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The Age of the Bamboo Slip
The remote Shang (c.16th-11th centuries BC) and Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century BC-256 BC) saw widespread use of the written word in the form of inscriptions on tortoise shells or animal bones. They also used more or less standard forms of inscription on their bronze-ware artifacts.

However from the Shang and Zhou right through to the Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420), bamboo and wood were to remain the main writing materials. This prolonged period of some 2,000 years has come to be known in Chinese history as the Age of the Bamboo Slip.

Sadly bamboo and wood fall easy prey to decay and their use in antiquity was not recognized until the early years of the 20th century. By the 1930s bamboo slips were being brought to light in significant numbers. Discoveries were made in turn at the Loulan townsite in Lop Nor and the Niya site in Minfeng, both located in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Dunhuang in Gansu Province and then at alarm signal sites in Juyan where Gansu borders on the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, outstanding progress has been made in paleography (the study of ancient writing).

A great many pre-Qin historical documents written on bamboo slips have been unearthed in one Chu tomb after another, mostly in Hubei Province. The pre-Qin is a term that describes that time spanning the combined Spring and Autumn (770-476 BC) and Warring States Periods (475-221 BC).

Chu was an ancient state under the Zhou Dynasty and later became one of the seven states struggling for supremacy at the time of the Warring States. It could trace its origins back to about the 11th century BC. Sitting mainly astride today's Hubei and Hunan provinces it survived as a discrete political entity right through until its eventual defeat by the Qin in 223 BC.

One particular find at Guodian in Jingmen city, Hubei Province was to cause quite a stir in academic circles. It was the discovery of a partial copy of the Classic of the Way and Virtue. This Taoist classic is attributed to the philosopher of the late Spring and Autumn Period, Lao-tzu who was the founder of Taoism. Excerpts from the Confucian classics were also found.


The 1970s saw a series of sensational bamboo slip discoveries. The grave of Marquis Ruyin of the Western Han (206 BC-AD 25) in Fuyang, Anhui Province produced The Book of Songs (China's earliest collection of poetry) written on bamboo slips.

The earliest environmental protection statutes ever discovered in China were written on wooden slips found in a tomb excavated in Qingchuan, Sichuan Province. Dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) they brought in measures to protect the farming community and the countryside through the proscription of such activities as free logging, hunting and gathering.

In 1975 over 1,000 bamboo slips came to light at Shuihudi in Yunmeng, Hubei Province. They brought us the laws of the Qin. This discovery, which attracted much attention at the time, afforded important clues not only to the history of the State of Qin (897-221 BC) towards the end of the Warring States Period but also to the legal system of the Qin Dynasty which followed on from it.


Some 50,000 wooden slips from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) were found at sites in Tianshui, Gangu, the Hexi Corridor and the Juyan area, all in Gansu Province. They provide an abundance of firsthand source material for researchers seeking to understand the social order of the period.

By 1982 scholars could tell the story of the government sponsored military-agricultural colonies called tuntian in northwest China. They grew out of the Han Dynasty policy of having garrison troops or newly settled peasants bring undeveloped land into cultivation. The research was based on 20,000 wooden slips found in Juyan over the period between 1972 and 1982.

To the south, a Han Dynasty tomb at Zhangjiashan in Jiangling, Hubei Province yielded up its secrets on some 1,000 bamboo slips. On them were written the Book of Arithmetic, China's earliest treatise on mathematics together with the legal code of the Han Dynasty.


In October 1996, an astounding 140,000 bamboo and wooden slips of the Three Kingdoms (220-280) were uncovered at Zoumalou in Changsha city, Hunan Province. This single major find exceeded the sum total of all the bamboo slips that had previously come to light. These important texts would fill many gaps in the written records of the Three Kingdoms.

There were two different styles of writing. Some were written in the regular kai script and others in the official script known as li. Typically there would be 80 to 120 characters on each wooden slip but only 30 to 40 characters on a bamboo slip. The texts record the social life, economic structure, system of land tenure and tax regime of the times of the Three Kingdoms. They are of great archaeological value.

The bamboo and wooden slips can be divided into six categories according to their format and function. There are vouchers, judicial documents, muster rolls, visiting cards, official title cards and accounting records.

In 1994 the Shanghai Museum made an acquisition from Hong Kong of pre-Qin texts written on over 1,200 bamboo slips. The texts run to some 30,000 characters and cover matters of philosophy, literature and politics. They tell of life in the days of the State of Chu. They have been classified as funerary objects from tombs of the nobility and dated to the time before Chu moved its capital to Ying in present Hubei Province.

Other important finds include:

• Han Dynasty wooden slips excavated at the Xuanquanzhi site in Dunhuang, Gansu Province

• bamboo slips from Han tombs in Cili, Hunan Province

• wooden slips from Han tombs at Yinwan in Donghai, Jiangsu Province

The Analects of Confucius written on wooden slips from a Han tomb in Dingxian County, Hebei Province

Sun-tzu's Art of War (the classic work of that renowned military strategist of the Warring States Period) and Sun Bin on the Art of War (Sun Bin was a descendant of Sun-tzu), both were found on bamboo slips from Han tombs at Yinqueshan in Linyi city, Shandong Province

• the Confucian classic The Book of Rites together with medical works on wooden slips from Han tombs in Wuwei, Gansu Province

• military texts on wooden slips from Han tombs at Shangsunjiazhai in Datong, Qinghai Province

The Latest Discoveries

Over 20,000 bamboo and wooden slips were unearthed at Liye townsite in Longshan County, Hunan Province in June 2002. Among the most important finds so far this century, they fill a long standing gap in the historical records of the Qin Dynasty.

