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Ancient Chinese Scrolls as Evolving Entities: Implications for Reconstruction and Description

中國古代作為演化實體的簡冊:對其復原與描述的影響

In: Bamboo and Silk
Author:
Thies Staack Universität Hamburg, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) (漢堡大學寫本文化研究中心) 漢堡

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Abstract

In recent years, scholars have drawn attention to the fact that manuscripts are hardly static objects but prone to change over the course of time. Following this line of research, the present paper considers ancient Chinese scrolls as evolving entities and discusses some of the implications for their reconstruction and description.

1 Introduction

Over the past decade, our understanding of the material features of ancient Chinese scrolls has seen significant progress. Following advances in the documentation and publication of relevant data, above all concerning the reverse side or verso of the scrolls, attention has been called to formerly unknown or neglected material features. These features, namely man-made line marks and imprints of writing caused by the natural transfer of ink between the slips that constituted a scroll, have not only furthered our knowledge of how scrolls were produced and stored. They have also greatly benefitted attempts at reconstructing the original scrolls from the bits and pieces into which they had disintegrated over the course of more than two millennia.1

Despite these advances, which have also duly shifted the focus from the texts (on the scrolls) to the scrolls as physical objects, an aspect still largely neglected is the temporal dimension. What researchers normally aim for is to reconstruct the state in which the scroll was left at the place from which it was later excavated. However, just like manuscripts from other cultures and periods, ancient Chinese scrolls should be considered “evolving entities.”2 Hence, this state is strictly speaking only a snapshot in the life cycle of a scroll, which extends from its production, through its subsequent use, to its deposition and eventual disintegration.3

The present study aims to highlight the importance of this temporal dimension and to draw attention to the implications it has for the reconstruction and description of bamboo and wood scrolls. Focusing on complex scrolls,4 it begins by illustrating the limited utility of verso lines for scroll reconstruction (section 2). Moving on to point out further complications that can arise after the (initial) completion of a scroll due to subsequent transformations, I discuss examples of composite bamboo and wood scrolls. These showcase how features commonly employed as evidence for the reconstruction of scrolls – verso lines and mirror-inverted imprints of writing – are tied to entirely different evolutionary stages of a scroll, but can in fact yield complementary evidence for stratigraphic analysis (section 3). Finally, the study addresses the topic of how to best describe complex scrolls as evolving entities. After pointing to the lack of suitable descriptive terminology in English and Chinese, it introduces an analytical framework that has recently been developed for the stratigraphic analysis of codex manuscripts. I argue that this framework and its concepts can be fruitfully applied when studying ancient Chinese scrolls (section 4). While most of the scrolls to be discussed were produced from bamboo, many of the findings as well as the general approach to stratigraphic description are equally valid for wood scrolls.5

2 From Bamboo Culm to Scroll: the Limited Utility of Verso Lines for Scroll Reconstruction

2.1 Bamboo Scrolls with Multiple Self-Contained Textual Units and Continuous Verso Lines

In the earliest systematic description of the verso line phenomenon, Sun Peiyang 孫沛陽 already pointed to its (potential) significance for the reconstruction of complex scrolls, although his analysis mostly focused on the reconstruction of distinct groups of slips with only one text each.6 Soon afterward, further studies employed the lines as evidence to reconstruct the sequence of several distinct textual units deemed to be part of the same scroll.7 In the case of the two reconstructed bamboo scrolls from the Peking University collection, which bear the titles Laozi shangjing 老子上經 and Laozi xiajing 老子下經 (“Laozi, first canon” and “Laozi, second canon,” respectively), the text of each scroll is divided into several units, each of which begins on a new slip.8 One of the editors stated that the verso lines therefore had a “key function” for determining the original sequence of these textual units within each scroll.9 In the reconstruction that was provided, most of the verso lines on the slips in fact run continuously across the boundaries of textual units.10 This seems to accord well with the fact that the line pattern is also largely continuous within the groups of slips that can be reconstructed on the basis of the text of each unit.

