Writing Early China

By Edward L. Shaughnessy

Subjects: Chinese Religion And Philosophy, Asian Studies
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438495224, 432 pages, November 2023
Paperback : 9781438495217, 432 pages, May 2024

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Part I: Inscriptions

1. History and Inscriptions

2. The Bin Gong Xu Inscription and the Origins of the Chinese Literary Tradition

3. The Writing of a Late Western Zhou Bronze Inscription

4. On the Casting of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Shi Wang Ding: With Remarks on the Important Position of Writing in the Consciousness of Ancient China

Part II: The Classics

5. A Possible Lost Classic: The *She Ming or *Command to She

6. Varieties of Textual Variants: Evidence from the Tsinghua Bamboo-Slip *Ming Xun Manuscript

7. Unearthed Documents and the Question of the Oral versus Written Nature of the Shi Jing

8. A First Reading of the Anhui University Bamboo-Slip Shi Jing

Part III: Manuscripts

9. The Mu Tianzi Zhuan and King Mu–Period Bronzes

10. The Tsinghua Manuscript *Zheng Wen Gong wen Tai Bo and the Question of the Production of Manuscripts in Early China

11. The Eighth Century BCE Civil War in Jin as Seen in the Bamboo Annals: On the Nature of the Tomb Text and Its Significance for the “Current” Bamboo Annals

12. The Qin *Bian Nian Ji and the Beginnings of Historical Writing in China


Considers what unearthed documents reveal about the creation and transmission of knowledge in ancient China.


Archaeological discoveries over the past one hundred years have resulted in repeated calls to "rewrite ancient Chinese history." This is especially true of documents written on oracle bones, bronze vessels, and bamboo strips. In Writing Early China, Edward L. Shaughnessy surveys all of these types of documents and considers what they reveal about the creation and transmission of knowledge in ancient China. Opposed to the common view that most knowledge was transmitted orally in ancient China, Shaughnessy demonstrates that by no later than the tenth century BCE scribes were writing lengthy texts like portions of the Chinese classics, and that by the fourth century BCE the primary mode of textual transmission was by way of visual copying from one manuscript to another.

Edward L. Shaughnessy is Creel Distinguished Service Professor of Early China in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Rewriting Early Chinese Texts, also published by SUNY Press.


"By emphasizing the importance of writing, Shaughnessy presents a welcome complement to scholarship emphasizing the role of orality in early Chinese textual culture. There are few scholars as well-versed in newly discovered textual sources, including the Tsinghua and Anhui University collections. Shaughnessy introduces readers to important new texts, on some of which very little has so far been published in English, and he demonstrates and explains important methodological issues in studying these materials. This book will naturally attract students of early China, but it should also find interest much more broadly, both among historians of antiquity in other parts of the world as well as scholars specializing in other periods of Chinese history." — Matthias L. Richter, author of The Embodied Text: Establishing Textual Identity in Early Chinese Manuscripts