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Literary monuments as sources on the history of Ancient China

The written tradition in Ancient China

Among modern researchers of ancient Chinese culture, there is no unity of views on the question of the form in which the most ancient historical-narrative, religious-ritual, philosophical and other texts were originally transmitted, and which sources-oral or written-played a decisive role in the process of their composition. Franks once argued that in the Shang era (the 2nd half of the second millennium BC) and in the Western and Eastern Zhou periods (the beginning of the first millennium BC). writing was not so widespread that at that time the only form of writing was divination and documentary inscriptions on the bones of domestic animals, turtle shields, bronze vessels and bells. In his opinion, the lack of portable writing material made it impossible to record any major literary works.

Bamboo books

Chinese Bamboo-stick Manuscript from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC)

Chinese Bamboo-stick Manuscript from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC)

Such an opinion about the ancient Chinese written tradition comes into conflict with the facts. Researchers suggest that along with the extant inscriptions on divination bones and bronze ritual utensils in the Shang era and at the beginning of the Zhou era, texts with a different content were distributed, which have not been preserved, as they were written on bamboo and wooden slats. As evidence of the validity of this assumption, it can be noted that in the Yin divination inscriptions, pictographic symbols are presented in the form of schematic images of a bunch of bamboo or wooden slats. As for the Western and Eastern Zhou periods, the evidence from various narrative sources leaves no doubt that bamboo was then widely known as writing material. In one of the songs of the Shijin, describing a long journey, it is said: “Are we not thinking of returning home? But we are afraid of the order on the bamboo slats.” “Yanzi chunqiu” mentions that in the VII century BC, silk and bamboo were used in the compilation of documentary records. In the stories of “Zuo-zhuan”, dating back to the middle of the VI century BC, there is information that bamboo planks served as writing material for chroniclers of different kingdoms. One of them says: “I have done wrong to my sovereign, but nothing can be gained by repentance, for my name has been recorded in the chronicles of the rulers written on bamboo slats…»

For the history of ancient Chinese written culture, the discovery in 1957 in the tomb of the Chu ruler in the vicinity of Xinyang (prov. Henan) several dozen bamboo slats, on one side of which hieroglyphs were written in a vertical column. For the Xinyang tomb, some historians suggest a fairly early dating — the VII-V centuries BC. According to preliminary research, a coherent ethical and political text of the Confucian trend was recorded there. The Xinyang find can be considered the first authentic bamboo “book” of the Zhou period found by archaeologists.

According to the Xinyang find, it is possible to judge some external features of the non-preserved Zhou “books”. Each bamboo “page” contained 30 to 40 hieroglyphs drawn with a writing brush. It is possible that in the late Zhou period there was a special type of “book” writing. At least modern researchers have noted that the hieroglyphics on the Xinyang bamboo strips, on the Zhanguo silk scroll from Changsha, containing calendar and astrological texts, and on the jade plates from under the city of Houma (prov. Shanxi) with the texts of oaths show obvious similarities. Archaeological evidence and evidence from ancient narrative sources indicate that the production of bamboo “books”, as well as their distribution, did not require, as is sometimes claimed, excessive effort and expense. The bamboo “books”, with their very narrow and thin “pages”, arranged in separate bundles-chapters, were quite convenient under various circumstances. One of the texts from the Zhanguo period says that Su Qin, a well-known diplomat of the time, was forced to carry his books “on his shoulder in a box”at the beginning of his career. There is also a mention that the philosopher Mozi (V-IV centuries. B.C.), about to go “as an ambassador to the kingdom of Wei”, “put a great many books in his carts”.

Compilation of dated records

The art of making dated records originated in the Shang era among the priests of the Anyang oracle. The divination texts they regularly compiled included, along with the divination formula, information about how the predictions made by the priest appeared.

Fortune-telling bone belonging to the Shang Dynasty (XIV-XI centuries BC)

Fortune-telling bone belonging to the Shang Dynasty (XIV-XI centuries BC)

The inscriptions on the bones, devoid of divination formulas, also belong to the Shan era. They are purely “secular” in nature and usually represent very lapidary stories about the deeds of Wang. Obviously, in such cases, the effective part of the divination text gave the Shan scribe a ready-made form, which he used as a basis for individual factual messages. This, in particular, is indicated by the method of dating the latter. Some modern researchers see such inscriptions as evidence of the origin of the practice of regular compilation of historical and documentary texts by the court scribes of Wang, a kind of archives.

This opinion seems to be true, for the epigraphic materials relating to the period immediately following the fall of the Shang State and the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty — namely, the texts of the inscriptions on the West Zhou bronze ritual vessels-reveal a picture of the extraordinary growth of the socio-political significance of documentary and historical records.

