Set In Stone: The Earliest Known Stone-Carved Chinese Texts

Discover the stone drums inscribed with poetry from over 2300 years ago.

Stone Drums with Poetry “My Waters” (Wushui)The Palace Museum

What stories do they tell?

Scholars estimate that the inscriptions on these ancient stone drums originally contained approximately 600 characters. But only about 300 characters remain decipherable today. Some of the inscriptions contain more decipherable characters than others; the inscription known as “Horse Presentation” (Majian) is already completely devoid of characters. 

Stone Drums with Poetry “My Chariot” (Wuche)The Palace Museum

The Order of the Stone Drums

The stone drums are each named after two decipherable characters in their respective inscriptions.

The titles are tentatively translated here with the transliteration of the Chinese characters in parentheses: “My Chariot” (Wuche), “The River Qian” (Qian yi), “Hunting Chariot” (Tianche), “Regal Chariot” (Luanche), “Falling Rain” (Lingyu), Zuoyuan (meaning unclear), Ershi (meaning unclear), “Horse Presentation” (Majian), “My Waters” (Wushui), and “Man of Wu” (Wuren).

Although the stone drums may have been engraved and arranged in a certain order during the Warring States period, that arrangement is now unknown.

Many scholars have attempted to order the inscriptions based on their own understanding of the texts; the most notable of those scholars include Xiang Chuanshi (act. eleventh c.).

He listed the stone drums in the following order: 1st “Falling Rain” (Lingyu), 2nd “Regal Chariot” (Luanche), 3rd “Hunting Chariot” (Tianche), 4th “The River Qian” (Qian yi), 5th “My Chariot” (Wuche), 6th “Man of Wu” (Wuren), 7th “My Waters” (Wushui), 8th “Horse Presentation” (Majian), 9th Ershi, and 10th Zuoyuan.

Almost a millennium later, Tang Lan (1901–1979), another prestigious scholar, placed the drums in the exact opposite order. The other scholars each proposed their own order. So, what do those inscriptions mean?

Stone Drums with Poetry “Horse Presentation” (Majian)The Palace Museum

This stone drum’s inscription has been completely abraded from the surface, but the Northern Song rubbings contain thirteen characters when not counting the repeated characters.

Since the inscription contains the characters for heaven and rainbow, it can be surmised that at the time the territory of the Qin received ample rainfall.

The regular appearance of the rainbow would have been evidence for a moist climate that supported lavish vegetation.

The text also suggests that the people of that land engaged in a thriving pastoral and agricultural economy.

Stone Drums with Poetry “My Waters” (Wushui)The Palace Museum

The inscription on this stone drum now contains forty-one characters, five abraded characters, and three repeated characters.

The Northern Song rubbings in Vanguard contain fifty-seven characters when not including the repeated characters.

The inscription tells of the clear water in the land of the author and his people and how the roads of that land are smooth.

The trees are all planted with care. Duke Xian of Qin (r. 484–362) and the emissary of Zhou prepare for an expedition on the bingshen day.

Stone Drums with Poetry “Hunting Chariot” (Tianche)The Palace Museum

This inscription has fifty-three extant characters, eleven highly abraded characters, and three repeated characters.

When not including the repeated characters, the characters in the Northern Song album Vanguard (Xianfeng ben) number sixty-seven.

The inscription describes hunting in the wilderness and emphasizes the climax of a hunt in pursuit of animals such as deer, fowl, and hare.

The hunting party of this expedition also included commoners.

Moving and Loading the Crates before the Relocation of the Palace Museum Collection (1933)The Palace Museum

The long journey home

Having survived over two millennia of turmoil and averted disasters, the stone drums are successfully returned to the Palace Museum and eventually displayed to provide visitors from across China and around the world an opportunity to learn about history through the testament of these ancient monuments.

Stone Drums with Poetry ErshiThe Palace Museum

Warring States Period (475–222 BCE): the origin

The stone drums are inscribed with poetic texts. Some scholars believe this happened in the year 374 BCE, the eleventh year of Duke Xian of Qin, r. 484–362, yet others believe the round monuments were inscribed much earlier.

