old books rediscovered

April 26th, 2009

Update: I attempted a little polishing based on saiweng’s superb comment. Thanks saiweng.

Another update: Saiweng is proving awesome in his comments. Thanks saiweng.

So according to 新京报/The Beijing News, some books that have been lost for 2000 years have been rediscovered. Yeah, I saw that and thought the same thing. Clearly this warrants further investigation:


Lost for 2000 years, Book of History reappears

Book of History? Well, I flipped through nciku looking for a standard translation of 尚书. The immediate result was useless for an English translation, but in the Chinese-Chinese side did inform me of an alternate name: 书经. That got me the English title Book of History and a more detailed Chinese explanation. It’s also called simply 《书》. Anyway, TBN’s Guo Shaofeng informs us:


Several copies of the Book of History have reappeared having been lost for over 2000 years. Yesterday, head of the Center for Excavated Texts Research and Protection, Tsinghua University [CETRP] Professor Li Xueqin announced that during research of the “Qinghua Bamboo Slips” music and poetry of King Wu of Zhou were also discovered, filling an historic gap in learning.

Wah. Looks like I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew. First of all, couldn’t find an English name for “清华大学出土文献研究与保护中心“. Then there was “周武王的乐诗“. Clearly there are big gaps in my own knowledge, but it would also be nice if dictionaries and the internets actually helped me when I asked them. Clearly the Red Hot Chilli Peppers aren’t helping, either. Perhaps I should swap them for some Tang Dynasty? Nah, nowhere near old enough for these Western Zhou types I’m wrestling with here.


Through donations from alumni, Tsinghua added this set of bamboo slips to its collection last July, calling it the “Tsinghua Bamboo Slips”.  Having been appraised by 11 authoritative scholars and experts, this set of bamboo slips should date from the Warring States period and involve core content of China’s traditional culture and are a major discovery rarely seen before.

前所罕见“? I’m really not having much luck this morning.


Yesterday Li Xueqin said that after several months of preliminary research, it has finally been decided that there are 2388 Tsinghua Bamboo Slips.


Li Xueqin said that it can be confirmed that the “Tsinghua Bamboo Slips” are books. “If we classify them according to the four traditional categories, most are Classics and Histories, the most prominent being the Book of History.” Most copies of the Book of History were lost to the burnings of books of the Qin period. Several copies of the Book of History have already appeared among the “Tsinghua Bamboo Slips”, some of which, some of which have been handed down, but they have many differences in wording, to the point of having different titles, among which 16 titles don’t appear in the modern Book of History.

It’s still not getting any easier. I’m still having to guess too much. “篇题“?


Li Xueqin said that because at the time books were all hand-copied, differences naturally arose in the copying process. From the latter years of the Western Han up to today, the debate over the “new and old texts” of the Book of History has not ended. Hopefully the “Tsinghua Bamboo Slips” can let people see the true character of the “genuine” Book of History lost for over 2000 years.

My brain hurts. “今古文“?

So scanning through it I thought, yeah, I get this, I could translate it, and it’s been so long since I translated anything…. Then I sat down to do it, and there are so many phrases I just can’t get my head around, and I can’t find anywhere near enough help either online or in dead tree dictionaries. Guess I shouldn’t have attempted it. Oh well, I’ll put it out there in the hope somebody can come along and help me make more sense of this.

Oh wait, I forgot the subtitle…. nah, forget it. Oh, and there’s a brief introduction to the Book of History and followed by a little exposé the first of those books that Tsinghua managed to put back together. But if you’ll excuse me, the main article gave me enough trouble, and I hear lunch calling.

Update: so polished a little thanks to saiweng, but I’m still not confident. What else up there needs improving?

4 Responses to “old books rediscovered”

  1. saiweng Says:

    The 尚书 or “Book of History” is a collection of ancient documents, not really history as a narrative, but the “raw materials” as it were from which history is written. Along with parts of 易经 and 诗经, the 尚书 was thought to contain the oldest recorded writings of China, but of course this has changed with the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions. In content the Shangshu documents are reminiscent of bronze inscriptions and are perhaps related to them. New bronze inscriptions are found when ancient bronzes are dug up, so it is thought the Shangshu documents are (or were) inscriptions on ceremonial bronzes now lost.

    After the burning of the books during the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty sought to rebuild these texts by (re-)creating authoritative versions. Some scholars who had memorized these texts recited them for scribes, while some copies of texts that had escaped the burning (complete and incomplete) were also found, though scholars have thought that some of these may have been forgeries–a charge particularly directed at versions of the Shangshu text. The “今古文” (literally “the new and old texts”) refers to this period during the Han dynasty, in which “new” refers to the editions promulgated by the Han emperors using the “new” or contemporary forms of Chinese characters, while the “old” refers to the (so-called) pre-Han texts that were found (here is where the forgery bit comes in) hidden in walls and so on, and using the older, pre-Han versions of the Chinese script. Hoards of classical scholars over the centuries have spent their lives trying to sort through these texts in search of the so-called “authoritative” version (“正版”). One wonders if there ever were authoritative versions before the Qin emperor started his incendiary crusade, add to that certain Han scholars with their own agenda who might have (read almost certainly) tossed in their own forgeries into the mix and you get an idea of the problem’s scale. Perhaps the Tsinghua Bamboo Slips will erase some of these Han forgeries and/or mistakes; but “zhengban” is wishful thinking. Even before the Qin disruption, the Shangshu was already considered something suspect, and there may have been earlier additions/changes/alterations/mis-readings for one reason or another; hence the famous comment by Mencius: 尽信书则不如无书。”Better to have no ‘Book of History’ than to believe it entirely.” (7B3)


    篇题 : article/document/inscription title

    前所罕见: “rarely seen before” (don’t forget that the “所” points to the object of the verb; “所罕见” is literally “what is rarely seen” and the “前” functions as a temporal adverb, as in 以前. A good grounding in Classical Chinese 文言文 would help you a lot in these situations.)

  2. wangbo Says:

    Aha! Thanks, saiweng, for all that background info. If I’d had all that before I started mangling my translation, life would’ve been easier. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything this good while I was working on it.

    And yes, I’m starting to feel it is long since time I started on the Classical.

    Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to use your excellent comment to polish up the original post.

  3. saiweng Says:

    Apropos the organization “清华大学出土文献研究与保护中心,” Google search popped up this article:


    “Center for Excavated Texts Research and Protection, Tsinghua University [CETRP]” which should be used if that is what they call themselves in English. 文献 is more properly “literature” as in “technical literature” or “historical literature,” a collection of documents that form a field of study, not just literary literature. Given that there is so much stuff that can be “dug up” in China, the term “出土” is used quite often, which is not the case in the West, making any translation of the term sound odd.

    Good luck with your Classical studies..


    For the Google search, I use the full name of the organization in Chinese coupled with the one English word I knew would appear in any translation of that name, e.g., “center.” I often use this method to scan for technical terms, expressions, and proper names with which I am unfamiliar; something usually pops up. If not, I then read over some of the documents that use the expression as a way of narrowing down possible meanings… Google is a great resource that way.

  4. wangbo Says:

    Once again, thanks. Your comments are superb. I was searching google and baidu and the Tsinghua website and just could not find that Centre’s English name. Google is a great resource, and baidu can be surprisingly good, but I guess yesterday I just couldn’t find the right mix of search terms. Once again, thanks for the awesome comments.