Mawangdui Silk Texts

The Mawangdui Silk Texts are texts of Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk and found at Mawangdui in China in 1973. They include the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the I Ching, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one similar copy of Strategies of the Warring States and a similar school of works of Gan De and Shi Shen. Scholars arranged them in to silk books of 28 kinds. Together they amount to some 120,000 words covering military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts of ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic.

The texts were buried in Tomb no. 3 at Mawangdui, dating from 168 BC, and lay hidden in Changsha, Hunan for over 2000 years. Some of the texts were only previously known by title; some are previously unknown commentaries on the I Ching attributed to Confucius. In general, they follow the same sequence as the various received versions; versions that have been passed down by copying and recopying from generation to generation from texts collected and collated during the 5th century. However, they are, in some important respects, notably different from the sundry received texts known before their discovery.

The Chinese characters found in the silk texts are often only fragments of the characters used in the versions that tradition has handed down. Many Chinese characters are formed by combining two simpler Chinese characters, one to indicate a general category of meaning, and one to give an indication of pronunciation. Where the traditional texts have both components, the silk texts frequently give only the phonetic half of the intended character. There are several hypotheses that might explain this fact:

  • The copyist may have been simply too lazy to write the full form of many of the characters.
  • Perhaps the earlier of the two silk texts (or maybe the text that it was copied from) was simply the result of someone taking dictation in the fastest way that s/he could write. The scribe wrote down the part of each character that indicates its pronunciation with the idea that s/he could later recopy the text with the appropriate meaning components for those abbreviated characters.
  • In English, the word "dog" can have two apparently unrelated meanings: "a kind of carnivorous mammal" or "to pursue with unflagging patience." We hardly ever bother to write something like "dog (the mammal)", even when we write something like, "The feral dog dogged the human invaders of its territory until they eventually left the area." Perhaps the same kind of thing was going on in these ancient writings, and people felt that they did not need to add a meaning component to these characters to make their meaning clear.
  • Or, it could be a jargon system. Similar writings (of partial characters) can be found in ancient Chinese music (e.g., pipa, guqin and guzheng) scores. Partial characters (and their derivations) also provide building blocks for the writing systems of some historical (e.g., Khitan and Tangut) languages and modern (e.g., Japanese) languages.

In addition to the "partial" characters mentioned above, the two silk texts sometimes use characters that are different from the ones present in the texts that have come down to us through consecutive publications of this text. In cases where different traditional versions of the text have characters with different meanings at the same point in the text, the newly found text can sometimes give us additional evidence. Suppose that we had two received texts, and one said: "She flowered the table," but the other text said: "She floured the table." Did she sprinkle flowers on the table? Or did she sprinkle flour on the table? If a "silk" text were to be discovered, it might say: "She powdered the table," or it might say, "She blossomed the table." The students of this text would now have an independent opinion, from much nearer in the history of this book, as to what the original meaning was.

Tao Te Ching

Some people believe that the silk texts of the Tao Te Ching are the real book, and that the texts that have come down to us generation by generation are wrong wherever they disagree with these two earlier versions. Other people point out that the silk texts are not particularly good -- in the sense that people often would not be able to make sense of them unless they had access to the texts written with the full forms of the characters. They add that Wang Bi, and other very early scholars who edited the texts that are the ancestors of the ones that came down to us by tradition, had access to many early versions of the Tao Te Ching and so were able to correct many mistakes by comparing the several versions available to them.

Most of the time the received versions of the Tao Te Ching are in substantial agreement with each other, and most of the time the text is simple and straightforward. Occasionally, however, two received versions will write homonyms with entirely different meanings at some point in a chapter. In such cases, much help can be received from a silk text that gives a third character that has a different pronunciation but is a synonym for one of the two in the received text.

In recent years several scholars have made new translations of the Tao Te Ching that are based on the silk text and ignore the received texts entirely or almost entirely. These include works by D. C. Lau, and by Robert G. Henricks. Henricks' translation does compare received versions of the Tao Te Ching with the text found in the tomb.


  • Heluo Tushu Chubanshe (1975). Boshu Laozi. Taipei: Heluo Tushu Chubanshe.
  • Yen Ling-feng (1976). Mawangdui Boshu Laozi Shitan. Taipei:
  • D. C. Lau (1982). Tao te ching. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. ISBN 962-201-252-3.
  • Robert G. Henricks (1989). Lao-tzu : Te-tao ching. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-34790-0.
  • Edward L. Shaughnessy (1997). I Ching = The classic of changes, the first English translation of the newly discovered Mawangdui texts of I Ching. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-36243-8.

See also


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