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Unearthing The Chinese Classics

Edward L. Shaughnessy
p. 53

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1At the beginning of the twentieth century, the status of the Chinese Classics was precarious, with many intellectuals regarding them as the root of modern China’s problems.

2These intellectuals advocated burying the Classics along with the rest of the past. However, the Classics have not been so easy to kill; moreover, they will not stay buried. Now, more than one hundred years later, the Classics continue quite literally to come up out of China’s soil.

3Throughout the modern period, China’s engagement with the Classics has proceeded with the writing brush of the scholar in one hand and the spade of the archaeologist in the other. Two disco­veries of ancient texts in particular first attracted the attention of scholars­ and layman alike. One still represents the earliest writing­ from China; these are the oracle-bone inscriptions of Shang China, the oldest of which date to about 1200 BC. The other, records written on strips of wood, were found in the desert sands of Central Asia, and date from the beginning of the common era. The millennium or so between these two dates was the classical age in China, the time during which the Classics were first composed and copied onto the various writing mediums of the time.

4In these Collège de France lectures, I explored how archae­o­logy has influenced the study of the Chinese Classics over the last century or more. I focused on the first three of the Classics, the Yijing or Classic of Changes, the Shujing or Classic of Documents and the Shijing or Classic of Poetry, and took up as well one non-canonical classic, the Daodejing or Classic of the Way and Virtue. In the first lecture, I showed how Shang oracle-bone inscriptions inspired a radical rethinking of how the Classic of Changes may have been composed. The Shang oracle bones mark the beginning of this story, but certainly not its end. Just the last four decades have brought a steady stream of other discoveries, beginning with the second-century BC Mawangdui silk manuscript of the text, and continuing more recently with three other manuscripts all written on bamboo strips: those of the Shanghai Museum, and from Wangjiatai and Fuyang. In addition to these manuscripts of and related to the Yijing, there have been numerous other discoveries of divination records, including oracle bones from the Zhou dynasty, that provide precious information about how this classic was first used.

5In my second lecture, I surveyed the transmission of the Classic of Documents from the Qin “burning of the books” in 213 BC, through the partial reconstitution of twenty-eight chapters of the text about 165 BC, until a new text with sixteen additional chapters was presented at court in the early fourth century AD. I then discussed doubts that scholars raised about these additional chapters, referred to as the Guwen or Ancient Text version of the text, beginning already in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The demonstration of the spurious nature of these Ancient Text chapters during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) has long been regarded as the crowning glory of the Chinese scholarly tradition. Finally, in just the last three years, archae­o­logical evidence has surfaced in the form of fourth century BC bamboo-strip manuscripts proving beyond doubt that the Ancient Text chapters are indeed forgeries.

6The third lecture explored the Classic of Poetry. Recent archaeo­logical evidence shows that this was the most frequently quoted of all Chinese classics in antiquity. As in the case of the Classic of Changes, various kinds of manuscripts either of or related to the Poetry have surfaced in recent decades. The first of these was excavated in 1977 from a Han tomb at Fuyang, Anhui dated to 165 BC, while the most recent to appear was published only in December 2012. This evidence shows that the Classic of Poetry was in wide circulation throughout the last centuries BC, but it has not yet succeeded in demonstrating how the Poetry was composed, or even how it was transmitted in antiquity.

7The final lecture turned to the non-canonical Classic of the Way and Virtue, regarded as the fountainhead of the Daoist tradition. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the date and nature of this text have been the most vigorously debated topics in Chinese textual scholarship, with some scholars upholding the traditional sixth century BC date, while other scholars argue for a date of composition as late as the third or even second century BC. I again surveyed recently discovered manuscripts related to this text, beginning with the Mawangdui manuscripts of 168 BC (excavated in 1973), and focused especially on the Guodian manuscripts discovered in 1993. I also introduced a manuscript just published (March 2013) by Peking University. Although this manuscript does not resolve the long debates about the text, it does provide a new way to authenticate ancient manuscripts.In these lectures I showed how these new manuscripts have renewed the claim that the Chinese Classics – the oldest texts in the long Chinese literary tradition – have on the attention of Chinese scholars everywhere.

• The Faculty invited Mr Edward L. Shaughnessy, upon Anne Cheng’s proposal.

• The videos of the lectures are available at, on Prof. Anne Cheng’s page.Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

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Edward L. Shaughnessy, « Unearthing The Chinese Classics », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 22 janvier 2018. URL :

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Edward L. Shaughnessy

Lorraine J. and Herrlee G. Creel Distinguished Service Professor in Early Chinese Studies, Department of East Asian Languages Department, University of Chicago

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