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The Jin Hou Su Bells Inscription and its Implications for the Chronology of Early China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 March 2015

David S. Nivison
Dept. of Philosophy, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
Edward L. Shaughnessy
Dept. of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, The University of Chicago, 1050 East 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637


Since the Jin Hou Su chime-bells from the cemetery of the Jin lords at Tianma-Qucun, Shanxi, became known to the scholarly world, the problem of the dates contained in its inscription has attracted the attention of scholars both in and outside of China. In this article we discuss two aspects of this problem. First, while the “thirty-third year” date of the inscription must certainly refer to King Xuan's reign, which is to say 795 B.C., the four full date notations of the inscription are incompatible with this year, but are instead compatible with the following year, 794 B.C. This article suggests two ways to reconcile this discrepancy. Second, while there can be no doubt that Jin Hou Su is Jin Xian Hou, the “Jin shijia” chapter of the Shi ji gives his dates of reign as 822 to 812 B.C., which is in turn incompatible with either 795 or 794 B.C. However, in the Shi ji's genealogy of Jin lords, the son of Xian Hou is Mu Hou and the grandson of Mu Hou is Zhao Hou, which contradicts the zhao-mu structure of the Zhou ancestral system. Therefore, we propose that the Shiji has reversed the order of Xian Hou and Mu Hou, such that Xian Hou's reign actually extended from King Xuan's thirty-third year through his forty-third year (795-785 B.C.). Not only does this simple change in the genealogy of the Jin lords resolve the problem of the dates in the Jin Hou Su bells inscription, but it also serves to explain an entire array of problems in the chronology of early China.

山西天馬一曲村晉侯墓地的晉侯蘇編鐘問世以後,其銘文的曆法問題引起中國國內外學術界的興趣。本文提出兩個新的觀點。第一,銘文所載的״三十三年〃必指宣王在位年,即公元前795年,可是其四個月份、月象和干支具備的曆法記載卻與此年不合,而合乎次年794年。本文提出兩種解釋以說明這一點。第二 , ״晉侯蘇״即晉獻侯無疑,可是《史記•晉世家》以其在位年爲公元前822812־年, 與795-794年不合。因爲在《史記》所載的晉侯世系裏,獻侯的兒子爲穆侯,穆侯的孫子爲昭侯,與周禮昭穆制度相矛盾,所以本文推測《史記》顛倒了獻侯和穆侯的世系順序,獻侯實際在位年應是宣王三十三年到四十三年(公元前795-785年)。這個在晉侯世系順序上的改正,不僅使獻侯在位年與晉侯蘇編鐘銘文中的曆法記載相符合,並且也可以解決一系列在中國古代年代上的問題。

Copyright © Society for the Study of Early China 2000 

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The conclusions presented in this paper are substantially those presented in Ni Dewei 悅德衛 (David S. Nivison) and Xia Hanyi 夏含夷 (Edward L. Shaughnessy), “Jin hou de shixi ji qi dui Zhongguo gudai jinian de yiyi” 晉侯的世系及其中國古代紀年的意義׳ Zhongguo shi yanjiu 中國史研究2001.1, 3–10, though some of the argumentation differs somewhat.


1. For a review of work in Chinese on the Jin Hou Su bianzhong, see Shim, Jaehoon, “The ‘Jin Hou Su bianzhong’ Inscription and Its Significance,” Early China 22 (1997), 4375 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially the rich footnotes. Shim's article includes reproductions of the text together with a complete transcription and translation; the translations that we offer here do not differ materially from those by Shim.

