An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年, the Bamboo Annals

Jul 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年 "Bamboo Annals" is a chronicle from ancient China compiled in the regional state of Wei 魏 during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). The name of the book is of later date. It was formerly known as Jizhongshu 汲冢書 "Book from the tomb of Ji[xian] 汲[縣]" because in 281 CE (or around that date) grave robbers digging out an ancient tomb found bamboo slips which they used as fuel. Only after a great part of the slips was already destroyed the writings inscribed on the slips attracted the attention of an official.

The annals of Wei were relatively intact, so that Emperor Wu 晉武帝 (r. 265–289) of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) had them arranged in the proper order and transcribed into contemporary script. This work was done by Xun Xu 荀勗 (d. 289) and He Qiao 和嶠 (dates not clear).

The Bamboo Annals describe the history of the Chinese dynasties from the Xia 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE), Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) down to the Warring States period. From the year 770 on, the beginning of the Eastern Zhou, the Annals use the calendar of the state of Jin 晉, and after Jin was divided into the three states of Zhao 趙, Wei and Han 韓 in 376, the calendar of Wei. The annals end in the year 20 of the "present king" (jin wang 今王), which Xun Xu identified with King Xiangwang 魏襄王 (r. 334–319 BCE).

According to this interpretation he undertook a correction of the dates rendered in the history Shiji 史記 and the Shiben 世本, a chronicle from the state of Zhao. Two other contemporary scholars, Wei Heng 衛恒 (d. 291 CE) and Shu Xi 束晳 (fl. 300 CE), carried out a text-critical study of the surviving bamboo texts, called Jizhong shuchao 汲冢書抄, which seemed to prove that the annals were compiled during the reign of King Anxi 魏安釐王 (r. 276–243 CE).

Their arrangement was different from the Xun-He version so that for centuries, two versions of the Bamboo Annals were circulating. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) there was a small book called Zhushu guo yi 竹書國異 pointing out the differences between the two versions. It is unfortunately lost. According to modern research the tomb, in which the annals were excavated, was not that of a king but only that of a higher official, probably a historiographer.

The existence of the Bamboo Annals is of great importance for the study of ancient Chinese chronology. Quite a number of data in the traditionally highly estimated Shiji have been proved as wrong when comparing the data in the Zhushu jinian with that of oracle bone or bronze inscriptions.

The old version (guben 古本) of the Zhushu jinian went lost during the turbulences of the later part of the Jin period, and what was surviving as manuscripts, was lost during the Tang. Parts of it can, nevertheless, be reconstructed from quotations in other books. In the 14th century a new version (jinben 今本) was printed, in which the chronology is oriented towards the calendar of the Zhou kings. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) historian Qian Daxin 錢大昕 called this version a forgery. It was, according to Yao Zhenzong's 姚振宗 (1842–1906) research, fabricated by Fan Qin 范欽 (1506–1585), owner of the famous Tianyige Library 天一閣. But these statements can be countered by the fact that a Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) book quotes from the jinben version, which proves that it existed long before the lifetime of Fan Qin, the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644).

In the early 19th century Zhu Youceng 朱右曾 (jinshi degree 1838) started collecting quotations from the Zhushu jinian in older books and was thus able to reconstruct part of the Guben Zhushu jinian, which he published in his book Jizhong jinian cunzhen 汲冢紀年存真. Wang Guowei 王國維 (Guben Zhushu jinian jixiao 古本竹書紀年輯校) and Fan Xiangyong 范祥雍 (Guben Zhushu jinian jixiao dingbu 古本竹書紀年輯校訂補) continued this important work. New studies were made by Fang Shiming 方詩銘 and Wang Xiuling 王修齡. Together with Wang Guowei's study on the new version (Jinben Zhushu jinian shuzheng 今本竹書紀年疏證), they published the Guben Zhushu jinian jizheng 古本竹書紀年輯證 in 1981 (latest edition 2005).

The Bamboo Annals were translated by James Legge and are included as appendix to his book The Chinese Classics in Five Volumes, Vol. 3, The Shoo King (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press 1960).

The text of the Bamboo Annals can be found in the series Congshu jicheng chubian 叢書集成初編, Guang Han-Wei congshu 廣漢魏叢書, Gujin yishi 古今逸史, Hanxuetang congshu 漢學堂叢書, Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書, Sibu beiyao 四部備要, Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書.

Nivison, David S. (1993). "Chu shu chi nien", in Michael Loewe, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China/Institute of East Asian Studies), 39-47.
Nivison, David S. (2009). The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals (Taibei: Airti).
Fang Shiming 方詩銘 (1992). "Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1614.