The remains of a house (N.XIV.) dating to the 2nd-4th century AD at the oasis settlement of Cadota (Niya) in the southern Taklamakan. The wooden gift tags described below were discovered here. (Stein is shown mapping the site on his plane table.) January 1931. Photo 392/34(155)
Wood and bamboo were widely used for Chinese texts during the late first millennium BC. Fashioned into narrow slips bearing one or more columns of text, they were joined together with string to form a ‘page’ and then rolled for storage. The strings have mainly disintegrated, leaving a puzzle for scholars to reconstruct the texts from the mixed-up wood slips.
Thousands of slips have been found in tombs in Central China and archaeological ruins on the Chinese northwestern frontier. Wood continued to be used in the first millennium AD in these desert outposts even after the invention of paper.
A Calendar. Ink on wood, 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. Dunhuang, China 日历。木简，公元前1世纪至公元2世纪。中国敦煌 Or.8211/697
The form of Chinese characters — the ‘spelling’ — was standardized in the 3rd century BC and the same standard has been used to the present day (although with different styles of handwriting — different ‘scripts’). However, the form deriving from that used on the oracle bones continued to be used alongside this standard, most especially on seals. It is here shown on part of a calendar inscribed on this unusually shaped piece of wood. This, and the other woodslips shown here, were discovered in ancient military fortifications which guarded the northwest frontier of China with the Silk Road.
Writing Exercise. Ink on wood, AD 14-19. Dunhuang, China 书写练习。木简，公元14至19年。中国敦煌 Or.8211/372
This is written in the standard script from the 3rd century BC which is still used in China. But the style of handwriting in this period is distinctive, with downward diagonal strokes that are thicker at the bottom right. It is clearly shown on this woodslip which contains a writing exercise. The words being practised include 大 (big), 人 (man) and 天 (heaven). A date, corresponding to AD 14-19, is given in the four characters near the bottom.
Medical Prescriptions for People and Horses. Ink on bamboo, 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. Dunhuang, China 为人和马开具的医疗处方。竹简，公元前1世纪至公元2世纪。中国敦煌 Or.8211/524, Or.8211/525, Or.8211/526
These slips contain medical prescriptions and were all found in a Chinese military station north of the frontier town of Dunhuang in the Gobi desert. They are written on bamboo which, although commonly used in Central China, was not locally available on this northwestern borde. It must have been carried in, probably from southwest China.
One prescription is to treat ‘a persistent cough, nausea in the chest, aching joints and long-standing constipation’ and contains pepper, ginger and cinnamon. Some of the prescriptions are for horses, including those that are wounded or suffering from the heat.
These wooden tags, discovered buried in sand in the hallway of a large ruined house, were used to label gifts of jade presented to the royal family of the kingdom of Jingjue or Cadota in the southern Taklamakan Desert. The front gives details of the gift: ‘Your subject Chengde bows his head to the ground and sincerely presents this rose coloured stone and bows twice in greeting’. The back gives the name of the recipient: ‘the great king’, ‘Princess Chun’, ‘The Royal Wife from Qiemo.’ No jade was found at the long-deserted site: the slips had been left there and survived by being covered by the desert sands.
A Woodslip Book. Ink on wood with string, 2004 编简成册。木简，细绳，2004年 ORB.MISC.25
This is a modern reproduction of a Chinese woodslip book showing how the slips were fastened together to form a ‘page’. The notches for the string ties can be seen on the original woodslips, shown alongside.
The original woodslips shown here were found in oasis towns and desert fortifications on the Chinese part of the Silk Road. Most of them are probably written on poplar wood which was plentiful in the irrigated settlements. The remains of two thousand year old dessicated trees can still be seen in these long-deserted sites.
These slips, which contain an almanac or calendar for the year 59 BC, would originally have been joined together to form a ‘page’. The notches used to hold the string ties can still be seen – two on the right hand edge of each slip. The characters at the top give the day – ‘eighth day’ 八日, eleventh day’ 十一日etc. Because the form or spelling of Chinese characters was standardized in the third century BC and retained to the present-day, anyone knowing modern Chinese would recognize these characters.
The manuscripts displayed here were all discovered in a Library Cave at the Buddhist cave temple site at Mogao, near Dunhuang. The entrance to the Library Cave can be seen on the right of the corridor of Cave 16, shown here. Photo 392/59(1)
Silk, which has been cultivated in China for over 5,000 years, was used as a writing material in the first millennium BC. Like wood, its use continued even after the invention of paper. Because it was expensive, it was used for special texts, such as the fragment of the Buddhist sutra shown here. While paper became the most common writing material, silk continued to be used in book production, for scroll ties, scroll wrappers, and book covers.
Buddhist Sutra on Silk. Ink on silk, 6th century 丝绸上的佛经。绢本，公元6世纪 Or.8210/S.5719
Silk has been used as a medium for writing from the first millennium BC in China, but it was largely replaced by paper from the first few centuries AD as paper was cheaper. However, silk continued to be used for some special and expensive texts: a second century book is described as written on white silk ruled with red columns and wrapped in blue silk with the title in red. The piece shown here is fragment of a Buddhist sutra and was originally part of a longer scroll, like the ones on paper.
Silk continued to be used in book production in China even after the invention of paper, most especially for the braids used to tie the scrolls. These scrolls would have been expensive to produce. The paper was probably made in Central China, dyed with a yellow dye called huangbo containing berberine, which has insecticidal and water-repellant properties. A professional scribe would have copied the text, Buddhist sacred texts or sutras. The person sponsoring the production often had a note added to the end giving the date and the recipient of the merit gained from replicating the words of the Buddha.
Calligraphic Model after Wang Xizhi. Ink on paper, 7th to 9th centuries 王羲之书法摹本。纸本，公元7至9世纪 Or.8210/S.3753
In addition to its practical use, writing in Chinese was considered as art with the most famous calligraphers valued more highly than other artists. This piece is a model or copy based on the cursive calligraphy of one such master, Wang Xizhi (303-361): none of his original work survives. Good copies were believed to capture the ‘spirit resonance’ of the master’s work and were highly valued in themselves. It is written on pink dyed paper.
The Chinese character used on the panels at the exhibit at the British Library is the character for silk 絹. It is taken from a medical manuscript from Dunhuang, probably dating to the 10th century. The British Library, Or.8210/S.76.