The attention paid to official documents during this period is evidenced by the presence of special archives at the court for their storage. So, in the “Zozhuang” we read: “Once Zhou-gong and Tai-gong were the closest assistants of the house of Zhou, they helped Cheng-wang.” Cheng-wang thanked them and presented them with the [text] of the oath promise, which was placed in the ” chamber of treaties (Mengfu)”.

Bamboo slats with hieroglyphs.

Bamboo slats with hieroglyphs. Stored in the Museum of Gansu, China.

The question of who was responsible for the entire complex of special functions related to the compilation of documentary and historical records (monitoring the calendar, determining the year of the reign, in what month and on what day the event took place, monitoring the materials of state archives, and finally, accurately recording the facts) is answered by the evidence of narrative sources dating back to the East Zhou period, when in ancient China there was a noticeable weakening of the political power of the Zhou Wangs, which was accompanied by an increase in the independence of local rulers.

On the basis of these sources, modern researchers have established that the regular compilation of the calendar, which included the program of state worship, was the responsibility of the shi, a special college of clerical officials. It is known that the latter also carried out the highest supervision of state cults, performed as priests and priests at sacred ceremonies and ceremonies, were astrologers, divined from the bones of animals, etc.

Less attention was paid to the side of the activities of the Shi representatives, which from the modern point of view was purely “secular” in nature. However, the evidence of the sources here is quite expressive. Let’s start with the earliest ones.

In the “Zozhuang” in the speech of the Zhou Ching-wang (reigned in 544-519 BC), there is a story about the origin of the ancestral nicknames of the Shi who lived in the kingdom of Jin in the eighth century BC: “Sun Boyan was in charge of the laws (Dian) and lists (ji) in Jin, participated in the affairs of government [of the country], so he was given the ancestral nickname Ji.” In this passage, the Jin Shi Sun Boyan acts as the keeper of the archive, and his particularly emphasized active participation in the political life of the country clearly indicates that the archive under his jurisdiction was state-owned, and not religious.

According to the” Plans of the Warring States ” (Zhanguo Ce), Zhao had the position of a Yushi official, whose duties included collecting diplomatic messages sent to Zhaoan Wang. Shi officials, acting as advisers, in difficult cases of administrative and state practice, looked for instructive examples suitable for this situation, both from the recent past of their country, and from the general Zhou historical traditions and genealogical legends. The latter circumstance echoes the reports of sources indicating that some representatives of the Shi college performed the functions of chroniclers.

Book learning

From the narrative monuments, other facts can be extracted, which indicate that during the Eastern Zhou period, the documentary record and the book occupied a prominent place in the life of ancient Chinese society, pushing oral tradition into the background. There is evidence that such an important social function as the maintenance of cultural traditions by passing them from one generation to another was carried out in some cases through book education.

Thus, in a speech attributed to the Chu dignitary Shen Shushi, which is part of the “Goyu”, among the arguments about how and what should be taught to the heir of Chuang-wang (late VII century BC), the texts of writings and state documents are repeatedly mentioned: “Shushi said:” Teaching him according to the “Chunqiu”, you will encourage him to extol good and condemn evil, in order to make his heart abstemious. By teaching him the genealogies, you will encourage him to glorify light and virtue and reject darkness and ignorance, so that in his actions he will get rid of fear. By teaching him odes, you will encourage him to glorify virtue everywhere, in order to enlighten his aspirations. By teaching him the rites and regulations, you will make him learn about the rules for the higher and lower ones. By teaching him music, you will get rid of the filth and suppress his frivolity. By teaching the decrees and commands, you will make them understand state affairs. By teaching him to speak, you will make virtue clearer to him, and make him know that the Vans of former days were engaged in explaining virtue among the people. By teaching him from the ancient records, you will make him learn about those who died and those who rose up, and you will save him from fear. By teaching him according to the code of instructions, you will make him know what the order of generations is, and you will encourage him to compare how they performed their duty.”

There is no doubt that either a certain book or a series of books was hidden under the name “Chunqiu”. When Shen Shushi spoke of learning from the “ancient records” and the “code of instructions”, he also obviously meant introducing the heir to some well-known texts. “Well-read” was often used as a synonym for education and competence. So, in “Zozhuang” we read: “Wang said,’ This is a good historiographer… he is able to read about the three tombs, the five rules, the eight measures, the ten hills.'”

An interesting indication of the prevalence of writing and basic literacy among the people is that, according to the Zhouli, the Zhou authorities found it necessary to post the texts of official “teachings” for public viewing. There are also references to the fact that in the temples of the ancestors of the statesmen of the Chunqiu period, tablets were displayed describing their services to the country. To this you can add one characteristic detail. The rather cliched literary characterization of statesmen and scientists in Late Zhou writings usually contains a reference to the fact that the hero diligently read books, neglecting sleep. It is not surprising that in the context of the growth of bookishness and book culture, among the duties of Shi officials, the duty to “record events” is gradually being put in the first place.

