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Professor critiques China’s Classic of History

| Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dr. Edward L. Shaughnessy, professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, recounted the compilation process of the Classic of History in a lecture Monday titled, “Unearthing China’s Classic of History.” Shaughnessy recapped the history of China’s Classic of History over the past couple of centuries, from its compiling by Confucius in sixth century BC to a recent discovery of bamboo strips from approximately 300 BC that challenge the authenticity of the current version of the Classic.

“The Classic of Poetry and The Classic of Documents — they have the same status in the Chinese tradition as the Bible,” Shaughnessy said. Shaughnessy said he uses the Classic of Documents to refer to the Classic of History because the translation is more accurate.

The Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies sponsored the lecture as part of their Distinguished Speaker Series because the Classic of Documents is one of China’s “Five Classics” that have a “a role in Chinese tradition analogous to the Bible in the Western tradition.”

Shaughnessy said the documents in the Classic of Documents are divided up by type.

“There are consultations,” Shaughnessy said. “These are supposed to be conversations between ministers and the King. There are instructions, which are sort of teachings that the ministers give to the King. There are announcements which are royal announcements to the people at large. There are declarations which are battlefield speeches and then there are commands, or appointment documents, where the king is appointing someone to be an official.”

Shaughnessy said the Classic of Documents was thought to be lost following a mass book burning in 213 and 212 BC. Scholar Fu Sheng recounted and recorded 28 chapters in the third or second century BC. This account is known as the “New Text,” Shaughnessy said. Shaughnessy said the other 17 chapters of the text were discovered in the wall of Confucius’ mansion in second century BC and are known as the “Old Text.”

Shaughnessy said the parceled past of the Classic of Documents caused various Chinese scholars to question the validity of the version of the Classic of Documents rediscovered by the scholar Mei Ze, adopted by the Chinese emperor in the fourth century and the version referred to today.

“This one text that was found that corresponds to a text in the ancient script Classic of Documents, there’s only one phrase in the two texts that is the same … we can see how the forger made this text,” Shaughnessy said, referring to the Old Text rediscovered by Mei Ze. “He found a phrase quoted in another text, put that in the middle of his text and then built up a text all around it. That seems to prove yet again that the ancient text Classic of Documents chapters, at least this one, is a fake. If this one is a fake, since all of them seem to have the same flavor, then presumably all of them are fakes.”

Shaughnessy said Tsinghua University in Beijing received around 2,300 bamboo strips that were donated anonymously after being excavated during a tomb robbery in 2008.

“The strips date to around 300 BC,” Shaughnessy said. “They had four different texts in this first volume of the Tsinghua manuscripts that are related to the Classic of Documents.”

Shaughnessy said Tsinghua University plans to release one volume of the bamboo strip manuscripts a year for 18 years, providing for much more research and debate about the Classic of Documents.

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