[Review] 吕庙军《清华简与文武周公史事研究》(Lü Miaojun: Research on Tsinghua Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts and Historical Events of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou)

Lü Miaojun 吕庙军, Qinghua jian yu Wen Wu Zhou gong shishi yanjiu 清华简与文武周公史事研究 (Research on Tsinghua Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts and Historical Events of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou), Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 2021.
ISBN 978–7–5732–0021–1, 329 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Felix Bohlen (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The discovery of the oracle bones in the early 20th century marked a new era for modern historical research on early China. Ever since, excavated texts on bone, bronze, bamboo, silk, and wood regularly grab headlines and receive strong scholarly attention. The so-called Tsinghua manuscripts, a corpus of numerous manuscripts on bamboo slips, are the latest significant find of this sort. The collection was acquired in 2008 by Tsinghua University in Beijing, although the texts were probably illegally looted from an ancient tomb, and their exact provenance remains unknown. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, academia widely considers them authentic sources from the Warring States Period (ca. 480–221 BCE), primarily based on philological arguments. Since the discovery and subsequent successive publication, these manuscripts have been subject to intense debate and extensive research.[1] Lü Miaojun’s book, under review here, is another study in this field, written for specialists in Western Zhou history (1045–771 BCE) and the Tsinghua manuscript collection. As such, the book requires readers to have at least some basic knowledge of the history of the Western Zhou and the source texts.

The Tsinghua manuscripts offer insights relevant to various fields of research in Early China, including paleography, philology, philosophy, literature, and – of course – history. As can be easily seen from its title, Lü’s book is a historical study. The author attempts to seek knowledge about the past using Tsinghua manuscripts and answer unresolved issues regarding the early period of the Western Zhou dynasty. The title of the book announces Lü’s focus on the first three rulers of the dynasty: King Wen (文王, r. 1099/56–1050), King Wu (武王, r. 1049/45–1043), and the Duke of Zhou (周公, r. 1042–1036, regent for King Cheng [成王, r. 1042/35–1006], who succeeded the throne in his minority). Due to the clearly defined topic and the chronological organization of respective chapters, the book’s structure is easily followed and intuitive. Lü addresses numerous historical issues in three main chapters, each devoted to one of these Zhou rulers. The monograph does not discuss an overarching question but is an additive study in which individual issues are treated in isolation.

In the chapter about King Wen, Lü tries to clarify when and how King Wen received the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (天命), in which year he titled himself as ‘king’ (王), and his possible authorship of the Yijing 易經 (Book of Changes). In chapter two, which focuses on King Wu, Lü discusses the events surrounding the military campaign against the regional state Li 黎 on the eve of King Wu’s conquest of the Shang 商 dynasty. Lü also discusses whether King Wu was the author of certain songs and texts in transmitted collections like the Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Songs) and Shangshu 尚書 (Book of Documents). In chapter three, Lü examines whether the Duke of Zhou, as a mere regent of King Cheng, had ever received the Mandate of Heaven and whether he declared himself ‘king.’ Lü also raises a question of the duke’s role in the authorship of certain ‘songs’ and his military campaign against a rebellion east of the newly conquered Zhou realm.

The Tsinghua manuscripts promise new insights about these longstanding historical issues – indeed, this is the book’s raison d’être. The book also contains an appendix providing a text-critical study of a particular text found among the Tsinghua manuscripts that has an obvious connection to the transmitted Shangshu chapter “Jinteng” 金滕. Methodologically, Lü is in the tradition of the ‘double-evidence method’ (二重證據法) first advocated by Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877–1927).[2] He combines excavated and transmitted sources to gain historical knowledge. Regarding the excavated sources, he not only makes use of the Tsinghua manuscripts but also Oracle bones and bronze inscriptions from the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Lü’s study is overall well structured, and his line of reasoning is straightforward. Every (sub)chapter starts with a concise formulation of the issue at hand, a hypothesis, an explanation of the approach, and the relevant sources. He presents the state of research and explains and contrasts the various views on the subject in question by referring to the relevant secondary literature. For the reader, this book has the advantage of providing a broad overview of the discourse in Chinese academia. Moreover, the clear structure of the book provides the opportunity for selective reading, and chapters can easily be enjoyed independently.

The issues Lü discusses in his study are too numerous to list and review in detail here. Regarding relevance, some issues seem more like mere footnotes in the historical discourse, but those interested in debates over whether a particular historical event occurred earlier or later than previously believed will have absolute pleasure with this book.