Thus, in the ” Basic Records of [the kingdom] Qin “Sima Qian under 763 BC says:” For the first time, the Shi was established to record events.” Similar reports are from the Zhanguo period. Thus, the Zhanguo Ce says: “[Zhao Wang] met with Qin Wang in Mianchi. After drinking the wine and getting drunk, Qin Wang said, ” I heard that you, Zhaoan Wang, are a good musician. Please play the harp.” When the Zhaoan wang touched the strings, the Qin Yushi stepped forward and recorded: “In such and such a year, in such and such a month, on such and such a day, Qin Wang and Zhaoan Wang were feasting at a meeting, and [ Qin Wang] ordered Zhaoan Wang to play the harp.”

Duties of Shi officials

Thus, among the many duties of Shi, a complex that is directly related to the origin and development of ancient Chinese historiography stands out:

  • monitoring time,
  • performing the functions of archivists,
  • registering facts.

Indeed, in the Late Zhou narrative sources (in particular, in the Liushi Chunqiu), there are references to non-preserved works of a chronicle nature, which were called shiji (records). Sima Qian also mentions shiji: “Kunzi read shiji. When he came to the point where the restoration of the Chen [kingdom] of Chu was mentioned, he exclaimed, ” How wise is the Chuang-wan of Chu!”

These reports clearly indicate that by the fifth century BC, consolidated texts had already been compiled from individual chronicle records. Moreover, the references and quotations found in the pages of the sources of the VIII-III centuries BC keep the memory of dozens of books lost in ancient times and unknown to the compilers of the Han literary catalogues. It is striking that in the general culture of ancient China there was a very large share of historical knowledge. The greatest number of references falls on historical works. Ancient authors most often mention various kinds of ” records»:

  • zhi
  • ji

Quotations from these ancient sources, retellings of the content, as well as a number of general indications give reason to believe that they were referring to “records” of historical events and persons. In the titles of works mentioned in historiographical and philosophical monuments, the word “records” often appeared in combination with different definitions for it:

  • “Zhou records” (Zhouzhi),
  • “Records of the Past” (Qianzhi),
  • ” Ancient Records “(Guji),
  • ” Records of Ancient Times “(Shangguji),
  • ” Records of Official chroniclers ” (Shiji).

The latter variety of ancient Chinese historical writing was, obviously, the heiress of chronicled histories compiled by chroniclers of different kingdoms. The monument of the annals of the Zheng kingdom was the “Zheng Book” (Zhengshu), known according to the “Zozhuan”. From the same source, other works are known, which apparently contained information of a historical nature:

  • “Records of military affairs” (Junzhi) and
  • “Teachings of the Xia Times” (Xiaxun).

In various sources, there are indications that in the VIII-III centuries BC there were other works directly or indirectly related to historical knowledge, which were later also lost.

Fortune telling

In ancient China, divination was elevated to the level of a state institution. Court astrologers and specialists in scapulimancy, neuromantics, etc. were part of the same official-priestly college as the chroniclers. Every major event in the historical consciousness of the Zhou people was associated with the signs and predictions that preceded or accompanied it. Therefore, along with the registration of events, the practice of registering the most significant divinations arose. There is a mention that among the books of the Zhanguo period found in the Wei burial in Ji, there was a fortune-telling collection of Shichun. According to early medieval bibliographers, it contained information about divination on tags related to historical events of the Chunqiu period. The Guoyue contains two small quotations from the Records of the Diviners (Dushijiji, Dushiji) of the Jin kingdom. The prophecies of these “records” were consulted in matters of state.

Creating systematic records

Since at least the Eastern Zhou period, the written tradition has been firmly embedded in the field of state legal practice. It is possible to consider the existence of written laws in a number of Central Chinese kingdoms since about the VI century BC (and perhaps earlier).

Taoist silk scroll from the Mawandui Tomb in Hunan province. Ca. 168 BC.

Taoist silk scroll from the Mawandui Tomb in Hunan province. Ca. 168 BC.

Accurate and systematic records began to be kept not only in the Zhou domain, but also in the centers of numerous kingdoms that arose on the ruins of the West Zhou state. In Qin, as well as in other ancient Chinese states of the VIII-III centuries BC, the sum of the primary records of official chroniclers eventually formed a royal chronicle, called ” The Main records [of the kingdom] Qin” (Qinji). He is the only one of the annals of the Zhou period who escaped the literary inquisition of Qin Shi Huang. An interesting experience of constructing the general ancient history of China, combined with the chronicle of the Wei kingdom (V-III centuries BC), was contained in the book “Weather records on bamboo slats” (Zhushu Jinyan), found in the III century AD in the Wei tomb in Ji. In this collection, which we know only in fragments, we have failed to find any signs of a pragmatic account of events. Apparently, the ancient records were connected in it only by an external connection, which was the chronology of the rulers of Xia, Shang, Zhou and Wei.

