Ancient script rewrites history:
like the discovery of the
By Andrea Shen
Bamboo strips discovered in a tomb dating back to the fourth centruy B.C.
Near a river in
The tomb was just slightly larger than the coffin and stone sarcophagus within. Scattered on the floor were bamboo strips, wide as a pencil, and up to twice as long. On closer scrutiny, scholars realized they had found something remarkable.
"This is like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls," says Tu Weiming, director of the Harvard Yenching Institute (HYI), who has played a key role in the preservation of, accessibility to, and research on the Guodian materials since 1996.
The 800 bamboo strips bear roughly 10,000 Chinese characters; approximately one-tenth of those characters comprise part of the oldest extant version of the Tao Te Ching (also known as Daodejing), a foundational text by the Taoist philosopher Laozi, who lived in the sixth century B.C. and is generally considered the teacher of Confucius. The remaining nine-tenths of the writings appear to be written by Confucian disciples, including Confucius' grandson Zisi, in the first generation after Confucius' death. (Confucius lived from 551 to 479 B.C.) These texts amplify scholars' understanding of how the Confucian philosophical tradition evolved between Confucius' time and that of Mencius, a key Confucian thinker who lived in the third century B.C.
"With the discovery of these texts, I think you can say that the history of Confucianism itself will have to be rewritten," says Tu. "And by implication, the history of ancient Chinese philosophy in general will have to be reconfigured."
Shortly after their rediscovery, the 2,000-year-old strips were immersed in solvents to restore the faded writing. "They became so brilliant, as if the characters were written yesterday," said Tu. The length of the strips, their content, and special markings, like bands on a bird leg, helped scholars sequence the strips.
With scholars such as Sarah Allen, a sinologist at
Image of the human heart
What do the bamboo strips tell us?
These texts radically alter scholars' understanding of not just the principles of, and relationship between, Taoism and Confucianism, two major streams of Chinese thought; they affect our understanding of Chinese philology, and reopen debate on the historical identities of Confucius and Laozi.
Taoism was previously considered a critique of Confucianism, says Tu. With the discovery of the Guodian texts, the two schools can now be seen as more complementary than formerly imagined.
Weiming of the Yenching Institute (left) and visiting Chinese scholar Guo Yi
discuss the Guodian manuscripts discovered in
"From the Confucian point of view, human beings are sociological animals," says Tu. "They are psychological, political, poetic - meaning aesthetic - but also metaphysical." Confucians advocate "engagement in the world, social service, critique of the political order, and the idea of personal self-cultivation as the basis for social transformation." Taoists, in contrast, "would like to reject the sociological, political aspects of the human, focusing on the 'natural way,' following nature, against any kind of human, artificial intervention in the natural process." Taoists refer to the "way of heaven" as a guide for human behavior.
The Guodian version of the Tao Te Ching reveals far more tolerant views toward Confucian ideology than previously seen. Moreover, the Confucian texts in the Guodian cache reveal a more complex worldview than traditionally understood.
For years scholars believed that Confucians were little concerned with human emotions. But in the Guodian texts, the element "xin," - a pictographic image of the human heart - appears over and over again as part of several Chinese characters. It's a startling display, both philologically, in terms of understanding the evolution of Chinese characters, and philosophically. "These texts conclusively show that emotions or feelings as we understand them today were major philosophical concerns," Tu says. The Guodian texts offer detailed descriptions of a range of human emotions. They also extensively explore the relation between heart, mind, and human nature; between the inner self and the outer world; and whether human nature is good or evil - a cumulative emphasis on the inner dimensions of man that most scholars formerly believed came much later in Chinese intellectual history.
A cosmic shift
Simultaneously, Confucian views on man's relation to the polity require reinterpretation in the wake of the Guodian discovery. These early writings reveal a "spirit of protest," in Tu's words, a definition of a loyal minister, for instance, as he who consistently criticizes his emperor. This priority on the people's agenda, with the ruler's views secondary to their concerns, has long been ascribed to the thinker Mencius; now scholars see much earlier roots, in Zisi, for this notion of government.
Indeed, a powerful school of thought in modern
The genealogy of Chinese intellectual thought is now undergoing revision
and Taoist and Confucian texts are being reinterpreted. And because Taoism and
Confucianism are very much "living traditions" in
Some of the Taoist Guodian texts offer a whole new cosmology - a view of the creation of the universe with elements not even mentioned in later versions of the Tao Te Ching: the creation of water, the existence of four seasons, the birth of heaven and earth after other events have taken place. The bamboo slips themselves are having a similar effect on the Chinese intellectual universe.
Brave new world.
Contact Andrea Shen at email@example.com