A reconstructed scroll from the Tsinghua University collection, to which the modern editors assigned the title *Xinian 繫年 “Linked Years,” provides a comparable case.11 In contrast to the Peking University Laozi, the bamboo slips of the *Xinian are furnished with sequence numbers written on their back. The numbers indicate the correct slip sequence with regard to the text on the front side, which is divided into 23 units that always start on a new slip.12 For this reason, the editors did not have to rely on the verso lines to determine the sequence of the textual units. Still, in the reconstructed scroll, the lines run continuously across the boundaries of text units except in two cases.13 This proves that the verso lines can in principle provide evidence for the reconstruction of the sequence of self-contained textual units within a scroll.

In both cases just described, the modern editors were obviously convinced that they had to reconstruct scrolls containing multiple textual units, rather than scrolls with only one textual unit in each. This is doubtless correct, as shown by the following features. Each of the two Laozi scrolls has a comprehensive title that appears to reflect a division of the Laozi into two parts with multiple chapters.14 In addition, each scroll ends with a note stating the overall number of characters, which by far exceeds the number of characters within the individual textual units (chapters). The titles as well as the notes on the number of characters seem to have been brushed by the same hand as the main text.15 For the *Xinian, the continuous numbering of the 138 slips, which matches a coherent (and largely chronological)16 arrangement of the text, is strong evidence pointing towards only one scroll.17

2.2 A Doubtful Case: One Scroll or Several Scrolls?

In other cases, however, modern editions have separated at least implicitly, what in the view of some scholars were likely parts of the same scroll. The editors of the Tsinghua University manuscripts noted that, judging from their matching codicological features and an identical scribal hand, the slips with the text *Yin zhi 尹至 “Yin’s Arrival” may have been bound together in one scroll with those carrying the text *Yin gao 尹誥 “Yin’s Mandate.”18 However, they decided to keep the two groups of slips separated in the first volume of the Tsinghua University manuscripts. In the following, Sun Peiyang argued that the *Yin zhi slips should have preceded the *Yin gao slips within the same scroll. The basis for this proposal was a seemingly continuous verso line between the two groups of slips.19 After the third volume of that collection was published, it was further suggested that a group of slips with a text titled Chi jiu zhi ji Tang zhi wu 赤鳩之集湯之屋 “When Red Pigeons Gathered on Tang’s House”20 should have been placed before *Yin zhi as another part of the same scroll, yielding a reconstructed scroll with three textual units.21 This argument was based on textual as well as material evidence: First, the contents of all three texts are related to the same historical figure (Yi Yin 伊尹) and in the proposed reconstruction would constitute a chronologically arranged narrative. Second, there would be a continuous verso line between the Chi jiu zhi ji Tang zhi wu slips and those of *Yin zhi, and the position of the nodes on the two groups of slips is also identical, as is the case with the *Yin zhi and *Yin gao slips.22

While this reconstruction appears reasonable with regard to the named textual and material criteria, certain doubts may be raised due to the nature of the verso lines. By now, there is overwhelming evidence that the verso lines on bamboo slips were most commonly applied by carving a spiral-shaped line into the outer surface of a bamboo culm segment, before it was split into slips. While this hypothesis was developed on the basis of unprovenanced bamboo slips – namely those from the collections of Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Yuelu Academy23 – it has recently been substantiated by archaeologically excavated bamboo slips.24 It is not yet entirely clear why the lines were applied to intact bamboo culm segments, but they could certainly have served to indicate the original arrangement of a set of slips produced from one culm segment. To bind the slips in the same sequence when producing a scroll may have enhanced the scroll’s appearance and/or handling.25

Regardless of their function, the fact that the lines were applied at such an early stage in the production process of a bamboo scroll, certainly before writing was applied or the scroll was bound, has far-reaching implications for reconstruction: there is neither a definite connection between the sequence of slips in a given set as “prescribed” by a verso line and their actual sequence in a scroll, nor in fact between a set of slips produced from the same bamboo culm segment and a particular scroll.