A large group consisted of historical works of the Chunqiu type. It should be said that some Late Zhou authors saw in this term only the name of the annals of the kingdom of Lu. However, the combination chunqiu in the late Zhou period began to be used in a generalized sense, turning it into a terminus technicus for numerous local and other stories. Mozi’s statement is preserved: “I have seen chunqiu originating from the hundred kingdoms.”

The Mengzi treatise says: “…After suppressing the writing of odes, Chunqiu Cheng [kingdoms] was created] Jin, Taou [kingdoms] Chu and Chunqiu [kingdoms] Lou. Their texts are [the texts of] shi officials-chroniclers.” In one of the descriptions of the library, discovered in 280 AD in the Wei burial of the third century BC in Ji, the lost work “Various Narratives” (Sotom) is mentioned, where “there is a Chunqiu [kingdom] Jin.”

The above materials lead to the conclusion that at least two stories of the Jin kingdom existed simultaneously in the Zhanguo period:

  • the official version, called “Cheng” (“Chariot”),
  • and some Jin chunqiu.

The official character of the annals of the kingdoms of Lu, Jin, and Chu mentioned in the Mengzi treatise was determined by the fact that they were compiled from records kept at the Wang courts by official chroniclers. As for the extinct Late Zhou Chunqiu, whose memory is preserved by various sources, they seem to have been the result of the purely literary inclinations of ancient Chinese scribes who wrote them on their own initiative — such as, for example, the Zhou, Yan, Sung, and Qing Chunqiu quoted in the Mozi treatise.

A pit with divination bones found in the capital of the Shan dynasty-Anyang (Yingxu). 1766-1050 BC A
pit with divination bones found in the capital of the Shan dynasty-Anyang (Yingxu). 1766-1050 BC

Chunqiu, apparently, included various kinds of historical legends and prose tales that reflected the semi-fantastic ideas of different strata of ancient Chinese society about the past.

Fragments of lost writings of the chunqiu type are found both in the form of retelling and in the form of verbatim transmission in the speeches of statesmen of the V-III centuries BC, collected in the “Zhanguo Tse” and in the treatise “Han Feizi”.

Unfortunately, the information that we have about the East Zhou Chunqiu is very incomplete and fragmentary, so we can only guess about their internal structure and other features of the content. It can be assumed that they were characterized by a chronological principle of presentation. The latter allowed them to include historical stories of a heterogeneous nature. In some cases, these stories were based on historical tradition. Judging by the data of the “Zozhuan” and “Guoyu”, soon after the appearance of such legends, they must have been recorded by written tradition, because it is difficult to imagine that after several decades or centuries, the picture of the events reflected in them could be preserved in the memory of the transmitters in such detail, with such accurate chronological instructions.

The appearance of analytical and moral records in the chronicles

The VI-IV centuries BC for the ancient Chinese kingdoms were marked by the growth of internal socio-economic contradictions, accompanied by an extraordinary complication of socio-political life. The antagonism between privileged family-related groups and the central government has intensified.


Under these conditions, along with the chronicles that united the official records of events, historical works began to appear, imbued with diverse and very aggressive tendentiousness. At the same time, there was a final crystallization of the view of historical writing as a means of education or political guidance. Thus, according to the Guoyu, one of the dignitaries of the Chu Chuang-wang (613-590 BC), commenting on the disciplines on which the education of the heir was built, stated: “By teaching him (i.e., the heir) chunqiu, you will encourage him to honor the good and condemn the evil.”

Apparently, the range of Chunqiu mentioned in this quote was not limited to official chronicles and included moralizing narratives.

Among the Zhanguo authors, there is ample evidence that genealogical legends, semi-poetic traditions, and moral tales were collected and recorded on a fairly large scale. Thus, the works that united them are mentioned in the Liushi chunqiu under the title Guji (“Records of the Past”) and Shangguji (“Records of Ancient Times”). The compilers of the Han Feizi treatise, who have repeatedly quoted such texts, refer to them simply as ji (“records”).

To create detailed and internally motivated narratives, both the form and the extensive material of the historical tradition recorded in the late Zhou period could not be better suited.

During the VII-III centuries BC, various genres of historical narrative emerged, but the most widespread works were those of the Chunqiu type.

During the Zhanguo period, a series of chunqiu appeared, in which the rulers of past generations and modern authors were judged by the rulers. Among them is the book “Yushi Chunqiu”, created by Yu Qing, a dignitary from the kingdom of Zhao, which is known from the only description of it available in the work of Sima Qian: “[Yu Qing], rising, stopped [in it] on [the events] of the Chunqiu period, descending, surveyed the near future. [The book] talked about measure and proportionality, about correspondence and notation, about assumptions and guesses, about management and design. In total, there were eight bundles containing attacks and ridicule of the successes and failures of [different] states.” Judging by the quote preserved by Han Feizi, the content of “Taozuo chunqiu”, lost in ancient times, was similar. We have at our disposal only one source from which we can judge the internal structure and features of the presentation of historical material inherent in the East Zhou chronicles.

