Mawangdui Silk Texts

Mawangdui Silk Texts

The Mawangdui Silk Texts (Chinese: 馬王堆帛書; pinyin: Mǎwángduī Bóshū) are texts of Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk and found at Mawangdui in China in 1973. They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the I Ching, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one similar copy of Zhan Guo Ce, and a similar school of works of Gan De and Shi Shen, as well as previously unknown medical texts like Wushi'er Bingfang ("Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments"). Scholars arranged them into silk books of 28 kinds. Together they count to about 120,000 words covering military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts of ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic.[1]


  • Overview of the texts 1
  • Tao Te Ching 2
  • Translations 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5

Overview of the texts

Part of a silk manuscript from Mawangdui, 2nd century BC.

The Mawangdui Silk Texts were buried in Tomb no. 3 at Mawangdui, which was sealed in 168 BC, and lay hidden in Changsha, Hunan for over 2000 years. Some texts were only previously known by title; some are previously unknown commentaries on the I Ching attributed to Confucius. In general, they follow the same sequence as the various received versions – versions that have been passed down by copying and recopying from generation to generation from texts collected and collated during the 5th century. However, they are, in some important respects, notably different from the sundry received texts known before their discovery.

The Chinese characters found in the silk texts are often only fragments of the characters used in the later versions that tradition has handed down. Many Chinese characters are formed by combining two simpler Chinese characters, one to indicate a general category of meaning, and one to give an indication of pronunciation. Where the traditional texts have both components, the silk texts frequently give only the phonetic half of the intended character. There are several hypotheses that might explain this fact:

  • The copyist may have been simply too lazy to write the full form of many of the characters.
  • Perhaps the earlier of the two silk texts (or maybe the text that it was copied from) was simply the result of someone taking dictation in the fastest way that s/he could write. The scribe wrote down the part of each character that indicates its pronunciation with the idea that s/he could later recopy the text with the appropriate meaning components for those abbreviated characters.
  • In English, the word "dog" can have two apparently unrelated meanings: "a kind of carnivorous mammal" or "to pursue with unflagging patience." We hardly ever bother to write something like "dog (the mammal)", even when we write something like, "The feral dog dogged the human invaders of its territory until they eventually left the area." Perhaps the same kind of thing was going on in these ancient writings, and people felt that they did not need to add a meaning component to these characters to make their meaning clear.
  • Or, it could be a jargon system. Similar writings (of partial characters) can be found in ancient Chinese music (e.g., pipa, guqin and guzheng) scores. Partial characters (and their derivations) also provide building blocks for the writing systems of some historical (e.g., Khitan and Tangut) languages and modern (e.g., Japanese) languages.

In addition to the "partial" characters mentioned above, the two-silk-text-characters sometimes use characters that are different from the ones present in the texts that have come down to us through consecutive publications of the later version of the 'named work'. In cases where different traditional versions of the text have characters with different meanings at the same point in the text, the newly found text can sometimes give us additional evidence. Suppose that we had two received texts, and one said: "She flowered the table," but the other text said: "She floured the table." Did she sprinkle flowers on the table? Or did she sprinkle flour on the table? If a "silk" text were to be discovered, it might say: "She powdered the table," or it might say, "She blossomed the table." The students of this text would now have an independent opinion, from much nearer in the history of this book, as to what the original meaning was.

Tao Te Ching

Most of the time the received versions of the Tao Te Ching are in substantial agreement with each other, and most of the time the text is simple and straightforward. Occasionally, however, two received versions will write homonyms with entirely different meanings at some point in a chapter. In such cases, much help can be received from a silk text that gives a third character that has a different pronunciation but is a synonym for one of the two in the received text.

In recent years several scholars have made new translations of the Tao Te Ching that are based on the silk text and ignore the received texts entirely or almost entirely. These include works by D. C. Lau, and by Robert G. Henricks. Henricks' translation does compare received versions of the Tao Te Ching with the text found in the tomb.

In 1990, the noted sinologist Victor H. Mair translated the Ma-wang-tui version as he considered this earliest known version (by 500 years) to be far more authentic than the most commonly translated texts. The two silk books are part of the Cultural Relics from the Mawangdui Tombs collection at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

The Hunan Provincial Museum notes, "This is called Version A of Book on Silk “Lao Zi”, because it was copied out in classical official script. The silk is partially damaged, with many Chinese characters missing. The book, together with “The Yellow Emperor’s Four Canons” in four chapters following it, was written on half a breadth of silk. The extant version has 464 lines and more than 13,000 Chinese characters. The book bears no chapter division, with “The Book of De” preceding “The Book of Dao”. As this version makes no avoidance of the taboo of mentioning the name of Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, the time of copying this book should be before the death of the Han founding emperor. Therefore, this is the earliest hand-copied version of “Lao Zi” and will greatly help us to see the authentic version of “Lao Zi” in the early Han Dynasty. Its discovery not only has important value for the collation of existing version of “Lao Zi” but also has provided the earliest and most reliable basis for further studying the thoughts of “Lao Zi”. In August 1991, Fu Juyou, Gao Zhishsan and other experts determined it as a first-class national cultural relic. It is currently in the collection of Hunan Provincial Museum."

The museum continues, "This book on silk was discovered in the lower layer of an oblong lacquer cosmetic box found in the eastern case of the Tomb 3. It was copied onto a breadth of wide silk together with four ancient canons. As it was folded up, the book broke into 32 pieces when discovered. There are altogether 160,000 Chinese characters in 152 lines, written with brush and ink. The book was copied in very neat early official script, making it a precious material for studying the change of the Chinese character and the art of calligraphy. As this version avoid the taboo of mentioning the name of Liu Bang but does not avoid mentioning the name of Liu Hui, Emperor Huidi, the time of its being copied should be during the reign of Emperor Huidi or Empress Lu. This version has “The Book of De” preceding “The Book of Dao”. “Lao Zi” is the most important document of China’s Daoism. The discovery of this 2000-year-old Version B of “Lao Zi” is of great value to the collation of the chapter sequence of existing versions of “Lao Zi”. It has also provided new resources for studying the ideology of Daoism and the spread of Daoism in the Han Dynasty. This version has no division of chapters and the sequence of chapters is exactly the same as Version A, with only some minor differences. Compared with traditional versions of “Lao Zi”, this silk version shows clearer ideas and richer contents."


  • Heluo Tushu Chubanshe (1975). Boshu Laozi. Taipei: Heluo Tushu Chubanshe. 
  • Yen Ling-feng (1976). Mawangdui Boshu Laozi Shitan. Taipei. 
  • D. C. Lau (1982). Tao te ching. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.  
  • Robert G. Henricks (1989). Lao-tzu : Te-tao ching. New York: Ballantine Books.  
  • Edward L. Shaughnessy (1997). I Ching = The classic of changes, the first English translation of the newly discovered Mawangdui texts of I Ching. New York: Ballantine Books.  

See also


  1. ^ (6 June 2003)China Through a Lens'The Age of the Bamboo Slip', . Retrieved 4 October 2006.