Even though the slip sequence prescribed by the lines was apparently followed in many cases throughout the whole chaîne opératoire of a scroll, there also is ample evidence for gaps in the lines due to disposal, unintended displacement or 180°-rotation of individual slips, or accidental reversal of the slip sequence before writing and binding.26 In addition, there are examples testifying to almost complete neglect of the verso lines during the production of a scroll.27 These phenomena show that adherence to the lines during scroll production was probably seen as ideal or welcome rather than mandatory and that inconsistencies in the line patterns have to be expected, even in cases where manuscript producers were generally determined to respect them.

Sets of bamboo slips produced from the same culm segment were obviously often kept together all the way to the binding of a scroll. This suggests that the carving of the lines and the eventual binding either happened in the same place, or that great care was taken to ensure that sets of slips remained together during transport from the place where the slips were produced to the place where they were bound into scrolls.28 However, even under these circumstances, we cannot by default expect all of the slips from one set to have been used in the same scroll. The end of the text to be recorded on a scroll did not necessarily coincide with the last slip of a particular set. Therefore, assuming that leftover slips were not simply discarded, parts of the same set of slips might well end up in separate scrolls.29

Coming back to the case of the three groups of slips from the Tsinghua University collection mentioned above, it is very likely that all fifteen slips of the Chi jiu zhi ji Tang zhi wu group and the first three of the five slips of the *Yin zhi group were produced from the same bamboo culm segment. Analogously, the last two slips of the *Yin zhi group and all four of the *Yin gao slips also appear to derive from the same raw material.30 This certainly is convincing evidence to propose that the three groups of slips were produced at roughly the same time and in the same place and that their producer(s) also took care to respect the slip sequence suggested by the verso lines. It is even likely that the three groups of slips were used for manuscript production directly after one another. However, it does not necessarily follow from this that all the slips were also bound as one scroll. While this is certainly possible, they might also have been bound as three separate scrolls.31

Supporting the latter possibility are the separate counts of sequence numbers on the backs of the three groups of slips, in stark contrast to the case of the *Xinian described above, where the count is continuous across textual units. Further support for this is that the title Chi jiu zhi ji Tang zhi wu, which was written on the back of the last slip of the respective group, would have been placed toward the middle of the scroll’s verso side, rather than on one of its first or last slips, as seems to have been the rule.32 In sum, the evidence from the verso lines has to be considered indecisive for reasons outlined above, and other textual and material evidence is at least contradictory.33 In my view, additional evidence, such as imprints of writing (see below), would be needed to substantiate the proposal for a single scroll comprising all three groups.34

As the three texts seem to have been part of the same collection, even if we assume that they were recorded on separate scrolls, they can certainly be seen as “belonging together” to some extent, which would be in line with the observation about a common topic. However, it makes a difference if the three texts came as a bundle or could also be read and circulated separately.

3 Further Complications: Transformations in the Life Cycle of Scrolls

The preceding discussion has shed some light on the temporal dimension of scroll production. By clarifying the time gap between the application of the verso lines to the bamboo material and the binding of a scroll, it has pointed to the limited utility of the verso lines for reconstruction. But at least on some scrolls with several distinct textual units – namely the Peking University Laozi and the Tsinghua University *Xinian – the verso lines appear to have run continuously across these units. This suggests that the scrolls were produced in one continuous process and that they were planned as “multiple-text manuscripts” (or MTMs) right from the beginning.35 However, that was not always the case. Sometimes, a scroll evolved over the course of time, for example, if it was constructed by putting together formerly independent, smaller scrolls. This further complicates any attempt at reconstruction and description. At the same time, identifying these transformations is of paramount importance to deepen our fragmentary understanding of the ways scrolls were used in early Chinese manuscript culture. The following examples will illustrate these points.