This “Chunqiu” is a well-known Confucian canon, for which the aforementioned terminus technicus has become a proper name.

According to Mengzi (Teng Wen-gong), the creation of this monument was also associated with moral preaching and the desire to correct social vices: “There were subjects who killed their rulers. There were also sons who killed their fathers. Kunzi was afraid, created Chunqiu. Chunqiu is the work of the son of Heaven. For this reason, Kunzi said, ” You can only know me through Chunqiu.”

According to Mengzi and Sima Qian, Confucius compiled the Chunqiu from various Shi records. The material is arranged in it according to the years of the reign of the Roman kings who lived in the period between 722 and 481 BC. Within each annual complex, the records are distributed by season, sometimes by month and day. The chronicle records collected in Chunqiu are characterized by extreme conciseness and indistinctness in their descriptions, which, according to some researchers, still reflects the sufficient primitiveness of the need to record historical events. In addition, the circle of events recorded by the chronicler in “Chunqiu” is very narrow, and the connection between them is purely external. For example, under the 9th year of the reign of the Lu Yin-gong, it is said: “In the ninth year, in the spring, [Zhou] wang, by the will of Heaven, sent Nan Ji [to Lu] to inquire [about the health of the Lu ruler]. In the third month, on the day of guiyu, there was heavy rain, thunder and lightning. On the day of Genchen, there was a big snowfall. Xie died. In the summer, they built a wall around Lahn. Autumn, the seventh month. In the winter ,the [Lu] Gong met the Qing Hou in the [locality] of Fang.”

The fact that the authorship of “Chunqiu” was attributed to Confucius from ancient times, supported a constant interest in the question of the true nature of the content of the monument. For two millennia, Chunqiu has been overgrown with a vast orthodox exegetical literature, the creators of which have tried to interpret its chronicle records as encrypted moral formulas.

It was believed that “Chunqiu” consists of two parts:

  • short written formulas and
  • related oral secret teachings.

Both Chinese and some Western scholars look for evidence of the mysterious “symbolism” of Chunqiu in the factual incompleteness, fragmentary nature, terminological inconsistency, and inaccuracy of its records.

Over the past decades, significant work has been done to rehabilitate “Chunqiu” as a chronicle. In the composition of the “Zozhuan” there are fragments of the chronicles of different kingdoms, probably compiled at the same time.

By the time the Chunqiu was compiled, ancient Chinese historiographers had sufficiently developed means of describing events. Fragments of the chronicles of different kingdoms have been preserved. The methods of recording historical events presented in them differ from those that are characteristic of”Chunqiu”. In these texts, the range of records describing the event is much wider, their selection is characterized by a certain sequence, they trace the desire to establish not only a chronological, but also a pragmatic connection of phenomena. It seems that the incompleteness and incoherence of the historical narrative in Chunqiu was the result of artificial selection and removal of all the materials that formed their pragmatic context.


The text of “Chunqiu”, which we now have, does not give the impression of a chronicle, but rather a collection of topics for normative and moralizing commentary. During the Zhanguo period, such a commentary, known as the “Zozhuan”, i.e., the “Zuo [Qiuming] Commentary”, was compiled. About the person to whom the authorship of this monument is attributed, almost only his name is known. According to Sima Qian, he was a younger contemporary of Kunzi. Sima Qian gives the following reasons for his commentary on Chunqiu: “Zuo Qiuming, a noble man from the kingdom of Lu, was afraid that the students and followers of [Kunzi] would become dissimilar, that [each] would follow their own aspirations, that the true meaning of [the teachings of Kunzi] would disappear. For this reason, he, following the” Records of the shm “[collected] by Kunzi … created the ” Zoshi chunqiu “(“Lord Zuo’s Chunqiu”).” It is generally accepted that the” Zoshi chunqiu “here hides the same composition, which later became known as”Zozhuan”. This, however, does not mean that the entire monument was formed at once and in the form in which it has come down to our days. Sima Qian’s words about the nature of the content of the “Zoshi chunqiu” echo the fact that in the” Zozhuang ” there is an extensive layer of texts containing normative and moralizing assessments of events in the spirit of early Confucianism.

“Zozhuan” includes a large number of independent prose narratives, the theme of which is the events that took place on the territory of all the largest ancient Chinese possessions in the period from 722 to 463 BC, as well as chronicle quotations from that time. It has not yet been determined exactly when these elements were merged into a single text. When asking about the time of the compilation of the “Zozhuan”, it is impossible to ignore some of the results of the study of historical realities and the analysis of the grammatical structure of the monument made by linguists.

