How Guodian ChangesThe Laozi

Attilio Andreini, Università ca' Foscari, Venice
How Guodian Changes Our Perceptions of the Laozi
Second Conference of the European Association of Chinese Linguistics (Rome, 6 Sept 2001)


In 1993 many texts written on bamboo slips were found in a Chu Tomb dated about 300 B.C. at Guodian, Hubei. The discovery of the Guodian material adds new elements on the origin of the Laozi and the line of its textual transmission. In addition to the so called "Guodian Laozi parallels" (three distinct sections which amounts to 2/5 of Wang Bi's textus receptus), the archeologists brought to light a set of Confucian manuscripts of startling importance, documents unknown before the exacavation.

A comparison of the manuscripts and received versions of ancient texts shows that the variants fall into two main categories: orthographic variants and lexical variants. According to the Guodian Laozi parallels, in few occasions the distinction between the two categories is not so clear, as in the line corresponding to the opening of Laozi XLI, where the manuscript reads neng instead of er. Apparently we are in front of a lexical variant, but the relationship between the two characters is more complicated and will be the object of our investigation.

Some variants in the Guodian Laozi parallels have enormous implications on the understanding of the philosophical message of the work. For example, in the opening section the bamboo text diverges from the Wang Bi's line "Eliminate humanity (ren), get rid of righteousness (yi)" (Laozi XIX) and presents two unattested graphs in place of ren and yi. As many scholars already noticed, the absence of explict attacks to the Confucian values is one of the peculiar aspects of the Guodian Laozi parallels. This tendency seems to be confirmed by the different reading of the line "When the Great Dao is rejected, humanity and righteousness appear" (Laozi XVII): the bamboo text adds (like the two silk manuscripts of the Laozi from the Mawangdui tomb) the character an, which could be read as a conjunction ("then"), or as an interrogative substitute ("Where? How? When?"). It is obvious that different interpretations of an can support or condemn the use of ren and yi as methods to recover the Great Dao. Many of the doctrinal obscurities are also due to the uncertain graphs used in the manuscript. Examples will be shown of conversions of unattested or rare, unorthodox characters which lead to new readings of some crucial passages of the text.


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8 Sept 2003 / Contact The Project / Conferences Page