3.1 An Exemplary Case: the Wood Scroll Juyan Hanjian 128.1

That at least some scrolls did in fact evolve is testified to by the well-known example of the Han period wood scroll Juyan Hanjian 128.1, which was excavated in 1930 in present-day Inner Mongolia.36 Consisting of 77 wood slips, this object constitutes the longest scroll that has been found with binding strings intact. It was produced towards the end of the first century CE in the context of the military administration at the northwestern border of the Han Empire. While its contents, reports on weapons and other equipment available to the soldiers stationed at two beacon towers, do not provide for a very exciting read, the scroll has garnered considerable scholarly interest, also because it is a clear example of a composite manuscript.37

The scroll contains five distinct textual units, three monthly reports, and two quarterly reports, dating to the years 93 through 95 CE. As two different sets of binding strings obviously meet on three of the slips – slips 17, 33, and 49 (see figure 1 below) – the scroll is a secondary product, constructed by tying together four smaller units (see table 1 below).38 Since the slips where different sets of binding string come together each contain the beginning of one of the textual units, it is reasonable to assume that the respective groups of slips were originally bound as separate scrolls that could also be stored or circulated separately. They appear to have been eventually combined by making use of the leftover string at the end (left side) of each scroll.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Two separate sets of binding strings on slips 17 (right), 33 (middle), and 49 (left) of Juyan Hanjian 128.1

Citation: Bamboo and Silk 6, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/24689246-20230035

Images courtesy of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica (slip numbers added by author)
Table 1
Table 1

Overview of textual and codicological/production units of Juyan Hanjian 128.1a

Citation: Bamboo and Silk 6, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/24689246-20230035

Some scholars have suggested that the structurally simple form of the wood or bamboo scroll may have facilitated modifications such as the addition, subtraction, or replacement of slips. The same applies to the division or combination of scrolls, which would provide possibilities for the convenient compilation of administrative registers or other writings over longer periods of time.39 The present wood scroll is one of the very few examples in which at least the practice of combining scrolls into larger units is immediately evident from the intact binding.

It is much more difficult, often impossible, to gather similar evidence of transformations from scrolls without intact binding strings, which constitute the vast majority and include basically all bamboo scrolls. However, scattered evidence of the above-mentioned practices is occasionally found. As one example, it has been argued on the basis of significant differences in length and width that two of the slips in the Tsinghua University *Xinian were replaced for some reason.40 In addition, based on the traces of binding strings, the editors suspect that the Yushu 語書 scroll excavated from Shuihudi 睡虎地 tomb no. 11 was put together from two originally separate units.41 But especially when it comes to composites produced from formerly independent scrolls (like Juyan Hanjian 128.1 above), there is usually no hard evidence that could remedy the absence of intact binding strings. For archaeologically excavated manuscripts, the exact positions of the slips in situ can sometimes provide supporting evidence, but in many cases, proposals for composite manuscripts – as well as for multiple-text manuscripts, for that matter – have to remain hypotheses that cannot be proven beyond doubt.42

A noteworthy proposal was recently made concerning two bamboo scrolls from the Tsinghua University collection, which are referred to as *Zhi bang zhi dao 治邦之道 and *Zhi zheng zhi dao 治政之道.43 On the basis of commonalities in content, scribal hands, and the use of segmentation marks, as well as identical positions of binding traces and notches, it has been suggested that the two scrolls, while produced separately, were at some later point combined. As the two scrolls differ in regard to slip length, presence of sequence numbers, and writing support (distinct sets of bamboo slips clearly produced from different culm segments), the author argued that this is an example of what he labelled “same scroll, different manufacture” (tong pian yi zhi 同篇異制).44 If it could be substantiated, this phenomenon would force us to reconsider some of the basic criteria that have until now been taken for granted as preconditions for scroll reconstruction. However, alluring as the hypothesis may be, none of the evidence clearly proves that the two scrolls were combined at some point. Lacking information regarding the original position of the bamboo slips at their excavation site, unambiguous evidence could be supplied by imprints of writing, as will be shown in the following section.45