2. The just released preliminary report of the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project ( Xia-Shang-Zhou duandai gongcheng 1996-2000 nian jieduan chengguo baogao: jianben 夏商周斷代工程1996-2000年階段成果報告:簡本, ed. Xia-Shang-Zhou, duandai gongcheng zhuanjiazu [Beijing: Shijie tushu, 2000]Google Scholar) offers a dating for the bells that supports the traditional (i.e., Shi ji 史記) dates for the reign of Jin Hou Su: 822–812 B.C. Although this preliminary report lacks any of the substantiation one would normally expect in a scholarly publication, it is clear that its dating of these bells is based on two recently published studies: Xueqin, Li 李學勤,“Jin Hou Su bianzhong de shi di ren” 晉侯蘇編鐘的時地人, Zhongguo wenwu bao 中國文物報1 12 1996 Google Scholar (repr. Li Xueqinr Xia Shang Zhou 夏商周年代學札言己 [Shenyang: Liaoning daxue, 2000], 7–11); and Shihua, Qiu 仇士華 and Changshou, Zhang 張長壽, “Jin Hou mudi M8 de tan shisi niandai ceding he Jin Hou Su bianzhong” 晉侯墓地 M8 的碳十四年代測定和晉侯蘇編鐘, Kaogu 考古 1999.5, 9092 Google Scholar. We regard both of these studies as fundamentally flawed. Li Xueqin's thesis is that the thirty-third year date of the inscription pertains to events that took place during the reign of King Li 厲王(r. 877-841 B.C. according to the chronology adopted by the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project), but that the inscription was not engraved until some twenty-five years later after Su had become lord of Jin. Not only is this sort of anachronistic inscription utterly unprecedented for this period, but—as we will point out below— it is also almost certainly impossible that King Li could have reigned as long as thirty-three years. The article by Chou Shihua and Zhang Changshou presents carbon-14 dates taken from two carbonized wood samples from M8: 2630 ± 30 and 2620 ± 20, which they average to 2625 ± 22, and then use an unspecified tree-ring calibration to arrive at a date of 808 B.C. ± 8 years. Curiously, the carbon—14 dates released in the preliminary report of the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project (p. 18, Table 6) do not include either of these two dates, but give instead a single date, 2640 ± 50, calibrated to 814–796 B.C. Even more curiously, one date from M64, assumed by the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project to be later than M8 (but note our analysis to the contrary below), yields a carbon–14 date, 2671 ± 38, earlier than any of these dates for M8, but the preliminary report calibrates it to 804-789 B.C., i.e., later than any of these dates. We are aware of the possibilities for rather precise calibrations of carbon—14 dates using wiggle-matching (see for example, Kojo, Yasushi, Kalin, Robert M., and Long, Austin, “High-Precision ‘Wiggle-Matching’ in Radiocarbon Dating,” Journal of Archaeological Science 21 [1994], 475–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar), but in the absence either of any explanation of the methodology used or especially of a more extensive test sample, these results can only be regarded as a curiosity.

3. Shi ji (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1959), 39.1637 Google Scholar.

4. Shaughnessy, Edward L., Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 272–86Google Scholar; Hanyi, Xia 夏含夷, “Ci ding mingwen yu Xi-Zhou wanqi niandai kao” 此鼎銘文與西周晚期年代考, Dalu zazhi 大陸雜誌 80.4 (1990), 1624 Google Scholar; Nivison, David S., “The Key to the Chronology of the Three Dynasties: The ‘Modern Text’ Zhushu jinian , Sino-Platonic Papers 93 (1999), 45 Google Scholar.

5. Xia Shang Zhou duandai gongcheng 1996-2000, 24-26. The words “the day dawned twice” (tian zai dan 天再旦), probably recording a dawn (or pre-dawn) eclipse, are found in both the “Modern Text” and the “Ancient Text” of the Zhushu jinian; see Zhu-shu jinian (Sibu beiyao ed.), 2.6b. All references to the Zhushu jinian are to the “Modern Text.” The first scholar to have associated the 899 eclipse with the Zhushu jinian passage appears to have been Pang Sunjoo (Fang Shanzhu 方善柱):” Xi-Zhou niandai xue shang de jige wenti” 西周年代學上的幾個問題, Dalu zazhi 51.1 (1975), 15-16.

6. For dates of bronzes that can be assigned to the reigns of these kings, see Shaughnessy, , Sources of Western Zhou History, 284–85, Table A16Google Scholar; and Nivison, “The Key to the Chronology of the Three Dynasties,” 46-47.

