Scholars Discuss New Version Of An Ancient Chinese Text

May 08, 1998

A group of international scholars will meet at Dartmouth College May 22-26 to discuss a newly unveiled archeological treasure: the oldest known version of the Laozi (better known as the Tao-te ching). Dating from at least 2,350 years ago, this document adds important evidence to the age-old debate about who actually wrote the Laozi, a key work of Chinese philosophy and one of humankind's most widely read texts.

The version was discovered in 1993 in an ancient tomb near Guodian, in the Central Chinese province of Hubei, one of a cache of 16 texts written on bamboo slips that were tied in a bundle. Most of the others appear to relate to Confucianism ? a rival philosophic school to Daoism, the philosophy based on the Laozi.

"They're the Chinese equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls," said conference co-organizer Sarah Allan, Dartmouth's Burlington Northern Foundation Professor of Chinese Studies. "Just as the Dead Sea Scrolls have shed new light on the formation of the early Christian and Jewish traditions, these texts will shed new light on the formation of the early Daoist and Confucian traditions and the relationship between them."

Organized by Allan and Dartmouth Professor of Religion Robert Henricks, the Dartmouth conference will bring together 30 scholars, including two of the archeologists who excavated the Guodian site and experts on Chinese antiquity from China, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and North America.

The conference's first four days will consist of closed-door sessions conducted mainly in Chinese. On May 26, at 10 a.m., the public and press are invited to an information session in Dartmouth's Alumni Hall at which conference organizers and visiting scholars will summarize the previous days' discussions and answer questions. [Note to editors: Individual scholars may be interviewed afterward. Appointments are advised.

Although discovered five years ago, the Guodian texts were kept under wraps by Chinese authorities to allow them to time to publish a modern-Chinese transcription, which is being released to the public this month. The Dartmouth scholars were given advanced copies of the book, which also contains photographs of the slips. The slips themselves will stay in China.

Consisting of 81 chapters of four to 24 lines in length, the Laozi has been translated more than any text other than the Bible, including 100 English translations. In China, it has been read by almost every educated Chinese person through the centuries and is frequently memorized. To followers of Daoism, a 1,800 year-old religion with an estimated 20 million adherents worldwide, it is a sacred text.

Tradition holds that the Laozi was written by a single author who was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), but others argue that it is written by a series of authors over several centuries, well after Confucius.

Until 25 years ago, the oldest extant versions of the Laozi were only 1,000 years old. Then, in 1973, two copies of the text were discovered in a tomb in Mawangdui, Hunan Province, dating from circa 200 B.C. These versions largely resembled known versions ? indicating that the Laozi existed in its current form at least as early as the third century, B.C.

The Guodian Laozi, on the other hand, contains material from only 32 of the 81 chapters in later version, assembled in a very different order. "This might suggest that it was the source of the present text, rather than an early edition," said Allan. "Or, it might be someone's jottings based on a fuller version. And why has the Laozi been buried together with other texts, apparently from the Confucian tradition? These are things we expect to be arguing through."

Allan taught for more than 20 years at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies before coming to Dartmouth in 1995. Her publications include The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue (SUNY Press, June 1997), about the root metaphors of early Chinese philosophical thought. She also edited and wrote an introduction for an English translation of the Mawangdui Laozi by D.C. Lau (Everyman's Library, 1994).

Henricks is the author of a translation of the Mawangdui text, The Lao-tzu De-dao-ching, (Modern Library, 1993)and also is editor for Ballantine Books' Classics of Ancient China series, which is dedicated to the publication of translations of newly found texts.

The conference is being funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, with additional support provided by Dartmouth's dean of the faculty and Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Dartmouth College

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