3.2 A Bamboo Scroll with Multiple Textual Units but Discontinuous Verso Lines

In certain cases, the available evidence allows us to make some conclusions about the evolution of a scroll, even though it is not intact. One example is a bamboo scroll from the Yuelu Academy collection that contains records of seven criminal cases.46 Although the scroll shows verso lines, these are generally continuous only on the slips within a particular textual unit, but not across text boundaries. In other words, each of the boundaries between textual units coincides with a boundary between two sets of slips produced from different bamboo culm segments.47 Hence, although all the writing on the scroll was apparently done by the same hand,48 it does not seem to have been produced in one continuous process; the seven case records may even have circulated separately before they were combined in one scroll.49 The discontinuous verso lines suggest that this scroll is more akin to a composite manuscript such as Juyan Hanjian 128.1 than it is to multiple-text manuscripts such as the Peking University Laozi or the Tsinghua University *Xinian.

The above conclusions on the Yuelu Academy scroll would not have been possible from an observation of the verso lines alone. They rely on evidence gained from mirror-inverted imprints of writing. Under certain circumstances, ink from the recto of some parts of a scroll seems to have left imprints on other parts of the same scroll during storage. In contrast to the verso lines, which are man-made and, in most cases, seem to have been applied to the material even before the individual slips for a certain scroll were produced (see section 2 above), the imprints of writing emerged due to natural processes only after a scroll had been bound.50 By now, several case studies have shown that the imprints can provide evidence for scroll reconstruction, because they reflect the state in which a scroll was deposited at its future place of excavation, when its binding strings were still intact.51 This concerns not only the structure of a scroll (affiliation and sequence of the slips), but also the way it was stored (rolled-up from the beginning or end vs. folded).52 While the “original” writing is normally found on the slips’ recto, the mirror-inverted imprints can occur either on the recto or the verso of other slips, depending on whether the respective scroll was folded or rolled up for storage. With the mentioned Yuelu Academy scroll, the imprints allowed us not only to ascertain that all seven textual units were in fact part of the same scroll, because the seven respective groups of slips were all connected with each other by imprint relations. It was also possible to reconstruct the sequence of the textual units/groups of slips within the scroll and to determine that it had been rolled up from its end towards its beginning.53 Hence, the imprints are extremely valuable evidence for the purpose of reconstructing complex scrolls, even more so if other evidence from the exact position of the slips at the time of excavation is lacking.54

As has been shown, the two types of material evidence – verso lines and imprints of writing – are tied to entirely different evolutionary stages of a scroll. Both are potentially useful for reconstruction, but they also have their specific drawbacks. As remnants of the “pre-scroll stage,” the verso lines are of limited utility, especially for the reconstruction of complex scrolls with two or more distinct textual units. Imprints of writing, on the other hand, are comparatively rare. Furthermore, whether the number and distribution of imprints on the individual slips are sufficient for a full reconstruction depends on luck.55 The case of the Yuelu Academy scroll illustrated that both types of evidence were of crucial importance and in fact complementary: on the one hand, to allow a full reconstruction and, on the other hand, to bring to light the evolution from seven independent scrolls to a composite manuscript.56

The examples of complex scrolls discussed in the preceding sections bring to the fore the necessity to consider the temporal dimension when reconstructing and describing them. While some scrolls were produced in one continuous process, others developed into complex scrolls in several steps, possibly from formerly independent units. On the other hand, we have seen that it is not always possible to distinguish between a complex scroll with several textual units and several scrolls with one unit each. Would Juyan Hanjian 128.1 ever have been reconstructed that way if it had not been found complete with intact binding strings? Probably not. But while it may not always be possible to solve all problems of reconstruction, it is always worth considering what we are actually reconstructing: a scroll, a part of a scroll, or even an artificial object that never existed.

Regardless of whether a complex scroll is intact or must be reconstructed, the task of adequately describing it as an evolving entity is demanding. The following section will address this topic, introducing innovative approaches that have been developed in the past two decades for the description of codex manuscripts and discussing their applicability to ancient Chinese scrolls.