The exact date of inscription remains uncertain.

Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE)

The first emperor of the Qin (Qin shihuang, r. 220-210 BCE) oversees a historic revision and standardization of Chinese characters.

Lesser seal characters (xiaozhuan) are established as the official script. Modern scholars believe the characters inscribed on the stone drums date to before the use of lesser seal characters.

Stone Drums with Poetry “My Chariot” (Wuche)The Palace Museum

Tang Dynasty (618–907)

627: Zhenguan Reign, 1st Year

The inscribed stone drums are discovered in the vicinity of Chencang and Qiyang (on the outskirts of present-day Baoji, Shaanxi Province).

Celebrated calligraphers like Ouyang Xun (557-641), Yu Shinan (558-638), and Chu Suiliang (596-659) travel to see the original site of discovery and painstakingly copy the ancient characters.

806: Yuanhe Reign, 1st Year

The poet Han Yu requests the imperial court to relocate the stone drums to the National University (Taixue fu) for preservation, yet no action is taken as the stone drums remain neglected and exposed to the elements.

814: Yuanhe Reign, 9th Year

Having discovered and reviewed Han Yu’s suggestion, Zheng Yuqing (746–820)—the vice-director of the right (you puye) of the Department of State Affairs who concurrently served as the chancellor of the National University—has the stone drums relocated to the Confucian Temple at Fengxiang (near present-day Baoji, Shaanxi Province).

After almost 200 years since the discovery of the monuments, only nine of the original ten drums are retrieved.

The drum with Zuoyuan in its inscription is not found during the relocation effort.

902: Tianfu Reign, 2nd Year

As one of many factors and conflicts in the demise of the Tang dynasty, Zhu Wen (852–912) and his forces place Fengxiang under siege.

The area in which the stone drums were to be safeguarded becomes a perilous field of battle. After the fires of war are extinguished, the location of the stone drums is unknown.

Stone Drums with Poetry “Hunting Chariot” (Tianche)The Palace Museum

Song Dynasty (960-1279): The Story of a Fortuitous Rediscovery

1023: Tiansheng Reign, 1st Year

Renzong (r. 1023–1063), the fourth emperor of the Song dynasty, expresses his fondness for culture and the arts and encourages his officials and the subjects of his realm in developing a flourishing literary movement.

One day while enjoying poetry by the Tang-dynasty literatus Han Yu, the emperor reads about the stone drums.

Filled with passion for the ancient monuments, the emperor issues an edict for his officials to conduct a search for the lost artifacts. In this way, the emperor’s love of inscriptions in bronze and stone (jinshi; i.e., epigraphy) directs his subjects’ attention toward the missing monuments.

An official named Sima Chi (980–1041) meticulously searched the archives of previous dynasties, undertook expeditions to various sites, and finally located the lost stone drums.

Although he located the nine drums that were originally preserved at the Confucian Temple in Fengxiang, the location of the drum with Zuoyuan in its inscription remained unknown. Sima was almost certainly filled with elation at finding the ancient monuments, but the disappointment of not locating the tenth drum probably drove him to continue his search.

This problematic scenario has led to a folk legend that says, in order to present a complete set of ten drums to the emperor, Sima Chi commissioned the creation of a counterfeit drum with the Zuoyuan inscription. If true, the official had clearly become irrational in his quest for securing the monuments. Even if he had been capable of crafting such a replacement, his presentation would have almost certainly been deemed dubious by the host of literati versed in epigraphy who had personally studied the Tang-dynasty rubbings of the drums.

According to this possibly apocryphal story, Sima created the tenth drum and presented it to the emperor, but a discriminating scholar-official recognized the fraud and alerted the court. The discoverer’s great achievements could not spare him from the consequences of his mistake, and he was demoted as a result. Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding the veracity of the account, historians remember Sima for his contributions to the preservation of these artifacts.

