The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

December 7, 2004

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 7 Dec 2004 10:32:54 +0900
From: Todd Cameron Thacker <>
Subject: [confucius-list] Scholar interpreting ancient Chinese text

December 6, 2004

Scholar interpreting ancient Chinese text

GRINNELL, Iowa (AP) - Working among scholars from the likes of
Harvard, UCLA and Yale, Grinnell College professor Scott Cook helps to
interpret the earliest known versions of some of China's most
important philosophical texts.

Cook is one of only a handful of Western scholars to be given access
to the fragile strips of bamboo, unearthed in 1993 from a tomb that
dates back to 300 B.C.

"We've seen a number of tombs that had texts buried within them, but
this is the first time we've had philosophical texts," Cook said.

The mostly Confucian texts have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls
in their historical and philosophical significance, and their
discovery has brought together scholars from both mainland China and
Taiwan, as well as Ivy League schools in the United States and even
Grinnell, a small school of 1,500 students about 60 miles from Des

"We're trying to train people to be leaders in the nation and in the
world," said Jim Swartz, vice president for academic affairs and dean
of the college at Grinnell. "When we have faculty on the cutting edge
of their field, it's an example of what we want our students to seek."

A trip to Taiwan sparked Cook's interest in China. He got a doctorate
in Chinese studies at Michigan after earning undergraduate and
graduate degrees in music.

While in China in the late 1990s, Cook made contact with some scholars
studying the texts and later was invited to conferences on the

He wrote his first article on the texts in 1999, a year after the
initial findings were published in China, and has been involved ever

Experts believe the texts were written in the first generation after
the death of Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.

Writing on bamboo was common in early China. The 800 strips found in
the tomb are slightly wider than a pencil and range from 6 inches to
more than a foot in length. They contain roughly 10,000 Chinese

The tomb was near a river in Guodian, in east-central China, close to
an earth and thatch farmhouse. The area gets a lot of rain and the wet
conditions, rather than eroding the bamboo, helped preserve it.

"The tomb already had been looted," Cook said. "Apparently, they
didn't touch the texts, not knowing how valuable they were."

The texts, stored in Chinese museums, have given scholars a greater
understanding of how Confucian philosophy evolved in the centuries
just before and after the birth of Christ. About a tenth of the texts
stem from the writings of a philosopher named Laozi, who lived in the
sixth century B.C. The rest were written by Confucian disciples,
according to scholars.

The challenge has been determining exactly what they say. While the
characters are remarkably clear after 2,300 years, their meanings and
sounds have changed through the centuries. Also, Cook said, some
characters may have been substituted for others.

Cook uses the example of an old edition of a play that contains the
line: "She loves you, she wants to marry you."

"Now imagine that was written in a different way," he said. "She wants
to marry you - it could mean she lacks two happy sheep." In other
words, "She wants two merry ewe."

Then there's the matter of putting the strips in order. They once were
held together by strings, the markings of which are still visible, but
those strings have disintegrated.

"A number of them, you know from parallel lines that the thought at
the end of this strip is completed by the one in the next," Cook said.
"But then all of a sudden, you get a place where you really can't tell
which strip it might have been connected to or even if there's a
missing strip."

The reward comes when, after long hours of study, the message becomes clear.

"When you connect this strip to that strip and nobody else has made
that connection, or you see a way of reading this line that makes
sense within the context and . . . can be verified as probable - to
have everything fit together like that, yes, it's real nice to
accomplish that," Cook said.

Cook returned to Grinnell in August after a year in China as a
Fulbright scholar. Next year he'll have a fellowship to work with
other scholars at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.

"The fact that he has been published and won fellowships shows that
his peers who really know the field are saying this is fabulous work,"
Swartz said.

Cook is working on a book that he said will be the first comprehensive
study of the entire collection of texts. He hopes to finish it next
summer but knows it won't be the final word.

"From all the problems that are involved in just trying to organize
the texts and come up with a definitive reading of them and unlocking
all the implications it has for understanding the early history of
Confucianism and the early history of texts, there's just so many
implications," Cook said. "So they're going to remain important for
quite some time."

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Dear Colleagues

Further to the session on UK e-Social Science at the e-Social Science
Symposium in Canberra, I am pleased to announce that the call for papers
for the First International Conference in e-Social Science has been

Organised by the ESRC National Centre for e-Social Science (Research
Director, Prof. Rob Procter), the conference will examine the
opportunities presented by the Grid for social science research.  We
invite contributions from members of the social science and Grid
research communities with experience of - or interests in - exploring,
developing and applying e-social science research methods, practices,
tools and technologies.  More information regarding the conference
including conference themes can be found on our website
( <> ).

If you would like to be kept up to date with NCeSS activities and
additions to our web site (such as teaching and learning materials) we
have an email news list through which you will receive a monthly up date
from the centre.  You can subscribe to the news list at

If you have any questions regarding NCeSS or the e-social science agenda
in the UK, please feel free to contact me.

Best wishes

Gillian Sinclair

Dr Gillian Sinclair

Programme Manager

ESRC National Centre for e-Social Science (NCeSS)

University of Manchester

Dover Street Building

Dover Street



M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 1380



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