4 Describing Complex Scrolls as Evolving Entities: Issues of Terminology

When considering how to describe complex scrolls and their evolution over time, scholars presently face limitations of suitable terminology. The problem begins with the lack of identifiers for the physical objects. In contrast to scrolls that were found intact, such as Juyan Hanjian 128.1 introduced above,57 reconstructed scrolls usually not receive an item number, call number, shelf mark, or other kind of identifier from their holding institution (e.g. a library or museum) that would allow us to unambiguously refer to the physical object.58 The reason seems to be at least threefold. First, as reconstructions, these scrolls are neither stored as complete objects nor can they be accessed that way at the holding institutions. Second, since reconstructions are often tentative and might be overturned by subsequent scholarship, a reconstructed scroll can be a rather fleeting object. Third, because reconstructing complex scrolls – multiple-text manuscripts or composites – can be difficult or even impossible, it is still common practice in manuscript editions to focus on the reconstruction of groups of slips with distinct textual units. Hence, these reconstructed groups of slips are commonly designated by their contents, either based on original titles or as deemed suitable by the editors. As a result, there is usually no way to refer to a scroll as a physical object without at the same time referring to a text. Take for example, the *Yin zhi from the Tsinghua University collection mentioned above. The designation was chosen by the editors on the basis of the textual content. No matter if the respective group of slips is considered a complete scroll or only part of a scroll, the only way to refer to it is by somehow using its content-related title, e.g. as “the *Yin zhi slips/scroll.” Assigning unambiguous identifiers to the physical objects, even though they may be reconstructions, would be a step forward.59 On the one hand, this would help prevent confusion between texts and physical objects, and on the other, it would inevitably lead to important questions about the state of the object: is it most likely a complete scroll, a part of a scroll, or is this simply unknown? Even in the last case, this should be made explicit.

In Chinese scholarship, the terms ce or juan are commonly used to refer to a scroll as a physical object. Pian , on the other hand, usually designates a text, but often refers to both, a text as well as (by extension) the group of slips on which that text was recorded, for reasons outlined above. In Western scholarship on ancient Chinese manuscripts, too, the distinction between a scroll as a physical object and a text is at times blurry, as can be gathered from expressions such as “bamboo texts.”60 To clearly separate the two, almost two decades ago Marc Kalinowski introduced the concept of the “codicological unit,” borrowed from European codicology, to the field of sinology.61 In his study of the Mawangdui 馬王堆 silk manuscripts, the term “codicological unit” referred to a manuscript as a physical object (in that case a sheet of silk), as opposed to the one or more “textual units” recorded on it. The term was subsequently taken up by other scholars in the field, but sometimes used with a very different meaning. While some have followed Kalinowski in employing the concept exclusively for a physical/material unit that is strictly distinct from the text,62 others have used it to refer to “portions of text whose delineations are signaled by codicological – that is, visual, material – means (e.g., layout features and marks)” [emphasis added].63 The latter usage of the term “codicological unit” in fact comes very close to what Kalinowski, who mostly distinguished between texts on the basis of formal criteria, called a “textual unit.”

This seems to confirm an observation that the codicologist Patrick Andrist made in 2015, namely that the wide but inconsistent use of the term “codicological unit” has led to the development of “regrettable ambiguities.”64 Following the work of J. Peter Gumbert and others, who set out to explore the evolution of complex codex manuscripts over time, Andrist and his colleagues Paul Canart and Marilena Maniaci proposed a new framework for the stratigraphic analysis and description of codices.65 Whereas Gumbert had built his earlier descriptive terminology around the codicological unit,66 Andrist et al. replaced that term with the new concept of “production unit” (unité de production/UniProd), which they define as:

all codices or parts of a codex that are the result of the same act of production. An act of production is the set of operations, delimited in time and space, by which one or several objects or parts of an object are created, in our case one or several codices or parts of a codex. [my translation; emphasis added]67