On their basis, the terminus ante quem non of the final formalization of the narrative elements of “Zozhuan”can be established. This is the end of the IV century BC.

Like other authors of that time, the compilers of the” Zozhuan “in historical events were attracted not so much by the human act as such, but by the manifestation in it of the cosmic forces of the “divine will” or moral consciousness.

The most characteristic feature of the historical stories included in the “Zozhuan”, which sharply separates their inherent way of describing events from the chronicle manner of” Chunqiu”, is the abundant use of direct speech. The appearance of such a literary device is easily explained. The most appropriate form for describing the patterns of reflection of the cosmic model in the affairs of the Middle Kingdom and for describing the social and ethical values and norms derived from it was the speech put into the mouths of those to whom the historical tradition attributed the highest knowledge of the doctrine.

As a rule, in “Zozhuang”, the subjective world of the actors is revealed through speech, in which they express their intentions and the motivating reasons for their actions.

In the historical stories of “Zozhuan”, speeches were used as the most important elements of explaining the reasons for the events described in them.

What is the origin of the predilection that the historiographers of the Zhanguo period had for direct speech?

Obviously, the dependence on the traditions and techniques of historical folklore played an important role here. But there was a more important source, in our opinion, which is described by the materials of ancient epigraphic and narrative monuments. We are referring to the influence that some stylistic features of early documentary prose had on historiographers, as well as the high culture of embassy, military and other types of oral speech. As you know, the orders and regulations of the first Zhou rulers, inscribed on the surface of bronze ritual vessels, were compiled by court scribes in the form of speeches addressed to the owner of the ritual vessel. The prevalence of such documentary texts, the content of which, apparently, imitated the speeches delivered during the solemn presentation of the investiture and on other official occasions, indicates that speech has long been considered an important element of state ritual and political life. In this regard, of particular interest are the reports of sources that already in the time of the first Zhou Wangs there was a custom to record the content of oral speeches.

Recording of oral presentations

In the sources of the Eastern Zhou period, there are already quite reliable references to the practice of recording oral speeches in writing.

In the narrative texts that developed in the V-III centuries BC, one can find references to how students wrote down the words of their mentors, how court scribes wrote down the statements of their advisers that the rulers liked.

A very important point in the preparation of diplomatic actions was the preparation of embassy speeches. This information is contained in the following passage from the Zuo Commentary: “[One of the sides] of Zi Chang’s state activities was the selection and use of [people] with abilities … Feng Jianzi was able to make decisions about important matters. Zi Dashu was handsome and educated. Gongsun Hui had the ability to know about everything that was going on in the neighboring domain… in addition, he was skilled in composing speeches and orders. Bi Chen … achieved success when not a city, but an open field became the arena of his plans. When the Zheng kingdom intended to enter into any relations with the local proprietors, Zi Chan asked Zi Yu about what was happening in the neighboring kingdoms, and instructed him to make speeches and instructions. He would send Bi Chen in a chariot to the field and tell him to think about whether or not [these speeches and instructions are appropriate for this case]. After informing Feng Jianzi of this, he instructed him to [prepare] a final decision. After that, [everything] was handed over to Zi Dash, whose duty was to give a move [to the case] and respond to the guest (i.e., the ambassador from another kingdom).”

The special preparation and discussion of the content of the speeches described here, which preceded their delivery to the ambassadors of neighboring States, indicate that the speeches had a truly political significance, having a noticeable impact on events.

Uttered under official circumstances, they were equated with important state documents. For the historiographers of the time, speeches, like events, must have had the same significance as facts to be reckoned with. These circumstances, obviously, gave rise to the desire of Late Zhou authors to collect records of oral speeches written on bamboo tablets.

The literary fate of the speech depended little on the “spoken” original, for the contours of it, preserved by the original recording, were filled with content several decades, and perhaps even centuries after this recording was made. This processing of the original record could have been done by an official historiographer. Under his brush, the record came to life, filled with historical comparisons, quotations from the Shijing ,extracts from legends, samples of folk wisdom, etc. A similar operation could have been performed by one of the literarily educated people of Late Zhou China who were not associated with the official historiographical school.

“Narratives of the Realms” (“Goyu»)

As a result, complexes of independent historical stories were created, in which oral instructions, exhortations and advice, delivered by “virtuous” dignitaries under various circumstances and before different audiences, were introduced into the fabric of the narrative-chronicle presentation. Collected together, these stories made up a book called “Narratives of the Realms”(“Goyu”). The earliest historical events mentioned in it date back to the time of Western Zhou. However, the content of the bulk of the historical stories in “Goya” is associated with a later period-the VIII-V centuries BC. The text of the monument includes several sections:

  • “Narratives of the Kingdom of Zhou”,
  • “Narratives of the Kingdom of Qi”,
  • ” Narratives of the kingdom of Jin”,
  • ” Narratives of the Kingdom of Zheng”,
  • ” Narratives of the Kingdom of Chu”,
  • ” Narratives of the Kingdom of Wu”,
  • “Narratives of the kingdom of Yue”.

