Burnt Books


In 1993 in midwinter in Guodian central China, an ancient tomb is found opened.

Behind a dead-end village, it is likely that a small group of desperate men, given a tip off by a local, worked quietly in the frozen mud to make an opening. Tasting the stagnant air coming out of the grave, the men must have hewed their way inside and scrabbled about in the near dark. With the snow falling above them, they would have picked up grave debris from the pit to produce a heat and a light. Due to the tomb being completely air-sealed, the strips of bamboo and cloth that came to hand would have been still flammable, even after 2300 years, and it would have lit easily.

From this smoking, flickering and indistinct environment was removed any larger objects; mummies, funerary vessels, gold, gongs or weapons and these were then spirited away probably be sold.

The swift moving authorities had secured the site by the next day, by this time the looters having vanished into greater China. Only the 730 discarded bamboo strips that had escaped the fire were left, trampled in the mud of the tomb. It is unknown what wonders were burned or stolen that night, but the remaining slips of bamboo, amongst other writings, included twelve famous texts, some of the most influential Chinese writings ever to have existed. These bamboo books can be assembled like a puzzle, opening a view into the past. Crucially the excavated copies also contained texts that were missing from the recorded classical Chinese canon that scholars have been studying for millennia.

Somewhere, at some point in history; the great books of philosophy, reason, manners and politics have been fundamentally modified. These excavated texts rested untouched throughout more than two thousand years of government censorship. Now, out of a forgotten grave, they have been brought back from the dead.


Professor Shirley Chan sits one row from the front, watching, everything. She has been preparing for this for months, thinking about it for years, and now the rain is coming down.

The Vice Chancellor is coming, having flown back to Australia early to give a welcome speech and to greet the delegates. The fruit platters are in place for morning tea. Slim young Chinese men in suits are in position to hand out beautifully printed programs. Abstract calligraphic art is arranged around the Macquarie University reception room and the media team has their broadcast recording equipment on standby.

“We were a bit worried actually, that no one would come.”

Shirley explains in a relaxed but precise manner.

“It was important the conference was going to be bilingual!”

“If an event is purely in Mandarin you get the Chinese academics but not the international academics, if you have only English then the Chinese academics won’t be able to communicate their research at their bestway.”

It remains unspoken that having a bilingual conference runs the risk of alienating both groups. It is difficult to get Shirley to comment too directly on any evaluative topic. She doesn’t comment critically on her colleagues, other institutions, and authorities around archaeology. This restraint is tempered with an investigative and piercing approach to the past, history is a battlefield in which the long game thinker is victorious.

“The ancient Chinese texts play an important role in Chinese thought, literature, philosophy and politics. The Chinese philosophy informs what happens now and how people think.”

In 221 BC when the Qin forces brutally unified the warring states, the firstemperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, held to a philosophy that order and safety could only be maintained through absolute compliance with his laws. This legalist philosophy in practice resulted in broad application of the death penalty for mid-level offences; amputation and branding for minor crimes such as petty theft.

Alternative ways of thinking, as flourished in the thousands of earlier Chinese writings, were viewed by the emperor as subversive and associated with his conquered enemies. Prohibition and centralisation of all knowledge was enforced and innumerable documents were lost, burned or otherwise destroyed.

“The Qin dynasty brutally suppressed numerous texts but the ‘Boshi’, what we might call Erudites, very high ranking scholars, they had memorised the texts.”

After fifteen years of Qin domination ended with the death of the emperor, these academics were summoned to the new Han capital, to meet and write down what had been memorised. The results of such conferences were the received intellectual canon of Chinese writing. The Book of Changes, the writings of Laozi, the Analects of Confucius. For more than 2000 years many literary knowledge before the Qin relied on what had been remembered by these scholars, or what they had been allowed to record.

“There has been concern about forgery… and plagiarism and misattribution of these texts. Also many ancient texts had been lost or not passed down…until the excavations, we could not check the Han commentaries against earlier sources.”

“With the excavations, which are so important and useful, the latest texts, anything with new clues – will be studied and should be shared.”

Shirley looks up, as expected the room has filled, the big names have arrived. Her colleagues from top Australian universities; Sydney, ANU, Melbourne. The highest profiles in China; Beijing University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Tsinghua, Beijing Normal and Nanjing. Finally heavyweights of Asian studies in the American establishment. University of Hawaii, Yale NUS and former academics of the University of California Berkley.

She thinks for a moment about Pierre Ryckmans the famous sinologist. A key teacher of hers at the University of Sydney, he passed away only a few months prior in August. Then she steps up to the podium.