The author also presents other intriguing thoughts. One example is Lü’s discussion of the factuality of King Wen receiving the heavenly mandate. Lü has a point when he claims that this question cannot be solved regarding its historicity (i.e., was it an actual event, and when did it happen?) but must be looked upon from an “ideological perspective” (思想觀念層面, p. 36). In other words, Lü interprets the idea of a heavenly mandate supposedly received by King Wen as a sort of intersubjective fiction. Lü argues that the concept and the narrative behind the Mandate of Heaven and the Zhou king(s) were merely fictional instruments of ‘propaganda’ for legitimizing the rule of the royal house. He characterizes this in a somewhat contentious way as a “lie of/for power” (權利謊言 [sic!], p. 38). Lü’s idea is that ontologically speaking, since there is no Mandate of Heaven in the actual world, no person can thus ever have received it.

Accordingly, such an event could never have happened, and the question of its historicity is therefore moot. This fictionality also explains why the narratives about King Wen and his successor, King Wu, receiving and transmitting the Mandate of Heaven varied and altered with time, as seen in bronze inscriptions. Since these narratives are not bound to facts, they were open for (deliberate?) modification, especially when outer political circumstances demanded it.[3] Therefore, asking which narrative about receiving the mandate is historically more accurate is, ultimately, unnecessary.

Lü’s idea is adaptable regarding modeling the past in historical narratives in early cultures. However, one wonders whether, rather than the term “lie,” the term ‘political myth’ would not have been preferable to characterise the notion of a heavenly mandate.[4] A ‘lie,’ per definition, is to tell someone something that is not true deliberately. This wording connotes that the first Zhou king knowingly fabricated a myth to deceive his subjects. That would mean that King Wen was aware that he never received such a mandate but was propagating a mere myth. Since we cannot know what King Wen was really thinking, such an insinuation would be pure speculation. Instead, it seems more reasonable to say that the Zhou king was not a deceiver, but the Zhou people believed such a heavenly mandate was an actual real-world entity.

In many cases, Lü uses excavated texts, such as Oracle bones and bronze inscriptions. One good example is his investigation of at what point in time King Wen started to use the term ‘king’ – was it already in Pre-Zhou times (i.e., during the late Shang) or after the conquest of the Shang? Based on the Zhou Oracle bones, dating from the late Shang dynasty, Lü finds clear proof that King Wen held this title in pre-conquest times, at least in his own domain of power. Another fine example is how Lü discusses whether the Duke of Zhou, despite his status as a regent for King Cheng, ever claimed himself ‘king.’ Lü collects numerous inscriptional evidence to show that the Duke of Zhou did not.

The problem is that the quality of Lü’s arguments varies considerably. The approach of ‘historical evidential research’ (歷史考據) leads to the challenge of a veritable information bombardment. Large numbers of citations from different sources are piled up by Lü and often form alarmingly long lines of reasoning. However, the longer they get, the more speculative they become. Such writing does not help produce solid knowledge but results in mere speculation about the past. In general, the author would have been well-advised to adhere to the ‘principle of parsimony.’

Another problem is Lü’s forced attempt to determine a historical author of specific transmitted ancient texts. Leaving aside whether there was a concept of authorship in early China,[5] Lü comes straight to the point and discusses the possibility of the three Zhou rulers as individual authors of specific transmitted texts. The reason for such an undertaking is the Tsinghua manuscript “Qi ye” 耆夜.[6] The text of this manuscript narrates how, during a banquet, the Duke of Zhou and King Wu compose “songs” (歌). In this text, one of the Duke’s songs is named “Xishuai” 蟋蟀.

Interestingly, this song is transmitted in the Shijing in an alternate version. Text-critical studies suggest that the manuscript’s version of this song is older than the one transmitted. In view of this Tsinghua manuscript, the evidence is clear for Lü: the duke must undoubtedly be the historical author of this song. He states that without “hard evidence” (硬的證據), one should not “rashly deny” (貿然否定, p. 217) his actual authorship. Lü provides more arguments to underpin his assumption, but they remain speculative and are not fully convincing. One needs more conclusive evidence for such a far-reaching hypothesis that would entail rewriting Chinese literature history.

Yet another example of Lü putting his head above the scientific parapet is his discussion of whether King Wu or the Duke of Zhou was the historical author of the transmitted song “Dawu” 大武 in the Shijing. This song praises King Wu’s military triumph and martial skills. Based on an analysis of the song’s content (that Lü never lays out), he concludes that King Wu could not have composed the song himself. Lü’s line of reasoning is that it would be inappropriate for King Wu to praise himself in a song. Therefore, a third person must have composed this song for King Wu, namely the Duke of Zhou. His main argument to arrive at this conclusion rests on “common sense” (情理, p. 159). This is not convincing.