While the concept was obviously developed for the analysis of codex manuscripts, it seems, just like the codicological unit, generally applicable to other types of manuscripts as well, including bamboo or wood scrolls. The great advantage of the concept of the production unit over the codicological unit (in Gumbert’s definition) is that, while both stress the unity of production, the former, as a term, directly speaks to this crucial feature; it is also broader and more flexible. For example, a parchment codex or a bamboo scroll that was produced within one continuous production process would each be a production unit. A note added to the existing manuscript by a different hand at a later time would be another production unit.68 Although Gumbert’s system likewise offers terminology to describe this,69 its fine-grained distinctions at times require decisions that might be impossible to make.70

If we imagine a bamboo or wood scroll as an evolving entity that transforms over the course of time because it is subjected to several distinct acts of production, it becomes clear that this scroll would not necessarily look the same at two different points in time. To be able to differentiate these stages in the life cycle of a manuscript, Andrist et al. introduced the concept of “circulation unit” (unité de circulation/UniCirc). They define it as:

all the elements that constitute a codex at a given point in time. It can be equivalent to a UniProd and/or be the result of a transformation. [my translation; emphasis added]71

Taking up the example above, this means that the bamboo scroll produced within one continuous production process would be a production unit, and at the same time a circulation unit. As soon as a later note (another production unit) was added to the scroll, it would become a different circulation unit. The same would be the case if a part of the scroll was removed or replaced.72 Therefore, a circulation unit does not evolve; instead, every modification to a manuscript automatically leads to the creation of a new circulation unit, as well as the disappearance of the existing circulation unit.73

Besides these basic analytical concepts, Andrist et al. also discuss how to identify different stages in the history of a manuscript. Crucial here are “discontinuities,” namely any observable changes regarding writing support, scribal hand, content, layout, or other features of the manuscript.74 Discontinuities do not necessarily imply different acts of production, and hence production units. For example, discontinuities of content can be expected in multiple-text manuscripts such as the Peking University Laozi or the Tsinghua University *Xinian, although they may have been planned that way from the beginning and produced within one act of production.75 However, especially if discontinuities of several features coincide, they are potentially significant evidence of the history of the manuscript. For example, as has been shown for the Yuelu Academy scroll with seven criminal case records, each of the boundaries between textual units coincides with a boundary between two sets of slips produced from different bamboo culm segments.76 This suggests that the scroll was not produced in one continuous process. Instead, we may be dealing with a circulation unit consisting of seven production units. Whether each of these production units was originally also a circulation unit, or whether the case records were produced over an extended period of time, but only to be added to the existing scroll one after the other, is impossible to determine without further evidence. The case is clearer for the Juyan Hanjian 128.1 wood scroll. The coinciding discontinuities of content and binding in three places in the scroll suggest that its four production units – slips 1–16, slips 17–32, slips 33–48, and slips 49–77 (or scrolls 1–4 in table 1 above) – were in fact distinct circulation units, before they were at some point combined to form a new circulation unit (see figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Evolution of Juyan Hanjian 128.1 (= circulation unit ε)

Citation: Bamboo and Silk 6, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/24689246-20230035

As the preceding discussion has shown, the analytical framework introduced by Andrist et al. is in principle applicable to ancient Chinese bamboo and wood scrolls and could provide a more thorough basis for stratigraphic description than the Chinese and English terms currently in use. Now that verso lines and/or imprints of writing can at least in some cases provide data for the stratigraphic analysis of scrolls that lack intact binding strings, this potential should not be left untapped.

