[Review] 程浩《有为言之:先秦“书”类文献的源与流》(Cheng Hao: Speaking of their Actions. The Origin and Spread of pre-Qin Documentary-type Texts)

Cheng Hao 程浩, You wei yan zhi: xian Qin “shu” lei wenxian de yuan yu liu 有为言之:先秦“书”类文献的源与流 (Speaking of their Actions: The Origin and Spread of pre-Qin Documentary-type Texts), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局, 2021. ISBN: 978 7 101 15301 9; 381 pages, 76 RMB.

Reviewed by Rens Krijgsman (Research and Conservation Center for Unearthed Texts, Tsinghua University)

This stimulating book originated as a Ph.D. thesis written under the supervision of the late professor Li Xueqin 李学勤 (1933–2019). My colleague Cheng Hao’s work shows a breadth of scholarship and attention to detail fitting a student of this titan of early Chinese history. In the delineation of sources, the attention to theoretical and methodological nuance, and the taking of recent developments in the field into account, a development of thought is apparent that goes beyond simply following in the master’s footsteps and indeed delivers an up to date, cogent, and clearly argued narrative.

The introduction to the study clarifies the use of the term shu 書 (“Documentary”) as a particular genre of writing: “shu-type texts” 書類文獻. It discusses why the author does not simply rely on bibliographical categories informed by the Shujing 書經 (Book of Documents) or the Yi Zhoushu 逸周書 (Leftover Zhou Documents) and gives reasons for including certain unearthed manuscripts over others in the discussion. The understanding of shu-type texts in this book combines the literary form of the materials and the historical context in which these texts were produced.

The study is divided into two large sections. The first section reviews unearthed manuscripts, both with and without counterparts in the transmitted record. It discusses their textual and material features and how they vary from the references and versions in the transmitted record. The second section discusses the formation of the texts and the relation they bear to the transmitted collections. This second section especially is where the book stands out among recent discussions of shu.

As a general rule, the book prioritizes texts that were produced within the context of the court and could somehow be related (even distantly) to the speech contexts in which they were produced. Texts clearly written in the same style but including historically impossible interlocutors (say the use of figures from mythology in the Shujing “Yaodian” 堯典and “Gaoyao mo” 皋陶謨 chapters) are thereby excluded from the discussion. A major advantage of this approach is that it distances this study from more extreme claims which purport to relate shu-type texts to historical context (and, by extension, as relating historical fact). A disadvantage of the approach is that it diminishes the influence, validity, and indeed possible overlap of texts which, in their literary form, are clearly produced within the tradition of producing shu-type narrative, whether or not they can be accurately linked to a historically verifiable circumstance, let alone speech context.

For example, the author excludes the Tsinghua *Baoxun 保训 (Treasured Instructions) manuscript because it was likely written later (Warring States period) and in imitation of the “Gu Ming” 顧命 (Observing the Mandate) chapter of the Book of Documents. This may very well be the case. Nevertheless, given that we also – as is noted by the author in general – have less than clear information about the trajectories some texts took before they entered into canonical collections like the Documents, it is not entirely clear to what extent which text (if any) was drawing from the other, whether they did not draw from a third exemplar, or even formed a genre of textual production on its own. Here an engagement with recent English language scholarship on the topic (beyond just Sarah Allan’s thoughtful contribution) would have been helpful,[1] if only to clarify the author’s position vis-à-vis different models of text and genre production advanced in recent work by Martin Kern and Dirk Meyer for instance.[2]

By excluding texts in the same or similar literary form, there is a possibility that we are reinforcing existing divisions. However, more importantly, we also lose valuable data on what was considered to be a shu during the Warring States period (and in the case of texts such as the “Yaodian,” for much of the prehistoric period more generally). A more precise understanding of the principles that underlay the idea of a shu surely helps us to understand the processes of writing and rewriting texts within a living tradition, and that, if anything, ought to help us understand the particular forms taken by shu-type texts among the Tsinghua manuscripts, for instance.

