Bamboo slips

Bamboo and wooden slips (Chinese: 简牍; pinyin: jiăndú) were one of the main media for literacy in early China. The long, narrow strips of wood or bamboo typically carry a single column of brush-written text each, with space for several tens of Chinese characters. For longer texts, many slips may be bound together in sequence with thread. Each strip of wood or bamboo is said to be as long as a chopstick and as wide as two. The earliest surviving examples of wood or bamboo slips date from the 5th century BC during the Warring States period. However, references in earlier texts surviving on other media make it clear that some precursor of these Warring States period bamboo slips was in use as early as the late Shang period (from about 1250 BC). Bamboo or wooden strips were the standard writing material during the Han dynasty and excavated examples have been found in abundance.[1] Subsequently, paper began to displace bamboo and wooden strips from mainstream uses, and by the 4th century AD bamboo had been largely abandoned as a medium for writing in China. Bamboo and wooden slips are now no longer used, as they have now been replaced by paper.

The custom of interring books made of the durable bamboo strips in royal tombs has preserved many works in their original form through the centuries. An important early find was the Jizhong discovery in 279 AD of a tomb of a king of Wei, though the original recovered strips have since disappeared. Several caches of great importance have been found in recent years.

Major archaeological finds
Collection Province Found Period
Mozuizi (磨嘴子) Gansu 1959 Eastern Han
Yinqueshan Han Slips Shandong 1972 Western Han
Shuihudi Qin bamboo texts Hubei 1975 Qin
Shuanggudui Anhui 1977 Western Han
Zhangjiashan Han bamboo texts Hubei 1983 Western Han
Fangmatan Gansu 1986 late Warring States (Qin)
Guodian Chu Slips Hubei 1993 mid to late Warring States
Shanghai Museum corpus Hubei 1994 mid to late Warring States
Zoumalou (走馬樓) Hunan 1996 Three Kingdoms (Eastern Wu)
Yinwan (尹灣) Jiangsu 1997 Western Han[2]
Tsinghua Bamboo Slips Hunan or Hubei? 2008 mid to late Warring States

The Shanghai Museum corpus was purchased through auction in Hong Kong the year after the Guodian tomb was excavated, and is believed to have come from a tomb in the same area. The Tsinghua collection was donated by an anonymous alumnus who purchased it through auction, with no indication of its origin. The others are from identified tombs.


One accoutrement used when writing on bamboo slips was a small knife which would be used to scrape away mistakes and make amendments. Decorated knives became a symbol of office for some officials indicating their power to amend and change records and edicts.

See also