A general problem in Lü’s study is an uncritical use of sources, and the book lacks comprehensive source criticism, especially concerning the Tsinghua manuscripts. Of course, scholars of Early China know about the great advantages of excavated texts compared to the transmitted sources. Once carved on bone, cast in bronze, or written on bamboo and buried, such texts were unlikely to be corrupted in the course of tradition. Another aspect of the relative credibility of oracle bones and bronze inscriptions is their proximity to the time and the events they report. However, such proximity does not apply to the Tsinghua manuscripts, which date from the Warring State period. They are very remote from the early period of the Western Zhou dynasty. One has to ask whether there are any good reasons to believe these manuscripts are more credible than other excavated or transmitted Warring States texts. One gets the impression that Lü’s criteria of evaluation are simply that ‘excavated’ sources are more trustworthy than ‘transmitted’ sources. However, this, rather than historical plausibility, cannot be the decisive criterion in evaluating trustworthiness. Lü does not sufficiently address this fundamental problem (or at least provide other secondary literature for reference). One example of this uncritical approach is a statement by Lü in the appendix. The textual criticism comes to the conclusion that the manuscript version must be older than the transmitted. So far, so good, but then Lü states that the manuscript’s records are “true and reliable” (真實可靠, p. 302). How and why Lü comes to this conclusion remains entirely unclear.

Another shortcoming is that Lü does not discuss the possible nature of the Tsinghua manuscripts, their origin, and their intention. Are these texts a valuable and trustworthy source for historical studies about the early Western Zhou? Are these texts historiographies? Or are they non-factual narratives or even fictional literature? What is the relationship between fact and fiction within the texts? Were fictional events and persons functionally added to the narratives to serve a subjective agenda of the narrator? How is history treated and narrated, and does the presentation mode tell us something about the narrator’s point of view?[7] These aspects are basic considerations for historical research and are essential to avoid false conclusions. However, in Lü’s study, the historical value and reliability of the manuscripts seem to be taken for granted. Historical information from the text is too often taken at face value. Indeed, due to the manuscripts’ unknown provenance, many of the questions mentioned above cannot be fully and satisfactorily answered. However, at least one should attempt to spell out the problems and limitations of the source material.

Lü’s approach and arguments are always transparent, objective, and comprehensible. Readers will find quite intriguing ideas and some sound ‘double evidence’ research, but also some very debatable claims. Lü definitely kept his word when he announced in his introduction to make “bold guesses” (大膽猜測, p. 23), which can be refreshing but should be viewed with caution. Therefore, this study is certainly not the last word on this subject but an exciting contribution to the field of early China and historical discourse.


[1] For a general introduction see Liu Guozhong, Introduction to the Tsinghua Bamboo-Strip Manuscripts, translated by Christopher J. Foster & William N. French, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016.

[2] Strictly speaking, Lü advocates a “multi-layered evidence method” (多重證據法, p. 5) that is, an extension of the traditional double evidence approach that also takes non-textual archaeological evidence into account. However, this type of source only plays a minor role in his study. Lü mainly uses excavated and transmitted textual sources.

[3] On the modification of historical narratives in Western Zhou bronze inscriptions for political needs see Maria Khayutina, “The Beginning of Cultural Memory Production in China and the Memory Policy of the Zhou Royal House during the Western Zhou Period”, Early China (44), 2021, pp. 19–108.

[4] For the concept of ‘political myth’ see Jan Assmann, “Mythen, politische”, in: Stefan Gosepath/Wilfried Hinsch/Robin Celikates, Handbuch der politischen Philosophie 1, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 869–873.

[5] On the question of authorship in Early China see Christian Schwermann, “Composite Authorship in Western Zhōu Bronze Inscriptions: The Case of the ‘Tiānwáng guǐ’ 天亡簋 Inscription”, in: Christian Schwermann/Raji C. Steineck (eds.), That Wonderful Composite Called Author: Authorship in East Asian Literatures from the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century (East Asian Comparative Literature and Culture 4), Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2014, pp. 30–57, here pp. 30–37.

[6] Li Xueqin 李學勤 (ed.), Qinghua daxue cang Zhanguo zhujian (yi) 清華大學藏戰國竹簡(壹), Shanghai: Zhongxi Shuju 中西書局, 2010, pp. 149–156.

[7] On such issues, see Felix Bohlen, Die Darstellung der Remonstration im Guoyu. Eine erzähltheoretische Untersuchung [A Narratological Study of the Representation of Remonstrance in the Guoyu], Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz (forthcoming).



Cite this blog post
MJF (2023, March 1). [Review] 吕庙军《清华简与文武周公史事研究》(Lü Miaojun: Research on Tsinghua Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts and Historical Events of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/oha9

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