The Dao of Archaeology

I need anyone who got here to know that I do not follow these events closely and am only marginally interested in them. My bias is to wonder how the archaeologists would like it if their family's graves were being invaded. Still, I do confess that knowing that copies of the text of our Dao De Jing were available to people who have been dead for approximately twenty-three hundred years fascinates me.

So, here's what I know.

1973 -- Mawangdui:

In early spring of the year which we in the west now reckon as 168 before the common era, the young son of a wealthy noble from what is now the Hunan province died and the family, presumably for the benefit of his soul, buried with him a large inventory of texts including two separate copies of what we call the Dao De Jing.

In 1973 this grave (located in the village of Mawangdui) was opened by archaeologists and among the contents were found what were immediately recognized as our oldest copies of The Laozi (by several hundred years). It appears that they were created around 200 BCE on strips of silk and, while time had caused damage, one of them was in very good condition and the other was well over half legible.

There are actually a lot of interesting things about the Mawangdui Laozis, as they have come to be called, but the one which is most startling to me is that they are so similar to our modern version. There are differences — for that matter, the two copies differ from each other — but nothing about either them would indicate that the Laozi which we know is not an accurate transmission of the documents found at Mawangdui. Pretty good for twenty-two hundred years, I think.

As I said before, one of the things which a lot of folks seem to be fascinated by is that both copies reverse the order of the "parts" from that which we have come to know. (So that the forty-four verses which begin with our verse number thirty-eight and go through our eighty-first [and last] verse, and which we call the De Jing, precede our first thirty-seven verses, known to us as the Dao Jing.) But otherwise all of the modern verses are found in order and are greatly the same line by line.

If you are actually interested in learning more about the Mawangdui Laozis I suggest that you read Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts translated, with an introduction and commentary by Robert G. Henricks (Ballantine Books, 1989).

1993 — Guodian (The "Bamboo Slip Laozi"):

In 1998 Chinese archaeologists announced to the world the discovery in a grave in Guodian village (now a section of Jingmen City in Hubei province), in 1993, of three bundles of bamboo slips (there were 71 in these three bundles) which had written on them portions of the Daodejing (There was a prodigious amount of other material - eight hundred slips in all, seven hundred thirty with writing on them - but these seventy-one are of most concern and interest to our present discussion.) The determination has been made that these slips (collectively now referred to as the "Bamboo Slip Laozi") were interred with an unidentified aristocrat some time prior to 278 BCE.

Taken together the "Bamboo Slip Laozi" only contains about one-third of our modern Daodejing and several of the verses, quite to the contrary of what is the case with the Mawangdui Laozis, are rather different in significant ways from our received version. Exactly what this all means is not certain. It may be (and is even likely) that the entire Daodejing, in a form closely resembling ours, was known and available at this time but that this man had compiled this version for his purposes. [Among my own collection of, now about sixty, translations there are several which are published as incomplete, and in a number of them the sense of the "translations" are so at variance with that of the others that one has to conclude that there was an intentionality on the part of the translator and/or publisher to make some point which others have not found so clearly made in the original text.]

Anyway, I find this pushing back another hundred years of our certainty that our Laozi has been venerated of interest.

Please mail any comments, suggestions or criticisms to Maury Merkin.
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