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Differences between the Annals and the common views of Chinese History

There are two points in which the Annals of the Bamboo Books differ seriously from the generally received views of Chinese history. The one is in the matter of chronology, the years assigned in the Annals to the period between king P`ing of the Chow dynasty and the beginning of Yaou's reign being fewer by 211 than those commonly allowed. The other is that insisted on immediately above,—the contrast between them and the Shoo, in regard to the government of Shun and the labours of Yu.

On the former of these points, something was said in the last chapter. The history of China is certainly shortened in these Annals by the amount just mentioned. The number of sovereigns which they assign is the same as that in the common chronology, excepting in the case of the Shang dynasty, where we have two additional reigns, which, however, would lengthen the period by only 6 years, if the schemes otherwise agreed. The names or titles of the sovereigns, moreover, are for the most part the same, as will be seen in the table subjoined to this chapter. Where the length of the reigns differs, the years assigned in the Annals will generally, though not always, be found to be fewer than in the common tables. We know nothing of the authority on which the duration of the greater number of the reigns is determined in the one scheme or in the other.

The chronology of the Annals has been corrupted.

Neither the chronology of the Annals, nor that more commonly acknowledged, is supported by sufficient evidence; but it is right that I should point out here the grounds there are for believing that the numbers given in the text of the Annals have been corrupted. This corruption is two-fold.

The cycle denominations of the reigns are spurious.

First, from the commencement of Yaou's reign downwards, the 1st year of the reigns is almost always indicated by the ordinary cycle characters. These, I maintain, were added after the discovery of the tablets;— not immediately, indeed, but by a gradual process, which was not completed until the Sung dynasty. In support of this view, I allege the following considerations:—

[i.] It has been shown, on pp. 82, 83, that, before the second Han dynasty, the cycle characters were employed to chronicle days, and not years. In coming to that conclusion, Chinese scholars have not taken these Annals into account. They reach it from a study of all the ancient books known previous to the Han dynasty. The Bamboo Books turn up in the last quarter of our 3d century; and if we are to receive the cycle dates as contemporaneous with the rest of this chronicle, then all the arguments for the conclusion go for nothing. Here was a practice, exceedingly elegant and convenient for marking dates, prevalent when the Annals were composed; and yet no other instance of its use can be adduced from any of the acknowledged early Writings, while Sze-ma Ts`ëen and the other scholars, who first erected chronology in China into a science, knew nothing of it. Only an extreme credulity will admit this.

[ii.] The reader will have observed that a good many dates do not form part of the text of the Annals, but are introduced as notes. Let me refer him particularly to those on p. 120. The inference from this is, that the addition of the cycle dates was not made complete at once, and that subsequent insertions to perfect the system, after the work had become the possession of the public, were thus made in notes;—it was not possible then to enter them in the text.

[iii.] The early citations, under the Tsin dynasty and even later, of passages from the Annals, do not contain these cycle dates. This fact is decisive on the point. Upon the 1st date, that of ping-tsze, marking the 1st year of Yaou's reign, Hung E-heuen, a scholar and officer of the present dynasty, in the reigns Këa-k`ing and Taoukwang, observes:—`The various books which quote the Bamboo Annals, do so without the cycle dates. It is not till we come to the chapter on chronology in the Books of Suy that we find the 1st year of Yaou quoted as king-tsze. Subsequently [in the Sung dynasty], a comment to the "After Chronicle of the Loo Sze" quotes the year as ping-tsze,—as we find it in the present copies of the Annals.' 1

[iv.] If the Annals on their discovery had contained the cycle dates, we could not have had the errors which are found in the concluding notes to the dynasties of Hea and Shang on the length of those periods. This consideration is equally decisive on the matter in hand. Those notes were of early origin. Now, the Hea dynasty began with the year jin-tsze and ended with jin-seuh; it lasted, therefore, 6 cycles and 11 years,=431, whereas the annotator says its duration was 471 years. The Shang dynasty began with the year kwei-hae and ended with kăng-yin, comprising 8 cycles and 28 years,=508, whereas the annotator assigns to it 496 years. The error in the one case amounts to 40 years, and in the other only to 12;—if the reigns had been marked at the date of those annotations, as they are now, there could not have been any error at all. We must conclude, on all these grounds, that the cycle names, used to denominate the first years of the reigns throughout the Annals, are an addition made subsequent to the period of their discovery.

The lengths of the reigns have also been altered.

Second, there is ground for thinking that the number of years assigned to the several reigns has also been altered in some cases. There are two considerations which make this probable.

