Archeology and the recovery of ancient writing: bamboo strip manuscripts of seminal classics

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My entire career as a Sinologist has been based on the study of archeologically recovered materials.  I'm talking particularly about the medieval Dunhuang manuscripts, but also the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Tarim mummies and their associated artifacts.  It's no wonder, therefore, that I have featured the importance of archeology for the study of language and linguistics so often in my posts (see "Selected readings" below for a small sample).

Now comes news of the recovery of a spectacular cache of bamboo strip manuscripts from a Chu culture site kindly provided by Keith Knapp (with some Romanizations, links, and annotations by me):

 A huge and important discovery.  At Jingzhou's Wangjiaju Chu cemetery site Wángjiājǔ Zhànguó Chǔ mù 王家咀*战国楚墓, 3,200 bamboo writing slips have been recovered from Tomb 798.  Researchers estimate that about 700 of the slips can be restored.  This tomb is 2,300 years old.**  The slips appear to belong to three texts: the Book of Poetry, Kongzi Yue 孔子曰 ("Confucius said"), and Yue (Music) 乐.  The Kongzi yue overlaps some portions of the Analects, the Book of Rites, and the Mencius.  The structure of the Kongzi yue text, though, is very different from Western Han [202 BC-9 AD] excavated manuscripts of the Analects.  The portions of the Book of Poetry come from the Guó fēng 国风 [Airs of the States] part of the text.  As for the Yue text, it consists of numbers, the Heavenly Stems, and a few simple characters.  It is thought to be a musical score, but it is very hard to read.  If it is a musical score, then perhaps it is a key to understanding the missing Classic of Music.***

*There is a considerable amount of confusion over the pronunciation of this character as used in toponyms.  Most people / websites are pronouncing / reading 王家咀 as Wángjiājǔ, but you will also hear / see a minority of people / websites pronouncing / reading it as Wángjiāzuǐ.  As a matter of fact, this character is best known to people throughout the Sinographic world as it occurs in the famous Hong Kong place name, Tsim Sha Tsui 尖沙咀 ("sharp sandspit").  The traditional and archaic form of the name has the same pronunciation but is written as 尖沙嘴 (source). In terms of historical phonology, topolectology, and orthography, the situation is much more complicated than what I say here, but, putting the matter simply, a lot of people think of and use 咀 as the simplified form of 嘴, which is pronounced in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) as zuǐ and means "mouth; beak".  Since 咀 in names like 王家咀 and 尖沙咀 derive from the notion of "mouth", it is probably being thought of as the simplified, shorthand form of zuǐ 嘴.  Unfortunately, Xiàndài Hànyǔ Guīfàn Cídiǎn (现代汉语规范词典) (Contemporary Chinese Standard Dictionary or A Standard Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese) proscribes the use of as the simplified form of 嘴 (source).  On the other hand, the accepted pronunciation and meaning of are and "suck; chew; masticate; taste".
**This date is of particular significance since it is at a time when all three of these collections would have been coalescing into identifiable, integral texts that could be edited and circulated.
***In light of Sara de Rose's recent landmark publications on the development of music theory in China, the newly discovered bamboo strips with what look like portions of the long lost (two millennia) Classic of Music should be read with utmost care and may lead to confirmation of some of Sara's remarkable findings.
"A Proposed Mesopotamian Origin for the Ancient Musical and Musico-Cosmological Systems of the West and China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 320 (December, 2021), v, 178 pages. (free pdf)
This article in Chinese includes photographs of the "Confucius said" (two strips) and the "Music" (three strips) manuscripts.
The study of the history of civilization (including language and literature) will never be concluded, because we will always make new discoveries of archeological materials and manuscripts, some quite revolutionary in nature, as were the Dunhuang texts, the Tarim Basin mummies, and the Chu bamboo strips.

Selected readings

The origin of the Tocharians and their relationship to the Yuezhi (月氏) have been debated for more than a century, since the discovery of the Tocharian language. This debate has led to progress on both the scope and depth of our knowledge about the origin of the Indo-European language family and of the Indo-Europeans. Archaeological evidence supporting these theories, however, has until now sadly been lacking


  1. Matthias Richter said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 12:34 am

    I, too, have been puzzled by reading "Wangjiaju". I find it extremely likely that the place name ended in a syllable meaning 'mouth'. This kind of place name seems to be popular not just in China (Hankou, Jiangkou, Zhoukou and, yes, Zhangjiakou) but also: the UK (Plymouth, Portsmouth, Yarmouth, Exmouth, Bournemouth, Weymouth etc.), Japan (Yamaguchi, Kawaguchi), German-speaking regions: Gmünd, Warnemünde, Travemünde, Dortmund — the 'mouth'-part varying by region, just like 'XY口' vs. "XY嘴/咀" may reflect regional peculiarities. I feel less sure about how the 'mouth' part of the place name 王家嘴/咀 was pronounced when the name was chosen, what character was chosen and what influence that had on how people would pronounce the name over time. — I'd be interested to know how locals pronounce 王家咀.

  2. Richard Futrell said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 4:47 am

    If the 乐 text is really a collection of scores then how likely is that to be the Classic of Music? Was the Classic of Music a text or a collection of scores?

  3. Jens Østergaard Petersen said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 5:01 am

    There are other places called 王家咀; these are transcribed ‘Wangjiazui’ in Chinese publications. See e.g.

    王世昌 – 长江三峡库区巴东县王家咀至观音桥段塌岸模式与预测.华南地质与矿产31.4(2015)
    杨军昌 – 陕西岐山王家咀先周墓 M 19出土铜器的实验研究.考古与文物2003-05.

    A fuller report on the 王家咀 bamboo slips, with meagre transcriptions, can be found at

    See also
    with pictures of the processing of the slips
    on the Shi slips

    No literature on this grave and its contents is yet to be found on CNKI, as far as I can see.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 8:40 am

    From South Coblin:

    I think the Guófēng fragment may be particularly important for people who use Shījīng rimes in their phonological work. The Analects material will also be interesting. I hope the material will be analyzed and published as soon as possible.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 8:44 am

    I will write a separate post about 堡, which occurs frequently in place names and has many different pronunciations.

  6. Chris Button said,

    May 29, 2022 @ 5:48 pm

    It certainly would be nice if the Guófēng fragment threw up a couple of variant rhymes to further challenge some of the more rigid interpretations of Old Chinese rhyming.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 30, 2022 @ 9:19 am

    re 'mouth' various branches (?) of Sinitic have items that resemble Mand. zui3 for literal '(person's) mouth' but not all are comparatively commensurate with it, suggesting relatively recent diffusion of an item that meant [and often still means] 'snout/spout/projection'…

    re this discovery very exciting… one note is the Chinese articles are saying ~3200 _pieces) have been recovered which it is estimated can be restored into on the order of 700 _(full) strips_, so the situation re condition is hopefully not so dire as suggested in this write-up

  8. Adam said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 9:35 pm


    Confucius was in the Chen Cai region. Gongxia Sheng gave him a bundle of embroideries as a present. Confucius said, “But we have no food!” He gave it all the same, saying, “I haven’t seen you for a long time. Please stay the night.” Confucius said: “But we really have no food!.”

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