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Notes on the Authenticity of the so Tan Manuscript of the LAO-TZU

  • William G. Boltz (a1)


Among the numerous extant manuscripts of the Lao-tzu, Tao te ching perhaps the best known, apart from the famous Ma wang tui manuscripts discovered in Hunan province in 1973 and the Hsiang erh chu manuscript from Tun Huang (important primarily for its commentary), is the long fragment known as the So Tan manuscript, currently in the private collection of Mr. John B. Elliott and through his generosity on extended loan to the University Art Museum at Princeton. The manuscript is said to have been a part of the Tun Huang finds of the turn of the century. It appears to be one of the few of those manuscripts that remained in China after its discovery rather than immediately finding its way to France, England, or some other Western country. It moved from private collector to private collector, from Peking to Hong Kong to Japan and back again, only becoming a part of the John B. Elliott collection relatively recently.



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1 For the Ma wang tui manuscripts of the Lao-tzu see Boltz, William G., ‘Lao tzu Tao te ching’, in Loewe, Michael (ed.), Early Chinese texts: a bibliographic guide, Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1993, 283284 and the references cited there.

For the ‘Hsiang erh Lao-tzu’ see Tsung-yi, Jao, A study on Chang Tao-ling' Hsianger Commentary of Tao te Ching, Hong Kong: Tong Nam, 1956, and Jao, , ‘Lao-tzu Hsiang erh chu hsü lun’ Tōyō bunka ronshū: Fukui Hakase shōju kinen Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 1969, 11551171, and Boltz, William G., ‘The religious and philosophical significance of the “Hsiang erh” Lao tzu in the light of the Ma wang tui silk manuscripts‘, BSOAS, XLV, 1, 1982, 95117.

2 While on a visit to Princeton in November 1993, I was kindly given the opportunity to see this manuscript, and to spend a morning studying it. For that kindness I would like to express my gratitude to the officers and staff of the University Art Museum, in particular to Mr. Cary Liu and Mr. Sun Zhixin, both of whom oversaw the necessary arrangements.

3 For a full record of extant Tun Huang manuscripts of the Lao-tzu text, as well as a survey of the work's textual history in general, see William G. Boltz, ‘Lao tzu Tao te ching’, cited in n. 1, above.

4 When Jao Tsung-yi made his 1955 study (on which see below) the manuscript was in the private collection of Chang Ku-chՙu of Shun Te in Kuangtung province.

5 Mote, Frederick, ‘The oldest Chinese book at Princeton’, The Gest Library Journal, I, 1 (Winter, 1986), 3444.

6 Peking: Chung hua ed., 5.90.

7 Peking: Chung hua ed., 47.2027. See also Boltz, Judith M., Survey of Taoist literature, tenth to seventeenth centuries, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies and University of California, Berkeley, 1987, 134.

8 J. Boltz, loc. cit.

9 Peking: Chung hua ed., 59.1521.

10 Peking: Chung hua ed., 47.2027.

11 Mote recognizes the problem that this entitlement presents for the dating of the manuscript, but stops short of explicitly drawing the inevitable conclusion. See Mote, Frederick W. and Chu, Hung-Lam, Calligraphy and the East Asian book, Goodman, Howard L. (ed.), Boston and Shaftesbury: Shambala, 1989, 73, n. 3.

In a personal letter of 20 May 1995, Professor Mote suggests that it is possible that the honorofic title might have been in popular circulation before it was used by Kao tsung, and therefore might pre-date the year 666, but that we have no extant record of that. This is, of course, a theoretical possibility; I think the chances that it was actually the case are pretty slim.

12 Tsung-i, Jao‘The Su Tan (sic) manuscript fragment of the Tao-Te Ching (A.D. 270); [Chinese title: ] Journal of Oriental Studies (University of Hong Kong), II, 1, 1955, 171.

13 In giving translations I shall designate the conventional Lao-tzu text as L and the So Tan manuscript text as S, marking the exegetic amplification of the latter with italicization. I shall disregard textual variation that does not pertain to our discussion of the So Tan manuscript.

14 I am grateful to Judith Magee Boltz for drawing my attention to the suggestive similarity between the Tՙang Hsüan tsung commentary and the So Tan manuscript text.

15 The phrase ta chiang is used twice in Mencius in the customary sense of ‘Master Carpenter’ (6A.20 and 7A.41). I do not see any reason why the Mencius usage would be seen as a basis for removing the phrase from this Lao-tzu line.

At the beginning of the Tՙang dynasty, and off and on for the next 150 years, ta chiang designated the ‘Director of the Directorate for the Palace Buildings’. (See Hucker, Charles O., A dictionary of official titles in imperial China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985; 463 [no. 5895].) This is what the Hsin Tang shu, ‘Pai kuan chih’ calls chiang tso chien 7 (Peking: Chung hua ed., 1272; Hucker, op. tit., 140 [no. 708].) I do not see that this administrative usage would have given any cause for emending the Lao-tzu text, especially since only one of two adjacent occurrences was replaced.

16 One might ask whether the appearance of the character min in the manuscript precludes the possibility that it is a Tՙang copy because that character would have been avoided, or written in a modified form, in Tՙang texts out of respect for Tՙang Tՙai tsung's personal name, Shih-min . While such a ‘taboo’ may have been generally observed in formal documents and in engraved steles, as well as later in printed texts, manuscripts like this one were apparently accorded greater latitude in this regard. The appearance of the character , written in its conventional form, is well attested in Tՙang Tun Huang manuscripts, and in particular in manuscripts of the Lao-tzu.

Ōfuchi Ninji in his exhaustive study of Taoist Tun Huang manuscripts says that sometimes the character is avoided, or written without the last stroke, and other times it appears where we would expect it, written fully. He cites the Pelliot manuscript fragment P. 2347 () as a specific example of a text in which both forms of the character appear within a few lines of each other in the same manuscript. See Ninji, Ōfuchi, Tonkō Dokyō: mokuroku-hen : Tokyo: Fukutake Shoten , 1978, 8 and 197. See also the recent study by Soymie, Michel, ‘Observations sur les caractères interdits en Chine’, Journal Asiatique, 278, 1990, 377407. In particular see pp. 402–3 where Soymié lists a number of Tՙang period Tun Huang manuscripts that contain the character min in its unmodified form.

Notes on the Authenticity of the so Tan Manuscript of the LAO-TZU

  • William G. Boltz (a1)


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