[i.] Apart from the question of the cycle dates, the annotator had only to add together the years assigned to the different sovereigns, to obtain the length of the Shang dynasty. It is difficult to suppose that he should not have executed so simple an operation correctly.

[ii.] With the Hea dynasty the case is different. The addition of all the reigns, taking in the 40 years between Sëang and Shaouk`ang, gives us only 403 years. About 40 years are dropt, being those of mourning, between the death of one sovereign and the 1st year of his successor. But now in the history of Shuh Sih, referred to on p. 106, it is stated that in the Bamboo Annals `the years of the Hea dynasty were more than those of Shang.' 2 Attention is called to the fact, as one of the peculiarities of the Annals, distinguishing them from the commonly accepted histories of those ancient times. Hăng Ch`in-fung observes upon it:—`When the history of Shuh Sih says that the dynasty of Hea was longer than Shang, whereas in our present copies Shang lasted longer than Hea, I do not know on what ground the statement rested.' 3 He might well say so. But the memoir of Shuh Sih affords us one of the most satisfactory testimonies to the discovery of the Bamboo Books, and the fullest account of the various documents comprehended under the name. The express statement to which I have called attention cannot be got rid of. And it obliges us to conclude, that not only were the cycle characters for years introduced into the Annals after their emergence from the tomb, but that the lengths of the reigns also were altered, so that the value of the chronicle, as a guide in chronology, is altogether taken away.

The Annals are more credible than the Shoo on the period of Yaou, Shun, and Yu.

The second point of difference, mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, between these Annals and other histories of China, is to my mind of much greater importance. My own researches and reflections having led me to consider most of what we read in the Shoo about the well-ordered government of Shun and the labours of Yu, as the invention of later times, intended to exalt the characters and achievements of those worthies, and place them at the head of Chinese history on a pinnacle of more than human wisdom and greatness, I am pleased with the confirmation which my views receive from the accounts in the Annals. Let the reader compare them carefully with the documents in the Shoo, and I do not think he can fail to be struck with them as I have been. There are points of agreement between the two, as could not but be the case, the authors of them both, whatever they might add of their own, drawing on the same general stock of traditions. But the details of the Annals present the men and their doings in reasonable proportions. We see in them the chiefs of a growing tribe, and not the emperors of a vast and fully organized dominion.

[i.] The labours of Yu are confined in the Annals to the regulation of the Ho. Yaou assigns to him no greater task than Sëaou-k`ang, one of his own successors, has to assign, about 100 years later, to one of the princes of Shang. The same task has often been assigned to officers in subsequent times; might very well be assigned to one in the present reign. Nothing is said of a far-extending, devastating deluge; nothing of Yu's operations on the mountains, or on the general face of the country, or on any river south of the Ho. Had it been in the accepted history of China, when these Annals were compiled, that Yu performed the more than Herculean tasks which the Shoo ascribes to him, it is unaccountable that they should not have mentioned them.

[ii.] The Shoo presents us with a picture of the government of Shun, which makes it appear to have been wonderfully complete. Not only has he Yu as his prime minister, and Kaou-yaou as minister of Crime; but he has his ministers of Instruction, Agriculture, Works, and Religion; his commissioner of Woods and Forests; his director of Music; his minister of Communication. According to the plan of the Annals, the appointment of all those ministers should have been mentioned; but the only names which they contain are those of Yu and Kaou-yaou. It is clear, that of the two-and-twenty great ministers by whom the Shun of the Shoo is surrounded, the greater number were the invention of speculators and dreamers of a later day, who, regardless of the laws of human progress, wished to place at the earliest period of their history a golden age and a magnificent empire, that should be the cynosure of men's eyes in all time.

If the space which I have given in these prolegomena to the Bamboo Annals appear excessive, the use to which I have turned them, to support the conclusions which I had been led on other grounds to form, must be my excuse. Even if it could be substantiated (which it cannot be), that the Annals were fabricated in the Tsin dynasty, the fact would remain, that their fabricator had taken a more reasonable view of the history of his country than any other of its writers has done, and indicated views, which, I venture to think, will be generally adopted by inquirers in the West. Those who come after me will probably assail the hitherto unchallenged accounts of ancient times with a bolder hand and on a more extensive scale than I have done in the present essay.


1. 洪頤烜曰, 諸書引竹書紀年,皆無甲子紀年, 惟隋書, 律歷?, 引竹書紀年,堯元年景子, 路史後紀註引帝堯元年丙子,與今本同. Quoted by Hăng Ch`in-fung on the 1st year of Yaou.

2. 夏年多殷.

3. 夏年多殷, 今本仍殷多夏, 不 知此傳何所據而云也.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia