During the reign of the Qin Dynasty (r. 221-207 BCE), censorship was imposed in China and the Qin emperors reportedly ordered destroyed numerous books and records that they did not want their subjects to read. One such work was the Shang Shu (variously translated as The Book of Documents or The Most Venerable Book), a text that comments on the earliest Chinese legends, as well as rulers and events from the ancient Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties in China. This important book was endangered by the censorship of the Qin Dynasty, as well as by the rebellions and civil war that led to the rise of the Han Dynasty (r. 206/202 BCE-220 CE). It was saved, however, by the work of at least two individuals who saved copies of the text for posterity.
The two most notable men who rescued the Shang Shu from destruction were Master Fu Shen and Kong Anguo. A later Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), applauded both of these men and recorded their stories in his Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian. Naturally, more people besides Fu Shen and Kong Anguo tried to save the Shang Shu, or to at least preserve fragments from its chapters. Fu Shen and Kong Anguo were the most successful in this task, however, and their editions of the Shang Shu became the most influential in the Han Dynasty. Here are their stories.
Master Fu Shen was a high-ranking scholar in the imperial court of the Qin Dynasty, and therefore had ample access to, and interest in, the historical texts of ancient China. When Fu Shen learned of the censorship program, he sealed up a small library of restricted and banned books into the very walls of his home. Due to political turmoil, rebellion, and civil war, he became a refugee and the texts in the walls of his house were temporarily abandoned. Fu Shen reportedly lived in exile for decades, watching the Qin Dynasty be overthrown by rebellion, followed by the fragmentation of China between former-rebel warlords, and, finally, the consolidation of a new imperial order under the Han Dynasty. After peace was restored to the land, Fu Shen returned home, only to find that time, war and weather had not been kind to the texts he had hidden in his walls. The copy of the Shang Shu that he had stored there was damaged and degraded, with many chapters lost beyond repair. When he set up shop once more as a teacher, he made copies of his Shang Shu, modernizing the surviving chapters into newly-standardized Chinese characters. His edition came to be known as the ‘New Version’ of the Shang Shu.
Kong Anguo, a philosopher and courtier active in the 2nd century BCE, found a more intact edition of the Shang Shu. Curiously, Kong Anguo was a descendant of the famous philosopher, Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE), and it was within a wall of a building that was once inhabited by this celebrated ancestor that Kong Anguo reportedly found his intriguing copy of the Shang Shu. The text was written in archaic characters, as opposed to the more modern and standardized version produced by Fu Shen. Due to the archaic style of this new edition, it came to be called the ‘Old Version.’ Although Kong Anguo’s copy of the Shang Shu was named after its archaic origins, he did ironically translate it into the modern written language used in his time.
Copies from these two versions of the Shang Shu were allowed to be recirculated through libraries in Han Dynasty China. Unfortunately, the cycle of danger for the Shang Shu would begin again with further rises and falls of dynasties. Later preservers of the Shang Shu, however, were not as successful in instilling confidence about the authenticity of their versions. Consequently, existent editions of the Shang Shu have long been riddled with questions about which chapters are legitimate, which chapters are interpretations or summaries, and which chapters are mere forgeries.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Scholar Fu Sheng Transmitting the Book of Documents, by Du Jin (c. 1465–1509), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.