UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Rongchengshi 容成氏 Hamm, Matthew


The Rongchengshi 容成氏 is a bamboo text of fifty-three strips, making it one of the longest Chu-script manuscripts yet discovered. Unfortunately, some of the strips are damaged and at least one strip is missing from both the beginning and end of the manuscript. While it has some parallels with the received tradition, the text has no exact counterpart and was thus previously unknown to scholars before its discovery. It was part of a collection of such texts purchased by the Shanghai Museum in three batches in Hong Kong in 1993. The texts were looted from a tomb by grave robbers and their exact provenance is thus unknown. Similarities with the collection of texts excavated near the village of Guodian 郭店in Hubei province in 1993, suggest that the Shanghai texts may have come from Guojiagang 郭家崗 Tomb One near the village of Guodian, though there is no way to confirm this. The Shanghai texts likely date from around the same period as the Guodian texts (between 300 BCE to 278) and the text of the Rongchengshi itself was likely written at the end of the 4th century BCE, a point indicated by its resemblance to ideas of the late 4th and early 3rd centuries. The text is a work of political philosophy that articulates its argument through an historical narrative that stretches from high antiquity to the beginning of the Zhou 周 dynasty. It is the only pre-Han 漢 dynasty work to offer such a narrative. Moreover, it is also unique among pre-Han works in attributing the practice of abdication to rulers of high antiquity. Other unusual features of the text include the fact that it advocates a utopian vision in which all people are employed according to their abilities and that it presents a devolutionary reading of history in which society gradually declines from high antiquity through subsequent ages. The goal of the text is to advocate for a political system that will follow the features described above and in which a meritorious ruler will use lenient and frugal rule to achieve harmony with heaven and earth. The latter point is particularly important as it indicates a shift away from a prioritization of the mandate of Heaven (the idea that Heaven sanctions the ruling lineage) to a prioritization of harmony with heaven and earth. Because of its devolutionary scheme, however, the text does not advocate abdication but suggests that, within the benighted conditions of the contemporary age of the Warring States, rulers should achieve power by garnering the allegiance of the common people. A final important feature of the text is the unusual list of sages that it presents in its opening strips (the text’s title is based on the fact that the first of its listed sage-rulers is named Rongchengshi). While the text’s list has some parallels with other works, it is not an exact match. The names of many of the sages in the text’s sequence, along with other features of the work, suggest that it may be more representative of the regional culture of the state Chu 楚 than the common elite culture that Chu shared with the other states of the North China plains.

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