An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

zhujian 竹簡, inscriptions on bamboo slips

Jul 8, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Bamboo and wood were natural materials serving as surfaces for written texts. Their use was common from the Spring and Autumn 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) to the Jin period 晉 (265-420). With the emergence of paper as writing material, bamboo slips and wooden tablets gradually disappeared.

The bamboo texts are of great importance for the study of ancient administration and social life, but also because they preserve original versions of transmitted texts, texts deemed lost, and unknown scholarly texts. Finally, the evolution of the standard script (kaishu 楷書) from the chancery script (lishu 隸書 or bafen 八分) can be studied.

Warring States and Qin period
Jizhongshu 汲冢書 (汲塚書) "The bamboo texts from the tomb in Ji" (see Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年, Mu tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳, Yizhoushu 逸周書)
Chuzhushu 楚竹書 "Bamboo texts from the state of Chu"
Guodian Chujian 郭店楚簡 "Texts from the state of Chu found in Guodian"
Shuihudi Qinmu zhujian 睡虎地秦墓竹簡 "The bamboo texts from the Qin tomb found in Shuihudi" (Yunmeng 雲夢)
Han period
Dingxian Hanjian 定縣漢簡 "Han texts found in Dingxian"
Fuyang Hanjian 阜陽漢簡 "Han texts found in Fuyang" (Shuanggudui 雙古堆)
Juyan Hanjian 居延漢簡 "Han texts found in Juyan"
Mawangdui Hanmu boshu 馬王堆漢墓帛書 "Silk texts from the Han tomb found in Mawangdui"
Sanxian Han-Jin jiandu 散見漢晉簡牘 "Tablets from various origins from the Han to the Jin period"
Wuwei Hanjian 武威漢簡 "Han texts found in Wuwei"
Yinqueshan Hanmu zhujian 銀雀山漢墓竹簡 "Bamboo texts from the Han tomb found in Yinqueshan" (Linyi 臨沂)
Zhangjiashan Hanjian 張家山漢簡 "Han texts found in Zhangjiashan"
Three Empires and Jin period
Zoumalou jiandu 走馬樓簡牘 "Texts found in Zoumalou [empire of Wu]"

The earliest surviving bamboo slips were discovered in the Warring-States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) tomb of Yi, Marquis Zeng (Zeng Hou Yi mu 曾侯乙墓), in Suizhou 隨州, Hubei. The latest bamboo or wooden slips were found in the ruins of Loulan 樓蘭 at the banks of Lake Lop Noor 羅布泊 (by Sven Hedin, 1865-1952), the ruins of Niya 尼雅 (Yumi 扜彌) near Minfeng 民豐 (by Aurel Stein, 1862-1943, and Tachibana Zuichō 橘瑞超, 1890-1968), and tombs in Turfan 吐魯番, Xinjiang. All date from the Jin period. The Lop Noor texts (Loulan Hanjian 樓蘭漢簡) were discovered in the early 1930s by Huang Wenbi 黃文弼 (1893-1966).

The content of texts written on bamboo or wooden slips ranges from documents of local military and civilian administration to personal letters, chronicles and literary texts. Tomb even includes blank slips as "donated" burial objects (qiance 遣冊, fengfang 賵方) for use in the netherworld. Such is the case among in the finds of Chu 楚 tombs (Wangshansha zhong 望山沙冢) in Changsha 長沙 (Hunan), Jiangling 江陵 (today's Jingzhou 荆州, Hubei), and Xinyang 信陽 (Henan), as well as the Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) tombs of Mawangdui 馬王堆 (tomb no. 1 excavated 1972, tomb 3 in 1973) near Changsha, the Qin-period 秦 (221-206 BCE) tomb of Jiangling (Wangjiatai 王家臺), and the texts of Marquis Zeng.

Before modern discoveries took place, there were two instances in history when important finds of bamboo texts were made. The first happened in the early Western Han period 西漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), when classical texts were found in the mansion of Confucius' descendents. These were the so-called Classics in ancient script (guwen jing 古文經), called so because the script used differed from contemporary writing styles. The second instance was the accidental discovery of a chronicle and several other texts (together 16 texts with 75 chapters) in a tomb from the early Warring States period, made in 281 in the district of Ji 汲縣 (today's Weihui 衛輝, Shanxi). The most important texts of the so-called "Bamboo books from the tomb of Ji" (Jizhou zhushu 汲冢竹書) were the "Bamboo Annals" (Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年), the pseudo-chronicle Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳, and the historiographical collection Yizhoushu 逸周書. "Bamboo books" (zhujian shu 竹簡書) were found in antique places in the northwest during the tenth century.

