Among slips excavated from the frontier regions of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) those unearthed from Edsen-gol are made of raw wood materials, mostly Euphrates poplar, salt cedar, and pines, with a small number being bamboo. Based on their form and function, they were crafted into various types: zha (slips), lianghang (double-column slips), du (tablets), jie (tags), jian (sealing strips), and gu (polyhedral tablets). Considering that the number of characters that can be included on a single slip is rather limited, multiple slips would be bound together into a scroll or bound volume to make a more complete text. The majority of Han slips were thus used and stored as bound volumes. Due to the incessant accumulation of slips, however, those responsible for their storage often faced space, management, and other related issues, and were inevitably to periodically destroy them. For the frontier regions more specifically, in an effort to fully utilize the resources at their disposal, slips were often reused or adapted for other uses.
At the time of discovery, the Han wooden slips from Edsen-gol were mostly scattered single slips as the bindings had rotten away and come undone or because the slips themselves had been ruined, altered, or repurposed. But only complete volumes can further our understandings of Han politics, military affairs, law, education, economics, and quotidian life. Their excavation and the later publishing of their images, soon attracted scholars’ interests. They dedicated themselves to the restoration of these ancient texts, thereby shedding a new light on the Han official documents and related institutions.
This exhibition explores the life cycle of slips in the frontier regions of Han by examining their materials, writings, and reutilized. In addition, based on the latest research, the exhibition selects the most representative bound volumes of slips to showcase the results of restoration efforts concerning the collation of the Han slips from Edsen-gol. Even more specifically, exhibition contents revolve around the following themes: materials, forms, volume and weight of slips; the writing, binding, storage and preservation of bound volumes; restoration of the Han Dynasty Wooden Slips from Edsen-gol; the destroying and reutilization of slips and the application of digital humanities tools in the restoration of bound volumes.
Photo courtesy of Hsing I-tien
1. Materials and Forms of Slips
Among slips excavated from the frontier regions of the Han dynasty those unearthed from Edsen-gol are made of raw wood materials, mostly Euphrates poplar, salt cedar, and pines, with a small number being bamboo. Based on their form and function, they were crafted into various types: zha (slips), lianghang (double-column slips), du (tablets), jie (tags), jian (sealing strips), and gu (polyhedral tablets).
2.Volume and Weight of Slips
During the Han dynasty, slips were the primary medium for writing, yet paper was mostly used as a wrapping rather than for writing. The volume and weight of each slip are directly related to its document form as well as matters concerning storage and management. Based on measurements taken of the Han slips from Edsen-gol held by the IHP, scholar Hsing I-tien has estimated that Shiji (Records of the grand historian), which was written on wooden slips, would approximately be 284,310 cubic centimeters and weigh 48.1 kilograms.
3.The Writing and Binding of Slips into Volumes
The writing implements used during the Han dynasty mainly consist of writing brushes, ink pellets, inkstones, slips, binding cords, and slip blades, which are excavated from many archaeological sites and can be seen in Han stone carvings. The latter, in particular, offer a glimpse into the way of writing: a writing brush was held in one hand to write on the slip held in the other hand, and for comfort and convenience, one would likely lean or prostrate over a low table. The majority of Han bound volumes were tied by hemp cords, which could be first written and then bound or vice versa. If first written, sometimes so-called “marked slips” and ink lines on the front or side of the slips were used as points of reference for the cords and aligning the text.
4.Storage and Preservation of Bound Volumes
According to records, some bound volumes were held in shunang (bags) or shuqie (cases). On the basis of excavated artifacts, bound volumes were placed in zhusi (woven bamboo containers) for the purpose of store or delivery. For example, bamboo slips unearthed from tomb M12 at the Hujia caochang archaeological site in Jingzhou, Hubei, were held in a zhusi; and a zhusi discovered at the Mawangdui site in Changsha, Hunan, was bound with cords and a sealing strip along with a tag which detailed its contents. Broadly speaking, bound volumes were preserved rolled up with an attached tag that included the name of the work or were sealed with a strip. They were then usually stored in a cabinet or hung on the wall, the latter can be found in Han dynasty pictorial resources.
5.An Example of Restoring Bound Volume: the Imperial Edict of 61 B.C.
The restoration of bound slips is mainly based on handwriting, format, and contents, excavation site, type of document, size, material, and approaching of Han institutions. Handwriting is the key in judging which slips should be grouped together, a connection which is undoubtedly strengthened if their format and contents share similarities. The restoration of “Yuankang wu nian zhaoshu” (Imperial edict of 61 B.C), for example, was started by researchers Yü Shün and Lao Kan and later completed by Japanese scholar Ōba Osamu. Noticing that two slips were written in the same format, Ōba focused on other slips unearthed from the same location and compared forms and styles through his understating of official documents. He was able to rejoin the original appearance of an imperial edict which could only be learned from historical records and stone inscriptions.
6.Restoration of the Han Dynasty Wooden Slips from Edsen-gol
The research undertaken by IHP researcher Lao Kan and his publications, namely Juyan Hanjian kaoshi: shiwen zhi bu (Documents of the Han dynasty on wooden slips from Edsin Gol [sic]: Transliterations and commentaries) and Juyan Hanjian: tuban zhi bu (Documents of the Han dynasty on wooden slips from Edsin Gol [sic]: Plates), have influenced later scholarship profoundly, impacting scholars across the globe, including Shikazō Mori, Michael Loewe, Nagata Hidemasa, Ōba Osamu, and others, as well as furthering interest into the restoration of slips. Following the new discovery of more wooden slips from Edsen-gol in the 1970s, recent research has focused on drawing connections between the old and new slips, exemplified by researcher Xie Guihua’s efforts in rejoining slips to restore their original bound volumes. Through decades of arduous work, the foundations for the restorations have been laid and have resulted in numerous achievements. In the section, twenty restored volumes are present to pay tribute to these pioneering scholars.
7.Example of the Application of Digital Humanities Tools in Slips Restoration
In recent decades, scholars have been establishing correlations between wooden slips through contents, archeological sites, document types, handwritings, and other factors (see figure 1). But today, with digital humanities tools scholars may find ways to accelerate the slips rejoining and volumes restoration. Taking “Fragments of a Post Register” as an example, the text comparison tool on “Digital Analysis System for Humanities”, developed by the Academia Sinica Center for Digital Cultures, was employed to filter through the contents of wooden slips discovered at the same excavation location (A35 Taralingin-durbeljin), thereby improving manual collation that can be prone to omissions (see figure 2). In addition, “Wooden Slips Character Dictionary” supports functionality that allows researchers to view full images and details of slips and compare them (see figure 3). Through the above process, it was found that slip nos. 495.2 and 505.6, whose contents are related, share similarities in regards to strokes and can thus be placed together.
8.Destruction and Reutilization of Slips
Official documents would be regularly destroyed in the Han dynasty. If slips and volumes were allowed to accumulate over time, their bulky size and weight would inevitably lead to problems such as a lack of storage space. Moreover, in the frontier regions of the Han, wooden slips were often pared and reused or repurposed in an effort to make full use of the resources. For example, some were reutilized for writing practice, toilet wiping, (in the case of one unearthed from Mahuanwan in Dunhuang, Gansu) hunting tools, as well as other objects of unknown use. Many others show burnt traces, indicating that they were likely used as firewood. Moreover, large numbers of slips have been found in wells or garbage heaps—official documents simply been dumped.