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  • Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions
  • Lothar von Falkenhausen (bio)
Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions. By Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien. 2nd ed.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xxiv+323. $75.

This book presents a straightforward account of the media and tools of record keeping in ancient and early medieval China, from Late Shang (circa 1300-1046 B.C.E.) oracle-bone inscriptions down to the advent of printing in the eighth century C.E.It complements Tsien's magisterial Paper and Printing(published in 1985 as volume 5, part 1 of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China). First published in 1962, Written on Bamboo and Silkhas been extensively updated, the transcription of Chinese has been felicitously changed to the Hanyu pinyin system, and Edward L. Shaughnessy has contributed an important afterword (pp. 207-32) analyzing new paleographic discoveries in China.

Chapters 2-7 each cover one category of materials used as a surface for writing. Starting with bones and tortoise shells and ending with silk and paper, Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien's presentation follows the approximate chronological order of their appearance. He lists, dates, and briefly characterizes the evidence available, judiciously combining what is known from ancient textual accounts with the ever more plentiful archaeological finds, as well as objects collected by traditional antiquarians. Chapter 8 uses the same approach in discussing writing implements and ink. While the data do not lend themselves to sweeping conclusions (those offered in chapter 9 are vague and in part equivocal), Tsien's extensive yet never boring enumerations convey plentiful incidental information of interest to anyone interested in the history of writing technology.

There are some lacunae. In his chapter on "Silk as Writing Material," Tsien does not discuss the small but significant body of inscriptions woven into the fabric of silk, first attested at Mawangdui (ca. 168 B.C.E.). And even though Tsien's rejection of the traditional view that lacquer was used for writing before the invention of ink is persuasive, one should note that many lacquer vessels from the fourth century the third century C.E.bear brush-written lacquer inscriptions, proving that liquid lacquer was indeed used like ink, albeit probably in rather limited contexts.

There are also occasional mistakes. For example, on page 125, Tsien writes about wood tablets inscribed in Tibetan from "an ancient Turfan castle of the Tang period at Milan." "Turfan" is a misprint for "Tufan," which in turn is a mistaken transcription of "Tubo," the common Tang designation of the Tibetans; there is no connection with the Turfan oasis. On page 134, Tsien writes about a silk strip inscribed "in Kharosthi language." In fact, Kharosthi is an alphabetic script that could be used to write many languages (in this case, probably Gandhari). Likewise, on page 132 Tsien [End Page 410]writes about a silk strip bearing "an inscription in Brahminic characters," which should be corrected to "in the letters of the Brahmi alphabet" because Brahmi was used for writing various languages (not all of them, incidentally, Indic). Tsien's assertion on pages 133-34 that "the use of Indian script proves that . . . traders were accustomed to use the Indian language [ sic] during the early Christian era" is woefully inexact.

Throughout the book, Tsien overemphasizes the extent to which "Chinese characters have always been written and read from top to bottom with the columns following from right to left" (p. 204). When asserting this to be invariably the case with bronze inscriptions (p. 35) he disregards a small but significant minority of instances, dating from circa 1100 to 600 B.C.E., where the columns are arranged from left to right. The traditional right-to-left order cannot, therefore, have been fixed before the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.; pace Tsien, moreover, such a direction of writing is patently inconvenient for a right-handed person, as one's arm will cover—and potentially smudge—previously inscribed text as one proceeds from right to left. Perhaps it reflects an early habit of inscribing wooden or bamboo strips singly before stringing them...


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