In 1901, the above-mentioned texts from the Jin period were discovered, as well as Han-period texts in the ruins of an ancient watchtower (fengsui 烽燧) in Juyan 居延 in the territory of Ejin Banner 額濟納旗, Inner Mongolia. The bamboo slips from Juyan, numbering more than 10,000, are administrative documents. More excavations were made in 1930-1931, and in the 1970s, this time in Pochengzi 破城子 and Jianshuijinguan 肩水金關, and in the lower reaches of River Ejin. The Pochengzi texts included (copies of?) local reports to the central government and to other administrative institutions, like Suizhang bing shudie 燧長病書牒 or Saishang fenghuo pinyue 塞上烽火品約.

In 1907, Aurel Stein discovered bamboo texts in Dunhuang 敦煌, Gansu, and made in 1914 further successful excavations for texts in Dunhuang, Anxi 安西, Jiuquan 酒泉 and Dingxin 鼎新 (Maomu 毛目). Xia Nai 夏鼐 (1910-1985) found more documents in 1944. Further discoveries from the Han period were made between 1972 and 1981, for instance, Xiaofangpan 小方盤, Maquanwan 馬圈灣 and Suyoutu 酥油土 near Dunhuang, an Huahai Nongchang 花海農場 close to Yumen 玉門.

A very outstanding find was made with the legal texts (Qinlü shiba zhong) of the Qin-period tomb of Shuihudi 睡虎地 near Yunmeng 雲夢, Hubei, and the agricultural statutes (Tianlü 田律)of the Qin tomb of Qingchuan 青川, Sichuan. The finds of Wuwei 武威 (Mozuizi 磨咀子, tomb 6, 1959) and Gangu 甘谷, Gansu, from the Eastern Han period include imperial edicts (zhaoshu 詔書) of investitures. The Wuwei finds from 1959 also include a ritual text, Yili 儀禮, those from 1972 (Hantanpo 旱灘坡) medical texts about inner and outer medicine, medicine of the five sensual organs (wuguanke 五官科), and gynaecology, as well as acupuncture and moxibustion. They are the earliest known medical texts, as the famous Shanghan zabing lun 傷寒雜病論 was only compiled in the very late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE).

Literary texts like Lunyu 論語, Rujiazhe yan 儒家者言 "Words of the Confucians", Wenzi 文子, Aigong wen wu yi 哀公問五義, Kongzi jiayu 孔子家語, Shuoyuan 說苑 and Da Dai liji 大戴禮記 from the Han period were found in Dingxian 定縣 (tomb no. 40), Hebei, and the Classics Shijing 詩經 and Zhouyi 周易 (Yijing 易經), some southern rhapsodies (fuci 辭賦), and the primary learning text Cangjiepian 蒼頡篇 in Fuyang 阜陽 (Shanggudui 雙古堆, tomb no. 1), Anhui. The Dingxian corpus included the diary of the prince of Liu'an 六安 from 56 BCE (Liu'an wangchao wufeng er nian zhengyue qijuji 六安王朝五鳳二年正月起居記).

The Han-period tomb of Yinqueshan 銀雀山 (tomb no. 1) near Linyi 臨沂, Shandong, contained several important military texts like Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法, Weiliaozi 尉繚子, Liutao 六韜 (Tai Gong 太公), Yanzi 晏子, and Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法 (Qi Sunzi 齊孫子) – the latter had been thought lost for two thousand years. Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) commentators had still believed that Weiliaozi and Liutao were forgeries of later ages. The Yinqueshan find proved that these two were indeed ancient texts.

Other military texts from the Han period were found in Sunjiazhai 孫家寨 (tomb no. 155) near Datong 大通, Qinghai. Among these, the Sunzi bingfa text differs from the transmitted version. The tomb of Yinqueshan, dating from 134 BCE, also contained an almanac from 134 BCE, Lipu 歷譜 (in tomb no. 2), medical and mantic texts, and a rhapsody called Tang Le 唐革(=勒).

The Han-period bamboo texts of Jiangling (Fenghuangshan 鳳凰山, tomb no. 10, excavated 1973) included documents of local administration (xiang wenshu 鄉文書), but also a high amount of literary and specialized books as in the tombs 247, 249, and 258 of Zhangjiashan 張家山, excavated in 1983. These were – apart from legal documents and the judicial text Zouyanshu 奏讞書, the military treatise Gai Lu 蓋廬 (i. e. He Lü 闔閭), the medical books Maishu 脈書 and Yinshu 引書, the arithmetic text Suanshushu 算數書, two almanachs (lipu), and "daily prognostications" (rishu 日書).