On day one, Professor Chung-ying Cheng presides over the first panel of presenters and the auditorium (like an apocryphal emperor). The serried chairs are covered in soft yellow artificial light. Australian rain continues to fall outside and some helpful warden has placed a bucket near the podium to catch a drip falling from somewhere far above.

Chung-ying is 79 years old, black hair with no grey and with his suit of another era hung around his body. Since his instalment as a senior academic at Hawaii University in 1963, he has been promoting Chinese philosophical scholarship worldwide.

Critiquing established scholars, challenging crowd pleasing translations, encouraging younger scholars and holding forth on any and all subjects. The microphone in his hand is waved for emphasis like a sceptre, making it difficult for even the speakers a metre above him on the lectern to hear his evaluation of their work.

Chung-ying is challenging Derek Herforth, Sydney University Emeritus, on his rereading of Confucius’ use of the grammatical subject form of ‘what’. Derek in his close white beard has had to come around the podium and stand less than a metre away to hear Cheng’s argument. A change in Confucian construction of the subject in sentence forms is very controversial. It is not a casual thing to reinterpret what Confucius was talking about. This is not entirely unexpected however as Chinese lacks the articles and conjunctions that make English so narrow and leaden, ancient Chinese writings can be read many ways.

Scott Cook, stiff as though he has been holding his breath since the Dartmouth conference in 1998, presents. Scott was a crucial figure at that precursor conference and his latest work is highly anticipated.

At the Dartmouth meeting, Scott focused on the recorded kingly virtues, and their implications for the state. With a focus on prestige, harmony and against the legitimisation of force, concepts of royal responsibility are clearly contrary to Qin legalism, potentially even threatening the later Han and leading to further textual extirpation.

A delegate from the very back row pipes up, requesting that he be answered in English. Flat straight hair and a brown jacket clashing with dun pants.

“These issues are covered in my talk, tomorrow.”
“I look forward to seeing that, tomorrow, in your talk.”

Chen Jing of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences lays out the facts on the 1983 Han dynasty bamboo excavated texts of the ‘Laozi’, often referred to as the ‘Daodejing’. She is one of a number of very high profile women at the conference. In common with the other women, Chen Jing is not at the top of the hierarchy in a mainland big name Chinese University. Instead she has risen to the top from outside the establishment. But she now represents the premier institution for pure research in the humanities in China.

The back row delegate in dun pants asks her a string of questions, in English after she has presented in Mandarin. Chen Jing responds –
“Can I answer in Chinese?”
His reply.
“I don’t speak Chinese well”

Chen Jing sends him a look from the podium that could freeze a lake.
Shirley watches from the sidelines then signals the break for lunch.

Constance Cook’s much anticipated lecture on divination and sexuality approaches in the afternoon of the second day, mysteriously entitled “The Curse of Xun”. The salacious double topic of sex and black magic keeps the conference numbers up, even after two solid days of presentations.
Her recent research concerns the use of numerology and trigrams to predict female capacity to birth male heirs. The most important and fraught of familial responsibilities, women’s capacity to produce sons during the warring states period was mired in blame and tinged with the fear of malicious maternal ancestral spirits. Ancestors outside the male heredity line were seen as jealous outsiders with potent powers over the body and on reproduction.

It is apparent that knowledge in the warring states was of paramount political importance. Political domination, the ability to predict royal succession and to frame and implement royal legitimacy came down to scholars and their writings. Containing knowledge of the military and the state and the protocols of the afterlife, bamboo books were at the centre. In ancient China the scholars were world makers.

Following her lecture, my translator Aolin and I, corner Constance in the corridor. We discuss her work and the 1993 Guodian strips excavation.

“This grave robbery was a game changer, in that the tomb raiders learned the value of what they had left behind”

“A number of subsequent finds, we presume from around the same area, have come to us through the Hong Kong antiquities market. Not knowing the site in which they were found greatly limits our ability to position these texts in history.”

Joining our party in the corridor, John Makeham of the ANU politely requests to extend the line of query into the ethics of supply and demand of objects of unknown origin.

“How do you respond to this issue, of whether to use objects of unknown origin? Does this create an incentive for parties to raid and damage archaeological sites?”
Constance is earnest in her reply.
“If it’s an excavated text we have to use it, wherever it came from, as it’s all we have.”

The talks resume with a very young female presenter from Hong Kong.
In-Suet, milk pale with smooth slight features and a small mouth. Her Mandarin presentation comes out crunchy in a soft voice, her native Cantonese would cover a greater tonal range. This is her first international conference and she is fearless and rapid, moving her hands as she presents. The topic, the 18th century linguist, Xu Hao and his explanation of linguistic roots and critiques of translation. His work on ancient dictionaries, long ignored, suddenly relevant again as unearthed bronze inscriptions reconnect the families of words with their original uses.
Older male Professors from Beijing and Fudan universities question In-Suet’s work, challenging her on the original meaning of words. Chung-ying interjects, but he sounds encouraging. Undaunted she pushes on with her discussion on the origins of ancient characters and their usages.
In a space after her talk, Aolin and I ask In-Suet privately how she can handle such vigorous questioning by established scholars.

