Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
From 8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry

This exhibit at the British Library consists of four cases of material to show the different media used for Chinese writing and the different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively.

The remains of a house (N.XIV.) dating to the 2nd-4th century AD at the oasis settlement of Cadota (Niya) in the southern Taklamakan. The wooden gift tags described below were discovered here. (Stein is shown mapping the site on his plane table.)
January 1931.
Photo 392/34(155)


Wood and bamboo were widely used for Chinese texts during the late first millennium BC. Fashioned into narrow slips bearing one or more columns of text, they were joined together with string to form a ‘page’ and then rolled for storage. The strings have mainly disintegrated, leaving a puzzle for scholars to reconstruct the texts from the mixed-up wood slips.

Thousands of slips have been found in tombs in Central China and archaeological ruins on the Chinese northwestern frontier. Wood continued to be used in the first millennium AD in these desert outposts even after the invention of paper.


木头和竹子在公元前第一个千年的晚期曾被广泛应用于汉字书写。它们被制成细长的薄片,每片书写一列或几列文字,而后用细绳连缀成一‘页’并卷起储存。原本的绳子多已断裂,使学者们不得不面对从混乱的简牍中重构原文的难题。 中原地区的墓葬以及西北边疆的考古遗址中,已经出土了数以千计的简牍。在公元后的第一个千年,这些沙漠哨所仍继续使用木简作为书写材料,尽管纸张此时已被发明。

A Calendar. Ink on wood, 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. Dunhuang, China

The form of Chinese characters — the ‘spelling’ — was standardized in the 3rd century BC and the same standard has been used to the present day (although with different styles of handwriting — different ‘scripts’). However, the form deriving from that used on the oracle bones continued to be used alongside this standard, most especially on seals. It is here shown on part of a calendar inscribed on this unusually shaped piece of wood. This, and the other woodslips shown here, were discovered in ancient military fortifications which guarded the northwest frontier of China with the Silk Road.


Writing Exercise. Ink on wood, AD 14-19. Dunhuang, China

This is written in the standard script from the 3rd century BC which is still used in China. But the style of handwriting in this period is distinctive, with downward diagonal strokes that are thicker at the bottom right. It is clearly shown on this woodslip which contains a writing exercise. The words being practised include (big), (man) and (heaven). A date, corresponding to AD 14-19, is given in the four characters near the bottom.


Medical Prescriptions for People and Horses. Ink on bamboo, 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. Dunhuang, China
Or.8211/524, Or.8211/525, Or.8211/526

These slips contain medical prescriptions and were all found in a Chinese military station north of the frontier town of Dunhuang in the Gobi desert. They are written on bamboo which, although commonly used in Central China, was not locally available on this northwestern borde. It must have been carried in, probably from southwest China.

One prescription is to treat ‘a persistent cough, nausea in the chest, aching joints and long-standing constipation’ and contains pepper, ginger and cinnamon. Some of the prescriptions are for horses, including those that are wounded or suffering from the heat.

这些竹简写有一些医疗处方,它们均发现于边境城市敦煌以北,戈壁沙漠中的一处中国军事驻地。尽管这些竹简在中原地区被广泛使用,但西北边疆并不出产竹子。这些竹简很可能来自中国西南。 其中一份处方是为了治疗“久咳不止,胸闷,关节疼痛以及长期便秘”,处方中含有胡椒,姜,以及肉桂。其他一些处方是为受伤或中暑的马所开具。

Wooden gift tags. Ink on wood, 2nd to 3rd centuries AD. Niya, China
Or.8211/940, Or.8211/941, Or.8211/942, Or.8211/943, Or.8211/944, Or.8211/945, Or.8211/946

These wooden tags, discovered buried in sand in the hallway of a large ruined house, were used to label gifts of jade presented to the royal family of the kingdom of Jingjue or Cadota in the southern Taklamakan Desert. The front gives details of the gift: ‘Your subject Chengde bows his head to the ground and sincerely presents this rose coloured stone and bows twice in greeting’. The back gives the name of the recipient: ‘the great king’, ‘Princess Chun’, ‘The Royal Wife from Qiemo.’ No jade was found at the long-deserted site: the slips had been left there and survived by being covered by the desert sands.


A Woodslip Book. Ink on wood with string, 2004

This is a modern reproduction of a Chinese woodslip book showing how the slips were fastened together to form a ‘page’. The notches for the string ties can be seen on the original woodslips, shown alongside.

The original woodslips shown here were found in oasis towns and desert fortifications on the Chinese part of the Silk Road. Most of them are probably written on poplar wood which was plentiful in the irrigated settlements. The remains of two thousand year old dessicated trees can still be seen in these long-deserted sites.

这是一件中国木简书的现代仿制品,它展示了木简如何被固定起来形成一个“册页”。为绑细绳用的缺口在旁边的木简原件上清晰可辨。 这里展示的木简原件发现于丝绸之路中国段的绿洲城镇及沙漠要塞。这些木简的大多数当为杨木,它们在有水利灌溉的定居点十分常见。在这些久被遗弃的遗址仍可见到两千年前干枯的古树。

An Almanac for the year 59 BC. Ink on wood. Dunhuang, China
Or.8211/26, Or.8211/28, Or.8211/29, Or.8211/30, Or.8211/31, Or.8211/34, Or.8211/35

These slips, which contain an almanac or calendar for the year 59 BC, would originally have been joined together to form a ‘page’. The notches used to hold the string ties can still be seen – two on the right hand edge of each slip. The characters at the top give the day – ‘eighth day’ 八日, eleventh day’ 十一日etc. Because the form or spelling of Chinese characters was standardized in the third century BC and retained to the present-day, anyone knowing modern Chinese would recognize these characters.


Thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation.


The Chinese character used on the panels at the exhibit at the British Library is the character for wood . It is taken from a Han period woodslips excavated in Juyan in north-western China.