5 Conclusions

The preceding discussion should have made it clear that it is not only worthwhile but in fact necessary to consider the temporal dimension in any endeavor to reconstruct or describe ancient Chinese bamboo or wood scrolls. On the one hand, this concerns the timespan between the manufacture of the writing support and the completion of a scroll. As has been shown on the basis of several reconstructed bamboo scrolls, material evidence from the verso lines, which during the past decade has become a very influential factor for scroll reconstruction, certainly needs to be considered. However, it should also be acknowledged that there are clear limits to the utility of this kind of evidence, since the application of the verso lines took place already at the “pre-scroll stage.”77

On the other hand, the life cycle of a scroll certainly did not end with its completion. As a composite wood scroll with intact binding strings has reminded us, it may have been subject to transformations and, for example, ended up as a part of a larger scroll. Although traces of such transformations are not always visible at first sight, especially if the scroll is not intact with binding strings, verso lines and in particular imprints of writing can provide valuable evidence for stratigraphic analysis. Since these two types of material features speak to entirely different temporal stages, they can in fact supply complementary evidence. These findings also force us to reconsider the criteria on which scroll reconstructions are based.

It has already been observed that features commonly employed as criteria for distinguishing slips that belong to separate (bamboo) scrolls can be categorized according to their place in the production process of a scroll. For example, the measurements of the slips, the position of bamboo nodes and the verso lines were already fixed during the preparation of the writing support. In contrast, the position of the notches on the side of the slips and the binding strings were determined only when slips were bound to form a scroll. Therefore, if two groups of slips have notches and traces of binding strings in identical positions, even though their contents might be entirely unrelated, it is in principle possible that they were part of the same scroll.78

While this is true, an observation of the above features unfortunately leaves us with a multiplicity of possibilities rather than definite solutions to some problems of reconstruction. For multiple-text manuscripts that were planned and realized within the same production process, verso lines may provide sufficient clues. But if the connection between the groups of slips with distinct textual units is less obvious (see the example in section 2 above) or if we are even dealing with a composite scroll that was put together from smaller, formerly independent, units (see the examples in section 3 above), the lines would no longer be helpful. In my view, only the positions of the slips at their place of excavation and – in case this information is unavailable, as for most unprovenanced manuscripts79 – mirror-inverted imprints of writing have the potential to solve these issues. Not only can the imprints testify to how a scroll was stored,80 they can also allow conclusions about the sequence of the slips belonging to the same textual unit and about the arrangement of self-contained textual units within a scroll.81 It seems likely that among the fragmented scrolls discovered to date there are many more yet unidentified MTMs and composite manuscripts.

Both the reconstruction and the description of ancient Chinese scrolls might benefit from the advances that have been made in European codicology during the past decades. Employing the analytical framework suggested by Andrist et al. – above all the concepts of production unit, circulation unit, and discontinuity – could further strengthen awareness of the simple yet momentous fact that different parts of the same manuscript may have to be dated differently. Of course, one act of production (see section 4 above) may have extended over a certain period of time. For example, a scribe produces bamboo slips on one day, does the writing on them two days later, and finally binds the slips into a scroll on the following day.82 However, the stratigraphic approach advocated by Andrist et al. rather aims to identify parts of a manuscript that are the result of different acts of production based on discontinuities in content, writing support, layout, etc. that can be observed in the manuscript. Even if no absolute dating of these production units is possible, at least a relative dating of a manuscript’s strata can be attempted, allowing us to trace a manuscript’s evolution over the course of time. Hence, this approach could also facilitate the reconstruction and description of complex scrolls and their strata. Making use of a terminological framework that is well-established for codex manuscripts would also provide valuable data for comparative codicology and foster exchange among scholars working on manuscripts from different cultures and periods.83

The importance of this line of research is of course not limited to a better understanding of the written artefacts as such and their history. It is also an additional step toward uncovering how exactly people in ancient China employed bamboo and wood scrolls, the dominant book form of pre-imperial and early imperial China, to organize, exchange, and transmit knowledge.

Acknowledgements

The research for this article was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2176 “Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures,” project no. 390893796. The research was conducted within the scope of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at Universität Hamburg. I would like to thank Patrick Andrist, Edward L. Shaughnessy, and Chun Fung Tong 唐俊峰 for their valuable comments on an earlier draft.

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