“Linguistics is not their area, they don’t know what they are talking about. They know philosophy, I am talking about something totally different”.

Aolin and I question the lack of other young women at the conference.

“It’s easier coming from Hong Kong, but it’s difficult for junior academics in China to get a visa to come. My colleagues at Hong Kong University recommended me.”

The elite philosophers of China walk past us to hobnob like rambunctious uncles around the tea cart. They grumble and laugh good naturedly with In-Suet about the bureaucratic nightmare of requesting an international visa to attend a conference. Commiseration shared over the famously obtuse administrative arms of Chinese universities. Constantly losing applications, stonewalling and requiring submission of all documents in triplicate, the pen pushers can humble the mightiest of latter day scholars.


I question Shirley, is there a disciplinary crises emerging out of these excavations?

“No not a crisis, just a change.”

Shirley also questions the premise behind disciplinary divisions arising from excavations.

“The concept of school or ‘Jia’, despite its convenience, is a problematic and imposed structure. Streams of thinking are a better way of describing them instead. Daoism, Confucianism and with the Qin legalism, although short-lived, the Qin was very distinct. These are discussed as ‘Jia’ but this is just a convenient and somewhat artificial way to talk about them”

So the impact is not so shocking, like the cross-disciplinary collaborations at a contemporary university?

“At least in the Chinese tradition, history, literature, philosophy were all one discipline historically, there was no such division.”

Less of an attempt to cut things up and divide them?

“Chinese philosophy has a holistic focus on harmony and cohesion, categorisation is less important.”

I ask her why such a major conference was hosted in Australia, the first Chinese excavated texts conference ever held here? Why not in the Ivy league? Or in China?

“To have a major conference you need a topic of significance and recognition in the field of the organisers. As China is one of the rare examples of a continuing civilisation, its philosophical history is very important. The Dartmouth meeting in the 90’s was vital, and we have followed up on that work.”

Why haven’t the other universities with dedicated Chinese departments been hosting conferences on the ancient texts?

“It is fantastic that everyone was able to come and share, that is the important thing.”
“As Barbara Hendrischke , who was at the conference, said, it was the best conference in 30 years and she couldn’t even remember the last one.”

The research and study of China will continue.

“Following the conference, Macquarie has been asked to hold the next biennial Chinese Studies of Australia Conference.”

Shirley had also been invited to contribute on an off screen for a major BBC documentary in 2015 on the impact of Confucius.


What about the grave?

About 2300 years ago, perhaps, the scholar lingered, his left side afflicted by an evil spirit, ancestral forces preventing him from moving one half of his body and a tightening of the chest around his breath.

He had been stricken on the second masculine day of the bent month, in late spring. In response the healer diviner would have entered the property from the east to avoid misfortune. Prayer and pressure on spiritual points on his body was applied, but to no avail. Even after drinking powerful appeasement tonics possibly containing spring water, red pig, horse’s tail and the head of a dog, the spirit would not have seemed to relent.

The scholar died.

He would have been carried by his sons and male dependents in an illuminated coffin to the burial site, the journey echoing that which is described on his coffin. Images of flying beasts, phoenixes, birds and winged divinity presage the celestial journey upon which his spirit was set to depart.

Respects would be given to the deities: the Controller of Fate, the Controller of Disasters and the Earth Lord of the Wilds, the territory of which is associated with the open and ready grave.
A rooster was likely sacrificed to the Royal Child of the North and a goat killed for the Great King of the East and stacked into a vessel amidst the grave banquet. The scholar’s head aimed eastward on divinatory advice and his hunting equipment placed at his left side. On his journey he will have battles to fight, royalty to serve and an assigned role to fulfil.

To his right the tools of his trade would later be found, documents, writing, books for study and to be taught from. His expected role in the celestial hierarchy will be associated with knowledge.

The mourners would line up around the clay grave as it is sealed, crying out in a funeral dirge. The wailing stretching up into the evening, the last gasp of the Chu capital, before the Qin armies bring it all down in blood, smoke and tears twenty five years later with the sack of the city.

Jesse Newman

About Jesse Newman

Jesse Newman is a researcher and teacher at Macquarie University Sydney. He is interested in anything Chinese.

Jesse Newman is a researcher and teacher at Macquarie University Sydney. He is interested in anything Chinese.

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