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Bamboo and wooden slips

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Bamboo and wooden slips
Replica of bamboo slips from the Warring States period
Traditional Chinese簡牘
Simplified Chinese简牍
Literal meaningbamboo slips [and] wooden tablets
A single slip (shown in six parts) from the Shanghai Museum bamboo slips (c. 300 BC), recording part of a commentary on the Classic of Poetry
An 18th-century edition of The Art of War made with bamboo strips

Bamboo and wooden slips (simplified Chinese: 简牍; traditional Chinese: 簡牘; pinyin: jiǎndú) are long, narrow strips of wood or bamboo, each typically holding a single column of several dozen brush-written characters. They were the main media for writing documents in China before the widespread introduction of paper during the first two centuries AD. (Silk was occasionally used, for example in the Chu Silk Manuscript, but was prohibitively expensive for most documents.)[1]

Each strip of wood or bamboo is said to be as long as a chopstick and as wide as two, with space for several tens of visually complex ancient Chinese characters arranged in a single column. For longer texts, many slips were sewn together with hemp, silk, or leather and used to make a kind of folding book, called jiǎncè or jiǎndú.[2][3]

The earliest surviving examples of wood or bamboo slips date from the 5th century BC during the Warring States period. However, references in earlier texts surviving on other media make it clear that some precursor of these Warring States period bamboo slips was in use as early as the late Shang period (from about 1250 BC). Bamboo or wooden strips were the standard writing material during the Han dynasty and excavated examples have been found in abundance.[4] Subsequently, the invention of paper by Cai Lun during the Han dynasty began to displace bamboo and wooden strips from mainstream uses, and by the 4th century AD bamboo had been largely abandoned as a medium for writing in China.

The custom of interring books made of the durable bamboo strips in royal tombs has preserved many works in their original form through the centuries. An important early find was the Jizhong discovery in 279 AD in a tomb of a king of Wei, though the original recovered strips have since disappeared. Several caches of great importance have been found in recent years.

Major collections[edit]

Collection Province Found Period
Old Juyan slips Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 1930 Western Han[5][6]
Changtai Guan slips Henan 1956 Warring States [7]
Mozuizi (磨嘴子) Gansu 1959 Eastern Han
Yinqueshan Han Slips Shandong 1972 Western Han
New Juyan slips Gansu 1972–74 Western Han[7][6]
Ding County slips Hebei 1973 Western Han [7]
Shuihudi Qin bamboo texts Hubei 1975 Qin
Fuyang Han slips Anhui 1977 Western Han[7]
Shangsun Jiazhai Han slips Qinghai 1978 Han[7]
Zhangjiashan Han bamboo texts Hubei 1983 Western Han
Fangmatan Gansu 1986 late Warring States (Qin)
Wangjiatai Qin Slips Hubei March 1993 Qin[7]
Guodian Chu Slips 1993 mid to late Warring States
Shanghai Museum bamboo slips 1994
Zoumalou bamboo slips Hunan 1996 Three Kingdoms (Eastern Wu)
Yinwan (尹灣) Jiangsu 1997 Western Han[8]
Chinese University of Hong Kong slips 2001 Dong Jin (东晋)/Han [7]
Qin Slips of Liye Hunan 2002 Qin dynasty
Tsinghua Bamboo Slips Hunan or Hubei? 2008 mid to late Warring States
Hebosuo Bamboo Slips Yunnan 2023 Han dynasty[9]

In 1930, the Sino-Swedish Expedition excavated ten sites in the Juyan Lake Basin and unearthed a total of 10,200 wooden slips dating to the Western Han, a cache that came to be known as the "old Juyan texts".[5][6][10] In 1937, after the Second Sino-Japanese War began, Chung-Chang Shen transported these wooden slips from Beijing to the University of Hong Kong.[11][12][13] Another 20,237 slips were excavated between 1972 and 1976 by the Juyan Archaeological Team, Gansu. These slips are held by the Provincial Museum of Gansu and came to be known as the "new Juyan texts".[6]

The Shanghai Museum corpus was purchased in Hong Kong the year after the Guodian tomb was excavated, and is believed to have been taken by graverobbers from a tomb in the same area. The Tsinghua collection was donated by an alumnus who purchased it through auction, with no indication of its origin. The others were archaeologically excavated.


One accoutrement used when writing on bamboo slips was a small knife which would be used to scrape away mistakes and make amendments. Decorated knives became a symbol of office for some officials indicating their power to amend and change records and edicts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 張彥 (2018-06-21). "寫於2300年前的《楚帛書》如何流落到了美國?" [How did the Chu Silk Manuscript, written 2,300 years ago, get to the United States?]. The New York Times (in Chinese). Retrieved 2019-09-16.
  2. ^ Perkins, Dorothy (1998). Encyclopedia of China: History and Culture. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 978-157958110-7.
  3. ^ Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications. p. 18. ISBN 9781606060834.
  4. ^ Loewe, Michael (1997). "Wood and bamboo administrative documents of the Han period". In Edward L. Shaughnessy (ed.). New Sources of Early Chinese History. Society for the Study of Early China. pp. 161–192. ISBN 1-55729-058-X.
  5. ^ a b Hedin, Sven Anders. "History of the Expedition in Asia, 1927–1935 Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the North-Western Provinces of China under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin : The Sino-Swedish Expedition".
  6. ^ a b c d ChinaKnowledge.de – An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art. "Juyan Hanjian 居延漢簡, the Han-Period Texts of Juyan".
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Guo, Qiyong; D'Ambrosio, Paul (2018). Studies on Contemporary Chinese Philosophy (1949–2009). Brill. doi:10.1163/9789004360495_015. ISBN 978-90-04-36049-5.
  8. ^ Loewe, Michael (November 2001). "The Administrative Documents from Yinwan: A Summary of Certain Issues Raised". Archived from the original on 2012-04-03.
  9. ^ Altuntaş, Leman (2023-03-30). "2,000-year-old bamboo slips discovered in Yunnan". Arkeonews. Retrieved 2023-04-02.
  10. ^ Shen, Yaming (2022). "The "Arks" that C.C. Shen Used to Rescue Juyan Han Wooden Slips: From Peking to Tientsin" (PDF). Disquisitions on the Past & Present (39): 189–212 – via Institute of History & Philology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan.
  11. ^ Shen, Yaming (2023). C.C. Shen and Juyan Han Wooden Slips: From Peking to Tientsin (Shen zhongzhang yu juyan han jian cong beiping dao tianjin) 《沈仲章与居延汉简:从北平到天津》 (in Chinese). Shanghai: Zhongxi Book Company. ISBN 9787547520628.
  12. ^ China Central Television (CCTV) (2022). "They Live Forever, Season 2, Episode 4".
  13. ^ Peking University, School of Archeology and Museology. "Chronicle Memorabilia 1937". "After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, C.C. Shen of the Liberal Arts Research transported the Juyan Han Wooden Slips that belonged to the Northwest Scientific Expedition Group to the University of Hong Kong."