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Laozi Debate Volume 51 Number 6, November/December 1998
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

The 1993 discovery of the oldest version of a seminal Daoist text in a late fourth-century B.C. tomb in Guodian, Hubei Province, China, has provoked scholarly debate about the origins of the Daoist and Confucian traditions and the relationship between them. The text, known as the Laozi or Daodejing (The Book of the Way and Its Power), is considered sacred to 20 million Daoists worldwide and has been widely read and memorized by educated Chinese for centuries. A profoundly influential work that encourages readers to obey the natural order (or dao) rather than human authority, the Laozi has been translated more times than any book other than the Bible. The text of the Guodian Laozi, which is at least 2,350 years old, was embargoed until Chinese scholars prepared a modern Chinese transcription, which was published earlier this year. The work was finally scrutinized at a recent Dartmouth College conference.

The Guodian Laozi is 150 years older than any other known version and was found in a small tomb possibly belonging to a tutor of one of the crown princes of the Warring States period (476-221 B.C.) kingdom of Chu. The tomb was excavated by government archaeologists after grave robbers had dug a small hole and removed a few objects. Fortunately, the looters ignored the Laozi, which was written with a brush on bamboo slips and tied together in three bundles that were stored with 15 other texts. The cache is the "Chinese equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls," says Sarah Allan, professor of Chinese studies at Dartmouth. "They are works that are already changing our outlook on the formation of the early Daoist and Confucian traditions." The 15 additional texts, which were not studied at the meeting, are primarily Confucian material associated with Zisi, Confucius' grandson. Only one of these texts has ever been seen before.

The three bundles include material from 32 of the modern text's 81 chapters. Twenty-four of the book's chapters correspond to chapters of the modern edition. The remaining eight include only fragments of today's chapters. The sequence of the material on the bamboo slips is also totally different from all other known versions. Equally perplexing is an entirely new text Chinese scholars are calling The Great One Generated Water that was found attached to one of the Laozi bundles. The Great One is written in the same hand as the Laozi strips in the bundle, and it is not clear whether this new text was considered part of the larger one.

Scholars at the conference considered two possible explanations for why the Guodian Laozi is incomplete and out of sequence, says Robert Henricks, professor of Chinese religions at Dartmouth. The first is that the bamboo slips were assembled in random order and represent excerpts of a larger, complete text. These may have been chapters the tutor was fond of teaching to the prince and others. This possibility is favored by scholars from mainland China, many of whom feel strongly that the book was authored by one person, Laozi ("Old Master"), a shadowy sixth-century B.C. philosopher said to have been Confucius' teacher. The Laozi's antiauthoritarian teachings have been considered a counterpoint to Confucianism's reverence for ritual and hierarchy, and the two philosophical schools have long argued over whether Daoism or Confucianism is older. Current Chinese scholarship favors the Daoists.

The other possibility, favored mostly by Western scholars, is that the Guodian bundles are collections of sayings that were circulating in fourth-century B.C. China and were later combined with other sources by one or several editors to produce an updated version of the book, known from a text dating to 200 B.C. discovered in a tomb in Mawangdui, Hunan Province, in 1973.

The philosophical orientation of the different Guodian bundles awaits further research. Some scholars say they focus on different subjects, such as ruling and self-improvement. While it is possible the first two bundles were written by the same hand, Henricks says the third was clearly brushed by a different person. No definitive statement can yet be made about this scribe's interests and beliefs.

Scholars of early China have been tantalized by reports of another discovery of philosophical writings dating to the same period as the Guodian cache. Unfortunately, these texts were stolen from a woman's tomb a few miles from Guodian and smuggled to Hong Kong. Although they were bought back and are now being prepared for publication, Allan says the scholarly value of these texts has been compromised by their theft because they may well be incomplete.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America