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Ancient Bamboo Slips Being Decoded

Some 1,200 ancient inscribed bamboo slips, bought by Shanghai Museum from Hong Kong in 1994, have now been partly decoded. This will exert great influence on and fill in gaps in the study of the history, culture and politics of the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).

The bamboo slips, ranging in length from 57.1 cm to 24.6 cm, contain totally about 35,000 characters. The contents cover such fields as philosophy, literature, history, political essays and music.

Under the rule of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China, all books before the Qin Dynasty were burnt and all the literati were buried in pits. Confucian scholars later reconstructed most of the pre-Qin books we see today. So the latest discovery of original and first-hand pre-Qin materials is regarded as extremely precious.

Among the some 100 decoded slips, 31 provide accounts on how China's great educator, Confucius, taught poems to his disciples. For instance, the first slip records Confucius' saying that a poem should have its own intentions, music should reflect people's morality and feelings, and prose should be straightforward. The three proposals on the nature of poetry, music and prose are the first of their kind recorded in history of Chinese literature.

Through two years of hard study and investigation, Ma Chengyuan, former curator of the Shanghai Museum, concluded that one tenth of the 60-odd poems discovered this time were not included in China's first poem collection "The Book of Songs."

It is also found that on seven bamboo slips are neatly copied pitches for the playing of poem music or singing poems. There are four musical scales and nine tones. Professors and graduates from Shanghai Conservatory of Music majoring in ancient music believe they are equal to A, D and F tones of today. From this discovery, we know that China had standardized musical tones as early as the pre-Qin period.

Before the discovery, musical records about the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period all concerned musical instruments, such as their shape, the inscriptions and audio frequency measurement. Though the unearthing of the Zeng Houyi chime in 1977 expanded the study of musical instruments, from percussion to orchestral types, there had, until now, been no archaeological discoveries to confirm how the music was played and whether it had tones.

The Shanghai bamboo slips date back 2,257 years ago (with a margin of error of 65 years), the same period as that of bamboo slips of the Chu State, unearthed in 1993 in Guodian of Jingmen of central China's Hubei Province. The capital of the Chu State, Ying, is said to have been the musical and cultural center of the Yangtze River Valley.

The Book of Changes, as preserved in these bamboo slips, is the oldest and perhaps the most reliable edition. It is a little different from the Book of Changes of today. Some black and red symbols have never been seen before, so that its publication will greatly influence study of the work.

The rearrangement and paraphrase of these bamboo slips will be completed by the end of the year. A picture album about them will be published at the beginning of next year by the State Cultural Relics Publishing House.

(CIIC 09/22/2000)

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