the somewhat obsolescent deverbal noun from “to lead.”

    Another etymological problem concerns the element “head” in tao. Shou < śjôg is undoubtedly phonetic in tao < d‘ôg (the alternation of spirant and stop being common in a given phonetic series), but is it merely phonetic or etymonic? Semasiological analogy (English: “to head” meaning “to lead” and “to tend in a certain direction,” “head,” “headway”) would suggest that the latter is the case; Chinese synonymy seems to confirm it. Of the three common aspects of HEAD, topmost protruberance (caput), uppermost turning point (vertex), and tip (apex), shou favors the first two, the last being expressed by 顚 tien and 頂 ting. Shou as “vertex” is well attested in verbal function (it is then read in the fourth tone) as “to turn to,” “to obvert.” Besides “leadway” and “lode,” tao would then also connote “headway,” and perhaps “headlead,” “headlode,” and “lodehead.” With shou commonly meaning “foremost,” “chief,” “arch-,” we are perilously near seeing in it an equivalent of Gr. archēgos, archēgon, “first cause,” “archegetic (leading, primary) principle.”

    Discussion of the word continues for another couple pages, growing increasingly difficult for me to follow, but not directly bearing on the choice of “lodehead”.

    At the conclusion, which can also be read here, Boodberg describes his objective in translation:

    The following translation of the entire text [of the first chapter] has little literary merit. It reflects, however, to the best of my ability, every significant etymological and grammatical feature, including every double entendre, that I have been able to discover in the original in an endeavor to establish a solider philological foundation upon which a firmer interpretation of the incipit of Taoist philosophy might be built.

  30. Thanks very much for that; Boodberg was certainly a nut, but a nut with high principles and deep learning.

  31. … tant pis.

  32. David Marjanović says

    That’s interesting about the verbal meaning.

    Gr. archēgos, archēgon, “first cause,” “archegetic (leading, primary) principle.

    Finally I understand Archegosaurus! It’s one of the first Permian tetrapods to have been discovered, if not the first. (Imagine a long-snouted crocodile with small fish scales instead of crocodile armor, tiny nostrils that aren’t raised, and… internal gills.)

  33. Kári Tulinius says

    “certainly a nut, but a nut with high principles and deep learning.”

    No one could ask for a finer epitaph.

  34. The epitaph I’d like to have (in people’s memories, not in stone or anything; I don’t expect to be buried).


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