The chain of historical stories in each section is often linked only by a chronological sequence.

The question of the dating of the Goya has not yet been the subject of special research. The time of the composition of the extant text of the monument can be approximately determined on the basis of some private observations of the IV-III centuries BC, but not before.

The connection between Guoyu and Zozhuan»

In general terms, the chronological framework of” Guoyu “and” Zozhuan ” coincide. Therefore, in both monuments, very often the same heroes act, the same events are mentioned, the same speeches are given. Apparently, the latter circumstance at one time contributed a lot to the origin of the version that attributes the copyright to the mythical Zuo Qiuming to both “Zuo-zhuan” and “Guoyu”.

A comparison of the parallel texts of “Guoyu” and “Zozhuan” shows that they went back to some single version, but later they were subjected to independent literary processing. Hence the dissimilarity of many historical details and stylistic differences.

In Russian Oriental studies, a modification of the view of the “Narratives of the Kingdoms” as the source of the “Zozhuan”has become widespread. It is based on the statement that the first work is a “monument of oratory”, in which the original speeches of the person to whom they are attributed by historical tradition are reproduced.

The study of the parallel materials of “Zuozhuan” and “Guoyu” shows that the characteristic differences between them exclude the possibility of using “Guoyu “as a direct basis for”Zuozhuan”.

There are a sufficient number of other examples in “Guoyu” and “Zozhuang”, which, as modern researchers have established, are so different in content that the possibility of a direct relationship between them is excluded.

Our observations, as well as the data of other researchers, lead to the conclusion that the main content of the speeches introduced in the text of “Guoyu” and “Zozhuan” does not represent a reproduction of the words of the speaker. The different versions of the same speeches seem to be explained by the fact that the creators of both works tendentiously reworked the material available to them.

The very content of the speeches clearly shows signs of their purely literary origin. The fictitious nature of the prophetic speeches is particularly evident. The categorical nature and accuracy of the” predictions “in the speeches of” Goyu ” indicate that they were undoubtedly made after the fact. Completely fictitious, no doubt, include speeches made under circumstances that exclude the presence of third parties who could remember or record their content. Doubts about the authenticity of the speeches of “Goyu” are supported by the observations of commentators who found in them improbable details and anachronisms. Traces of careful literary finishing and reworking are found in such features of the speeches of “Goyu”, as the use of numerous quotations from ancient, often lost works. All this indicates that here we are dealing more with the written author’s work than with the records of the oral tradition. When ancient Chinese historical texts claim to reproduce the speeches of rulers, statesmen and military leaders, we are obviously most often dealing with”literary fiction”. The latter conclusion should not obscure the fact that often the purpose of these texts was to reproduce specific historical events, as well as the fact that these texts could maintain a close connection with the activities of certain historical persons.

“Zozhuan ” and” Guoyu ” contain a synthesis of the achievements of East Zhou historiography. They collect the best that was developed by the official chroniclers in the field of ordering and processing historical materials, reflect the successes of state eloquence.

By the beginning of the Zhanguo period, many people who are not related to the official chronicle appear among the compilers of historical texts. The evidence of the movement of their interests is the works of the chunqiu type, built on a thematic principle, in which the historical material was subordinated to the author’s judgments about it. Among them is the lost work of the Zhaoan dignitary Yu, the content of which is known only from the bibliographic description of Sima Qian and the table of contents of the sections: “Measure and proportionality”, “Name and designation”, “Politics and Plans”.

Alongside such types of historical narrative, official historiography continued to live. However, as a result of the tumultuous events that took place during the unification of China under the rule of Qin Shi Huang, the full texts of the chronicles of the “fighting kingdoms” were lost. On the orders of Qin Shi Huang, who applied in practice the experience of the ideological struggle of the Zhanguo period, the Shijing, Shujing, and various philosophical books were seized from the population and burned. This measure met the aspirations of the “school of law” and the supporters of Confucianism in the interpretation of Xunzi. This campaign did not mean the seizure of books on medicine, pharmacology, and agriculture, nor did it concern essays on various branches of knowledge that officials had, for example, law. A striking example of this is the discovery of 1975 in Yunmyn prov. Hubei, where 600 bamboo tablets with legal texts were found in the burial of a Qin official.

Bronze vessels with inscriptions

Bronze vessel with an inscription that the lord of Zhou transfers lands and people to his dignitary Shi Yu. Ca. 1046-771 BC.

Bronze vessel with an inscription that the lord of Zhou transfers lands and people to his dignitary Shi Yu. Ca. 1046-771 BC.

