Tomb of Han dynasty emperor may contain lost chapters from Confucian classic

Archaeologists think they found material from the Analects of Confucius in a mausoleum in Jiangxi province

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 9:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 9:32am

Archaeologists believe they may have discovered two missing chapters of the Analects of Confucius – one of the most important works of Confucianism – that were lost during a time of warfare about 1,800 years ago.

The Analects is a collection of sayings and ideas of the ancient philosopher Confucius, written and compiled by his followers.

There are believed to have been several versions, with the one widely in use today, featuring 20 chapters, compiled by a scholar during the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 24).

Another version of the Analects, passed on by scholars from the Qi State, is thought to have been lost during the Warring States Period – a time before the unification of China at the start of the Qin dynasty (221-201BC) – when books were burned and Confucian scholars were buried alive.

The Qi version was believed to have two extra chapters: “Asking the emperor” and “Knowing the way”.

Archaeologists last year uncovered about 5,000 bamboo slips – the main medium used for writing before the introduction of paper in China – during a dig inside the Marquis Haihun mausoleum near Nanchang in Jiangxi province.

A recent translation of one slip showed the words “knowing the way”, which archaeologists and historians believe is very likely to refer to the Qi version of the Analects of Confucius.

Marquis Haihun, or Liu He, held the position of emperor for only 27 days before being overthrown because of his “lack of talent and morals”.

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His royal mausoleum, which covers an area of 40,000 square metres and contains eight tombs and a chariot burial site, is the best preserved from the Western Han period. Artefacts, including a huge amount of money, gold, bronze and other relics, are helping to shed light on life during that period.

Chi Hong, head of the Jiangxi Culture Department, said the painstaking work to preserve the delicate bamboo slips would be finished by the end of this year. The writing found on them could be read and interpreted next year.

However, Yang Zhaoming, president of the Confucius Research Institute of China, said that even if the missing chapters re-emerged, it would not have much effect on Confucian studies.

Yang said every version of the Analects came from one original master, and that the thoughts in the missing two chapters might simply have been expressed in other chapters of the existing versions.

“Finding the Qi Analects would be a minor review, but it would not be a groundbreaking finding,” Yang said.

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“There are many books on Confucianism and the Analects is just one of them. Finding two more chapters would not have much impact on what we already know about the philosophy.”

Bai Ping, a historian with Shanxi University, took a similar view of the possible new chapters, saying Confucian scholars are looking forward to seeing them interpreted and presented to the public, but that he doubts they will reveal much that historians don’t already know.

“There might be new content, but it will just involve a different wording and nothing more,” Bai said.

The archaeologists also believe they have discovered the oldest known portrait of Confucius after piecing together a broken lacquer screen that was found in the tomb’s main chamber. It also featured a brief inscription on the biography of the philosopher.

That biography put Confucius’ year of birth at 566BC, 15 years earlier than what was recorded in other histories.

But Yang was dubious about the biography found in the tomb, saying it contradicts accounts from ancient history books, especially the Records of the Grand Historian by Han dynasty scholar Sima Qian.

Yang said that several different histories were consistent on details about Confucius’ life, such as his year of birth.

“I don’t think we should turn around and start believing a scripture on a screen.”