7. See Mu Xiaojun 穆曉軍, “Shaanxi Chang'an xian chutu Xi-Zhou Wu Hu ding” 陝西長安縣出土西周吳虎鼎,״ yu imm考古與文物1998.3, 69-71. See also, Xueqin, Li, “Wu Hu ding kaoshi: Xia-Shang-Zhou duandai gongcheng kaoguxue biji” 吳虎鼎考釋:夏商周斷代工程考古學筆記, Kaogu yu wenwu 1998.3, 2931 Google Scholar.

8. Shim, , “The ‘Jin Hou Su Bianzhong,’60 Google Scholar, Table 2, gives the same calendar as we do here, though he subsequently (p. 66) follows Ma Chengyuan 馬承源 in identifying the year as 846 B.C., the thirty-third year of a putative reign of King Li beginning in 878 B.C.; see Chengyuan, Ma, “Jin Hou Su bianzhong” 晉侯蘇編鐘, Shanghai bowuguan jikan 上海博物館集刊 7 (1996), 14 Google Scholar. Shim also makes the reasonable assumption with respect to the sixth month date of this inscription that “the king may have intention-ally scheduled his entry into the Grand Chamber of the Military Hall for the first day of the month” (p. 60).

9. Peiyu, Zhang 張培瑜, Zhongguo Xian Qin shi li biao 中國先秦史曆表 (Jinan: Qi Lu, 1987)Google Scholar; Zuobin, Dong 董作賓, Zhongguo nianli zongpu 中國曆!譜 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960)Google Scholar.

10. Jiujin, Chen 陳久金, “Jin Hou Su zhong bitan” 晉侯蘇鐘筆談, Wenwu 1997.3, 5758 Google Scholar.

11. For the Fan Ju Sheng hu, see Yin Zhou jinwen jicheng 殷周金文集成, ed. yanjiusuo, Zhongguo kaogu (Beijing: Zhonghua, 19861994), vol. 15, no. 9705Google Scholar; for the Shanfu Shan ding, see Yin Zhou jinwen jicheng, vol. 5, no. 2825.

12. For these identifications, see Shim, “The ‘Jin Hou Su Bianzhong,” 49-50nn.15, 17.

13. Guo yu (Sibu beiyao ed.), 1.9a; Shi ji, 33.1527-28; Zhushu jinian, 2.10a.

14. Nivison, David S., “The Dates of Western Chou,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43.2 (1983), 524—35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shaughnessy, , Sources of Western Zhou History, 148–55Google Scholar.

15. Hou Han shu (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1965), 87.2871–72Google Scholar.

16. Zhushu jinian, 2,9a–Wa.

17. Shi ji 4.144.

18. Shi ji, 14.519.

19. Zhushu jinian, 1.18b-20a.

20. Yi Zhou shu (Sibu beiyao ed.), 3.3a.

21. Nivison, “The Key to the Chronology of the Three Dynasties,” 3-5 and passim.

22. Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan He shi jiegu 春秋公羊傳何氏解言古(Sibu beiyao ed.), 13.11b-12a.

23. Shi ji, 39.1637 Google Scholar.

24. Shi ji, 39.1635–38Google Scholar.

25. In the Zuo zhuan see the appended note at the end of the second year of Huan Gong 桓公 (710 B.C.) ; Bojun, Yang 昜伯峻, Chunqiu Zuo zhuan zhu 春秋左專注 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1981), vol. 1, 9192 Google Scholar. This is probably the Shi ji's source. For the Zhushu jinian, see the text at the forty-third year of Xuan Wang; Zhushu jinian, 2.10b.

26. Shi ji, 39.1637 Google Scholar.

27. See Liancheng, Lu 盧連成, “Tianma-Qucun Jin Hou mudi niandai ji muzhu kaoding” 天馬曲村晉湊墓地年代及墓主考訂, in Venhe wan Dingcun wenhua yu Jin wenhua kaogu xueshu yantaohui wenji 汾河灣亍村文化與晉文化考古學術研討會文集 (Taiyuan: Shanxi Gaojiao lianhe, 1994), 140 Google Scholar; see also Xu, Jay, “The Cemetery of the Western Zhou Lords of Jin,” Artibus Asiae 56.3/4 (1996), 196 and 224–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28. Qiu Xigui裘錫圭, “Guanyu Jin hou tongqi mingwen de jige wenti” 關於晉侯銅器銘文的幾個問題, Chuantong wenhua yu xiandaihua 傳統文化與現代化 1994.2, 41.

