Finding traces of the present in ancient bronze

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 August, 2011, 12:00am


History is often said to be about studying the past to better understand the present. Nothing could be truer for Professor Chen Zhi of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Since the mid-1990s, the head of the department of Chinese language and literature, has been comparing the Classic of Poetry - the ancient work known by several names, including 'Shi Jing' and the 'Book of Odes' - to bronze inscriptions from the Western Zhou dynasty, as many as 3,000 years old.

His findings have not only shed new light on elements of the past, but provided new understanding about how the classics influenced phrases and concepts that still echo through Chinese culture today.

Take for example, wan shou wu jiang - literally '10,000 years of boundless longevity' - an expression sometimes used to wish one well.

The phrase has long been attributed to scribes in the earliest days of the Western Zhou (1046BC to 741BC) and appears throughout Chinese history. It experienced a revival as a favoured way to praise Chairman Mao Zedong during his Cultural Revolution.

But by laying selections of ancient verse side by side with bronze inscriptions from the same period, Chen and his fellow researchers now surmise the phrase developed more organically and only after the Classic of Poetry (1000BC) popularised the four-syllable verse.

Chen found the latter half of the phrase, wu jiang, predates the poetic work - one of Confucianism's Five Classics - by at least several generations. The four-character phrase appeared two centuries later, likely reflecting a broader change in the style.

'Many pieces of bronzeware have poems made of four syllables,' the professor said. 'In 'Shi Jing', we have that same form of expression. People started using poetic ways to sing odes to their ancestors.'

Inscriptions on bronzeware were one of the earliest forms of recorded history. The phrase wan shou wu jiang was representative of the 'tremendous amount of expressions of ritual and prayer' found in both sets of writing, Chen said.

'When a king made a successful military conquest, the military commanders and other nobles would have the bronze made to record the event and for their descendants to remember,' Chen said.

Other four-character expressions from the Western Zhou period endure. One example is wu hu ai zai, which Chen translates as 'all is lost', or simply, 'alas', even if its usage has evolved over the years.

'It was used in a respectful way to talk about dead people,' Chen said. 'Now, the meaning has changed, people who use it are less serious and respectful.'

There are still countless secrets to the history of Chinese literature hidden in the bronze records kept by Chinese scribes 3,000 years ago. Bronze writings dating the Western Zhou continue to be dug up in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Shandong provinces.

Chen has just received a three-year grant to continue his work.