This is highly relevant as the author takes a position wherein texts were not produced at a certain “point” in time but rather along a “line” of development. The position is well taken, and many of the aspects common to shu-type texts noted by the author are felicitous, particularly when it comes to the inclusion in the texts of framing narratives and devices, but also the marking of interjections and action in the narration going beyond the speeches.

There are many ways to understand the process through which shu-type texts came to be written on bamboo and what happened during and after. Cheng Hao sees the majority resulting from scribes recording speeches and later editing them to include paratextual information (for example, “The king thus said” 王若曰). The study assumes that sometime after the drafting of the documents, they were edited for form, and in later periods explanatory information may have been added, or even different layers grafted onto these base texts. An example repeatedly mentioned is the addition of narrative layers on top of an assumed original speech content in the Tsinghua *Jinteng 金縢 manuscript. The possibility that the speeches themselves were later products or the result of heavy editing is not broadly entertained in this study. However, in fairness, the author mentions possibilities of later editors combining texts from tradition and the use of explanatory text to update materials no longer properly understood. Likewise, even though the author recognizes the possibility that certain texts were modelled after genre characteristics of the shu, these texts are not counted as shu-type texts in the narrower definition of the study.

The second part of the study is probably the most interesting in terms of how it understands the origins and development of the texts and the formation of collections of shu-type texts. As is clear from the above, the focus in the argument on origins lies on court scribes recording original speech contexts. What is refreshing in this study is the amount of fluidity allowed for both in the creation, transmission, and eventual (re-)collection of the materials. The study notes a variety of practices in titling and ordering the texts and a large number of cases where differences can be shown to have originated from transmission problems, mistakes, willful alteration, or misunderstanding. These changes are an important part of the reception process. What elevates this discussion over more traditional narratives based on extant records is a nuanced understanding of the vagaries and varied practices associated with manuscripts as a medium for transmission.

The book is likewise commended for recognizing that – at least by the author’s own definition – many of the texts eventually collected in the Book of Documents and Leftover Zhou Documents are not, strictly speaking, shu-type texts (pp. 290–295). For me, this welcome irreverence to traditional selections shows careful attention to the literary quality and common traits revealed in recent manuscript finds. Nevertheless, it does beg the question – as noted previously – of how to classify those texts not understood as shu-type texts. These materials were obviously seen as related for long stretches of history, and a longer discussion laying bare their relations would have further improved the study.

Throughout the discussion on transmission and the granting of access to audiences of shu-type texts, Cheng Hao demonstrates an awareness of the contingent factors germane to manuscript transmission in general. In much of the earlier scholarship, there was a tendency to trace the history of the texts and their eventual collection through a list of famous names. Such a pedigree usually rehashed comments from Sima Qian 司馬遷 and Liu Xiang 劉向 without taking concrete circumstances of transmission or the varied possibilities for collection into account. This study is much more aware of how manuscripts were used, reused, and transmitted on the ground level and is less concerned with the eventual history of milestones marked by Confucius and Fu Sheng.

I believe it is fair to say that many of the appealing parts of the study are due to the fact that it speaks to shu-type texts from the perspective of a manuscript specialist, intimately aware of issues relating to their formation, variation, and preservation of the materials. Overall, I find it to be a stimulating study. The book is careful in its examination of the material and exploring its potential for redressing previous understandings of the shu. It takes a large variety of often understudied phenomena into account to form a broader understanding of the genre, and it is to be commended for the openness in which it embraces and explores new data. It is to be hoped that the author will continue to challenge prevalent conceptions in the field by following where the material leads and that it may be indicative of research here more generally.


[1] Sarah Allan, “On Shu (Documents) and the Origin of the Shangshu (Ancient Documents) in Light of Recently Discovered Bamboo Slip Manuscripts”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 75, no. 3 (2012), pp. 547–557.

[2] Martin Kern & Dirk Meyer (eds.), Origins of Chinese Political Philosophy: Studies in the Composition and Thought of the Shangshu (Classic of Documents), Leiden: Brill, 2017.


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