The first bamboo texts from the Warring States period were found in 1951 in tomb no. 406 in Wulipai 五里牌 near Changsha, Hunan, with 38 strips. In the past few decades, more bamboo texts have come to light, like the Qin texts from Liye 里耶 near Longshan 龍山, Hunan, or Qingchuan 里耶 in Sichuan. Others were bought by government institutions from private owners, like the Qin texts of Peking University (Beida Qinjian 北大秦簡, acquired in 2010), or the Warring States texts of Tsinghua University (Qinghua jian 清華簡, acquired in 2008).

The basic writing material of the Han period were bamboo or wooden slips (jian 簡, mei 枚), usually with a length of 23cm, which corresponded to one "foot" (chi 尺, see weights and measures). Canonical texts and imperial edicts were written on longer slips, like the Yili from Wuwei with a length of between 50 and 56cm. Yet there were also deviations, like the slips of the Sun Bin binfa from Yinqueshan with a length of 27cm or the 38cm-long Juyan administration slips. The longest slips ever found, with a length of 67.5cm, served for a register of edicts (zhaoshu mulu 詔書目錄). This length corresponds to a regulation mentioned in the history book Hanshu 漢書, which speaks of 3-chi-long legal texts (san chi lüling 三尺律令).Yet even this length was surpassed, for instance, by the almanac of Yinqueshan (Yuanguang yuannian lipu 元光元年歷譜) with a length of 69cm and the blank slips of Marquis Zeng with up to 75 cm.

The width of slips ranged between 0.5 and 1cm, serving for one columns of texts, in some cases up to 2cm, designed for two columns.

Wooden tablets (du 牘) were square (fang 方, ban 版) and much larger with 6-15cm width, and a length of one "foot" (therefore called chidu 尺牘). They mainly served to write letters or contracts, but also medical prescriptions, almanachs, maps (as is known from historiographical sources, hence the term bantu 版圖), or lists of burial objects (qingdan 清單, qiance 遣策). A special form of tablets had an angled shape (gu 觚) and was often made of tree branches which were cut into the shape of square staves with four or more surfaces to be inscribed. Their length ranged from 30 to more than 80cm. Among the texts of Juyan and Dunhuang, military orders (xishu 檄書) and texts of primarly learning (xiaoxue 小學: zishu 字書 for writing, and jiujiubiao 九九表 for arithmetics) like Cangjiepian or Jijiupian 急就篇 were written on such staves.

A particular type of inscribed wooden piece were sealed closures (jian 檢) used to accompany secret letters or commodities sent by a messenger. One type of closures, with two columns of writing, were inscribed with the recipient or addressee and the method of forwarding or shipping. The other type of closures was bearing the seal and "signature" (qian 簽) of the sender and served for secret letters. Such letters were enveloped by two pieces of wood, one on the top (called jian), and a larger tablet called han 函 "container" on the bottom. They were tied by a thread. Objects transported in a bag were only accompanied by one closure with a special shape to tie the thread.

Other types of inscribed wooden objects are tallies for (personal) identification (fu 符), and two-part titles (juan 券), of which each party obtained one piece. A short and wide wooden tablet called jie 楬 served to tie the thread binding together a bunch of documents. Some jie tablets were inscribed with a title concerning the content of the respective texts.

As wood was scarce in Juyan and Dunhuang, the scribes of the local administration often cut away the surface of old slips. These inscribed waste pieces are called shi 柹 or xiaoyi 削衣.

Writing slips from southern regions were usually made of bamboo, but also in northern places like Juyan and Dunhuang, some of the slices were made of bamboo. Such documents were quite probably imported from central China. Wooden planchets were made of the conifer Picea wilsonii (qingqian 青杄), Chinese white poplar (Populus tomentosa, baimaoyang 白毛楊), the willow Salix warburgii (shuiliu 水柳), or Tamarix chinensis (shengliu 檉柳). Twice-used slips were mainly of the wood of Picea, which is not found in the arid northwest. The garrison in Juyan made also used of the extremely hard wood of jujube trees (Ziziphus jujuba, zaomu 棗木).

Wood was usually polished before use, while bamboo had to undergo the process of roasting (shaqing 殺青 "killing the green" or hanqing 汗青 "sweating/drying the green") in order to prevent decay and insect attacks. Strips were then tied together by threads to form so-called "scrolls" (juan 卷). The sides of individual slips were therefore incised with a notch at the spots where threads were to be attached to form a tied "mat" serving as writing material (ce 冊). One row of slips was tied by up to five lines (dao 道) of thread. The most completely preserved roll is a list of objects from Juyan created during the Yongyuan reign-period (89-104), Yongyuan qiwu bo 永元器物簿, with two lines of thread. Archival material in particular was often tied to files when the writing process was over. Such rolls therefore are without notches, and threads do rarely survive.

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