29. Yin Zhou jinwen jicheng, vol. 5, no. 2836.

30. There is further inscriptional evidence from M64 and M63, the tomb of one of Jin Hou Bangfu's consorts, that suggests that Mu Hou and Xian Hou should be reversed. M64, the tomb of Jin Hou Bangfu, includes another inscribed vessel dedicated to “my cultured deceased-father of the Shu lineage” (zhen wen kao Shu shi朕文 考叔氏). The consort's tomb M63 contains a bronze made for a woman named Yang Ji楊結, presumably Bangfu's wife. For these two bronzes, see Shanxi sheng Kaogu yanjiusuo and Beijing daxue Kaoguxue xi, “Tianma-Qucun yizhi Beizhao Jin Hou mudi di sici fajue״天馬曲村北趙晉侯墓地第四次發掘, Wenwu 1994.8, 5,12. In an interesting article, Feng Shi M 時 has pointed out that Bangfu and Yang Ji seem also to appear in the inscription of the Ran 冉靈 (Yin Zhou jinwen jicheng, vol. 9, no. 4469), a vessel discovered in the Northern Song dynasty (and published in the Kaogu tu 考古圃[3.34]) but subsequently lost Although the inscription is incomplete (apparently continuing from the inscription on another vessel or on the lost lid), it seems to allude to the sorts of troubles that King Xuan inherited from his exiled father King Li, as Guo Moruo 享沫若 pointed out already in the 1930s; Liang Zhou jinwenci daxi kaoshi ־״兩周金文辭大系考釋 (Tokyo: Bunkyūdō, 1935), 140b142a Google Scholar. In it, the king commands Ran 冉 to assist him by suppressing rebellious officers. In the dedication, Ran refers to himself by his zi Shu Bangfu 叔邦父, and mentions also his wife Shu Ji 叔结. If Jin Hou Bangfu can be identified with Shu Bangfu, as the second bronze in M64 shows is likely; if Yang Ji can be identified with Shu Ji, as a common naming practice for wives in the Western Zhou would suggest (compare the case of Yin Ji 尹結, whom the Yin Ji ding 尹結鼎 shows to have been married to Mu Gong穆公, and the Gong Ji ding 公結鼎, in which she identifies herself with Mu Gong's appellation of gong 公; for both bronzes, see Shirakawa, 白川靜, Kinbun tsūshaku 金文通釋, [Kobe: Hakutsuru bijutsukan, 19621984, no. 72)Google Scholar; if the Ran xu should date toward the beginning of King Xuan's reign, as Guo Moruo suggested and as the content of the inscription also suggests; and if Jin Hou Bangfu is Jin Mu Hou, as demonstrated above—we once again see that Mu Hou must have come before Xian Hou. The dates we have suggested above for the reign of Mu Hou, 822-796 B.C. (Xuan 6-Xuan 32), would satisfy this situation.

31. Liancheng, Lu, “Tianma-Qucun,” 142–43Google Scholar.

32. Heng, Zou, “Lun zaoqi Jin du” 論早期晉都, Wenwu 1994.1, 29-32, 34 Google Scholar; Han, Zhang, “Jin hou gui mingwen chu shi” 畚诚簋銘文初識, Wenwu 1994.1, 3334 Google Scholar; Chaoyuan, Li, “Jin hou 靳 fangzuo gui ming guanjian”晉侯靳方座簋銘管見,8[銘管見, Di er jie Guoji Zhongguo guwenzixue yantaohui lunwenji 第二屆國際中國古文字學研討會論文集 (Hong Kong: Xianggang Zhongwen daxue, 1993), 231–36Google Scholar.