As mentioned above, in the XI-VIII centuries BC, bamboo slats were the usual material for writing, but they did not survive. It is only in the inscriptions on the ritual bronze vessels that the original texts of the Western Zhou period have come down to us. In ancient times, bronze vessels of various types and shapes, intended for sacrificial food and wine, were the most necessary accessories of the solemn ritual of sacrifices to the ancestors. They were extremely highly valued, carefully protected, and passed down from generation to generation in every family. Those for whom the vessels were cast sought to capture the most important moments of their military or administrative career in the inscriptions on them, in order to preserve them in the memory of posterity.

Bronze vessels were usually used on official and solemn occasions, at the conclusion of contracts, sealed with oaths, etc.

Of great value to the historian are the inscriptions containing the original orders and decrees of the Zhou wall, concerning administrative appointments, various awards, grants of territories and dependent people, and even reporting on the analysis of property disputes between his subjects. Such texts on West Zhou vessels serve as the main source of information about the organization of state power and the structure of West Zhou society.

The volume of inscriptions in some cases was quite large. For example, the inscription on Da Yu ding contains 291 characters, on Xiao Yu ding — about 400, on Sanyi pan — 350, on Maogong ding-499, etc. There are more than 3 thousand vessels with inscriptions dating back to the Zhou era. Unfortunately, most of them were found under random circumstances in different periods of the Middle Ages and modern times.

A bronze vessel with two rows of symbols in the center describing the generations of the Wei family on one half, and on the other half is a list of the seven rulers of Zhou. The end of the X century BC.

A bronze vessel with two rows of symbols in the center describing the generations of the Wei family on one half, and on the other half is a list of the seven rulers of Zhou. The end of the X century BC.

A very special place is occupied by inscriptions on ritual vessels discovered by Chinese archaeologists during scientifically organized excavations. There is no need for a special complex verification to establish their authenticity. Their dating is based on a number of independent archaeological criteria. The presence in the newly discovered texts of information that has parallels in epigraphic monuments, the originals of which have long been lost, serves as a reliable evidence of the authenticity of the latter.

Interestingly, the four earliest of the West Zhou documents on bronze vessels still retain some of the external features of the Shan inscriptions and have a dating formula at the end of the text, while among the later ones, a new form is spreading, according to which the date was placed at the beginning of the text. In the future, this feature is preserved for centuries, it is transferred to their works by the compilers of the chronicles.

Inscriptions often contain dating formulas that mention the month, the period of the month, and the day of the vessel’s manufacture marked with cyclical signs, but they very rarely mention the name of the ruler and the year of his reign. In the field of their dating, two approaches have developed. Some researchers compared these inscriptions with the Han calendar as the oldest extant one. Since the West Zhou calendar is not known to us, the reliability of the results of this approach is highly questionable. Proponents of the second approach proceed from the content of the inscription, the mention of historical persons, temples, events, and localities in it. In cases where this information can be placed in a historical context, this approach is undoubtedly reliable. Chronology of inscriptions that do not contain data for historical identification is possible only on the basis of paleographic analysis.

Chinese scientists of different eras have repeatedly tried to decipher the inscriptions of bronze vessels. The first significant achievements of Chinese epigraphy in this area are associated with the name of Wang Gouwei (1887-1927). In the future, the study of inscriptions on ritual vessels attracted the attention of a number of other major researchers and gradually turned into an independent historical and philological discipline. Objective methods for assessing the authenticity of vessels were developed, including stylistic, epigraphic and technological criteria. The most important result of the study of ancient Chinese ritual utensils in the 20-30s of the XX century was its general chronology and the identification of stable series of vessels dated to the Western Zhou period. The greatest difficulty encountered by Chinese epigraphists and archaeologists was related to the internal periodization of these series. It was necessary to create a technique that would link the vessel and its inscription to a certain point in the almost three-hundred-year history of Western Zhou.

When working with inscriptions on ritual vessels of the Zhou era, originating from old collections, there are difficulties with their dating. Over the past decades, the number of inscriptions known to science has grown mainly due to finds in West Zhou hillforts and in burial grounds excavated by archaeologists.

The systematic study of inscriptions on ritual vessels as the most important source for the reconstruction of various aspects of the life of West Zhou society, its state structure and chronology began in the 20s of the last century.

Thanks to the works of Guo Mogo, Chen Mengjia, Kaizuka Shigeki, Ito Michiharu, Shirakawa Shizuki, A. Maspero, H. G. Creel, and others, Western Zhou history was largely freed from the schematizing and didactic layers left by later Confucian science.

However, in the history of West Zhou society, due to the narrowness of the source base, the lack of knowledge of religious and political ideas reflected in the inscriptions, as well as the vagueness of the methods of analyzing the most important socio-economic terms and concepts, there is still a lot of unclear and controversial.

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