David S. Nivison, the Bamboo Annals, and the Chronology of Xia: Personal Reflections on Historical Method

In: Journal of Chinese Humanities

Abstract

David Shepherd Nivison (1923-2014) devoted the last three and a half decades of his life to an attempt to reconstruct the original text of the Bamboo Annals and to use that text to reconstruct the absolute chronology of ancient China. Nivison’s attempt to reconstruct that chronology involved astronomy; textual criticism, especially—though not exclusively—of the Bamboo Annals; and a considerable amount of historiographical conjecture concerning both the period of the Xia dynasty and of the Warring States period, during which, Nivison argues, the Bamboo Annals was undergoing multiple revisions. This attempt was also based on three major theses: (1) the Xia kings were named for the tiangan 天干 of the first day of the first year of their reign; (2) irregular gaps of zero, one, two, three, four, and even forty years recorded in the Bamboo Annals between the reigns of Xia kings should invariably have been two years; and (3) the final Xia king, Jie 桀, is completely mythical.

In this article, I first present Nivison’s arguments and then present a critique of those arguments, based on my own study of the Bamboo Annals. My own study of the Bamboo Annals in turn has shown three points that are important for understanding its annals of Xia: that at least some of the manuscript was damaged or lost when it was taken from the tomb, that the Western Jin editors made some mistakes in their editing of the text, and that they added commentary to the text. Based on this discussion, I conclude that Nivison’s hypothesis concerning the chronology of the Xia dynasty remains just that: a hypothesis.

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