The texts are written in zhuan characters (an early standardized form also known as seal script). They address a wide range of issues such as politics, military affairs, ethnology, economics, jurisprudence, culture, administrative systems, the postal service, geography and so on. The discovery also offers testimony to the origins of the Tuchia ethnic minority in northwestern Hunan.

Silk Books

From the times of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, silk has also been used as a writing material.

Silk books of the State of Chu were the earliest discovery on silk. They came from a Chu burial at the Zidanku site in Changsha, Hunan Province in 1942. Since then, many other silk books have come to light in Hunan and Gansu provinces.

In 1973, Tomb No. 3 at Mawangdui in Changsha, Hunan produced 28 silk books. Together they ran to a total of some 120,000 characters. Dating from the Han Dynasty they cover military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts of ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic. Most strikingly the finds include such rare ancient texts as the Classic of the Way and Virtue by Lao-tzu and the Strategies of the Warring States. The latter is a collection of dissertations by traveling scholars of the Warring States Period. It was first compiled by Liu Xiang of the Western Han and later revised and expanded by Zeng Gong of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

The Advent of Papermaking

Bamboo and wooden slips are heavy and bulky. Silk is light and compact but unfortunately it is also expensive. Such disadvantages coupled with a strong demand for writing materials hastened the invention of papermaking technology.

This was to be an innovation that would not only facilitate the dissemination of the written word in ancient China but would also do much to accelerate the development and spread of civilization itself.

A Western Han grave at the Baqiao site in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province yielded 88 sheets of paper made of hemp. This 1957 discovery demonstrated that papermaking technology had already been mastered in China as early as the 2nd century BC.

In the years that followed, the “underground museum” of the Astana-Karakhoja Ancient Tombs in Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, produced approximately 2,700 paper documents. These date from the time of the Western Jin (265-316) through to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Maps excavated in 1986 in a tomb at the Fangmatan site in Tianshui, Gansu Province are significant for being on the oldest paper ever found in China. They are from the early years of the Western Han (206 BC-AD 25). The paper is remarkable for its smooth texture and its quality shows that the technology was already well developed by that time.

Paleographic Studies in the Ethnic Regions

The Dangxiang, a branch of the Ch'iang ethnic minority founded the Tangut Dynasty (1038-1227) in northwest China. It spread its dominion largely across the present day Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and parts of Gansu, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia. The many cultural relics and official dispatches written in the Tangut language found in Ningxia and Gansu have shed new light on this remote and mysterious state.

The Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu Province dating from 366 are famous throughout the world for their rich collection of Buddhist statues, frescoes and scriptures. A total of no less than 50,000 official dispatches has been found, yielded up by 248 of the grottoes. These documents cover many diverse topics and have significantly broadened the scope of the Dunhuang Studies with many scholars both at home and abroad becoming involved in the research.

Handwritten Tibetan Buddhism Scriptures dating back 1,000 years have recently been renovated in the Kyerulhakang Monastery in Tibet. Bound in book form they make up over 300 volumes. These religious texts provide important clues for an understanding of the early spread of Buddhism and the development of the Tibetan language.

In Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China's west, inscriptions and texts not only in Chinese but also in Arabic and Indian scripts have been found on coins, wooden slips, silks, seals and stone tablets. The ancient texts in Chinese include official dispatches and epitaphs excavated in Turpan together with official documents and correspondence found at the Niya and Loulan sites.

The Major Finds

Many written treasures from antiquity have been found across the country. They trace the path of development from prehistoric symbols on earthenware to the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang, inscriptions on the bronze-ware of the Shang and Zhou, texts written on bamboo and wooden slips during the Qin and Han together with stone inscriptions from all ages.

An ever increasing wealth of archaeological finds tells the story of China's very long written tradition. The major sources include in chronological order:

• prehistoric: Banpo in Xi'an, Dawinkou, Yangshao Burials at Yuanjunmiao, Liuwan in Qinghai

• Shang and Zhou: Erligang in Zhengzhou, Burials of the Dukedom of Guo at Shangcunling, The Tomb of Fuhao in Yinxu, An Ancient Town of the State of Lu in Qufu, A Cemetery of the State of Chu at Yutaishan in Jiangling

• Qin and Han: Qin Burials at Shuihudi in Yunmeng, Tomb No. 1 of the Western Han Dynasty at Mawangdui in Changsha, Han Dynasty Graves in Mancheng and Guangzhou, An Ancient Graveyard at Shizhaishan in Jinning, Yunnan Province, Artifacts Associated with Water Transport in the Sanmen Gorge

• Tang and Song: Daming Palace in Chang'an, Sui and Tang Graves in the Suburbs of Xi'an, Yaozhou Kiln in Tongchuan, Shaanxi Province

Important encyclopedic publications like the Collection of Oracle Bone Inscriptions, Collected Inscriptions on Bronze-ware of the Yin and Zhou, Archaeological Discoveries and Studies of the People's Republic of China and China's 100 Great Archaeological Finds in the 20th Century have followed each other into print.

The insight the world of today has into these ancient writings is the product of the work of many renowned archaeologists and paleographers. Prominent among them are such key figures as Guo Moruo, Liang Siyong, Yin Da, Xia Nai, Su Bingqi, Jia Lanpo, An Zhimin, Zou Heng, Yu Xingwu, Wang Zhongshu, Chen Mengjia and Guo Baojun.

(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, June 6, 2003)

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