Having recovered nine of the ten drums, Renzong desired to complete his imperial collection and again called upon his officials and loyal subjects to resume the endeavor. At the time, Xiang Chuanshi (act. eleventh c.) was a noted collector and connoisseur of epigraphy and well-versed in the rubbings of the stone drums. Once while reading over the Tai family’s edition of the rubbings, he discovered a rubbing of the Zuoyuan inscription, and, upon researching the Tai family rubbings, he identified the origin of the rubbings and that the Tai family had once been in possession of the stone drums. After several inquiries, Xiang determined that the Tai family resided inside the Hangu Pass (i.e., Guanzhong) in the basin of the River Wei. He mounted his horse and hurried to the Tai family’s village. Assuming that he would be able to easily locate the tenth drum upon his arrival, Xiang was devastated to learn that the entirety of the Tai family had recently died of the plague and that their residence and belongings had been burned as a precaution against contagion. Although disturbed by this revelation, he believed the tenth stone drum would have survived the fire and was even more determined to recover it. Estimating the scale of the excavations necessary to uncover the scorched contents of the ruined Tai family residence, Xiang decided to remain temporarily in that locale, so the collector took up lodging in the home of a butcher. One morning, he saw the butcher sharpening his knife on a large granite rock; upon taking a closer look, Xiang was overwhelmed with astonishment as he realized the large whetstone was in fact the tenth stone drum!

Copying Stone Drum Texts in Seal Script (1644/1911) by Wu ChangshuoThe Palace Museum

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

The scholar Yu Ji (1272–1348) of the Directorate of Education discovers the stone drums sometime after the year 1300 and relocates them to the grounds of the educational agency. This rediscovery is approximately 200 years since the monuments had been lost as the Northern Song dynasty collapsed under the invading Jin forces. After over 600 years of loss, ruin, discovery, and relocation, the stone drums are in the hands of the foremost scholars in the empire.

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)

New rubbings of the stone drums are made during this dynasty; they are preserved by the artist Sun Kehong (1532–1611) and known by the name of their album, Stone Drum Inscriptions (Shigu wen).

Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)

Calligraphic scholars throughout the empire interested in the study of epigraphy imitate and copy the stone drum inscriptions in an effort to preserve ancient styles.

Celebrated artists such as Weng Fanggang (1733–1818) and Wu Yun (1811–1883) add colophons and their personal seals to the album of Ming-dynasty rubbings called Stone Drum Inscriptions (Shigu wen). The ancient inscriptions serve as a major influence as artists develop their own seal-script styles.

Ming-Dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period - View 9The Palace Museum

Republican Period (1912–1949): The Two-Decade-Long Relocation

On the night of February 5, soldiers guard the gates and walls of the Forbidden City. With hushed voices, workers hurriedly load large crates onto trucks, which deliver them to the train station along a fortified route; the crates hold thousands of priceless works of art from throughout Chinese history. This first shipment begins the Palace Museum’s Southward Relocation (Nanqian)—an organized effort to protect China’s most treasured artifacts by moving them first to Nanjing and finally to Sichuan during the war.

Having been preserved by the Directorate of Education since the Yuan dynasty, the stone drums had been allocated to management by Beijing’s municipal government. However, due to a lack of resources, the supervising officials had entrusted the stone drums to the Palace Museum for transport and safekeeping during the war—a charge heartily accepted by the Museum’s Director Ma Heng (1881–1955). The stone drums were included in the fourth shipment and sent to Shanghai, where they are stored in the lowest level of the storehouses of Renji Hospital (also known as Lester Chinese Hospital at the time).

The stone drums are relocated to the newly established Nanjing branch of the Palace Museum in Jiangsu Province.

From July 7–9, the events at Marco Polo Bridge (Lugou qiao, in present-day Fengtai District, Beijing) ignite the main period of armed resistance against Japan. After less than a year since the relocation to Nanjing, the stone drums are once again relocated for protection; this time, however, they are moved west to a place called Gaokanzi in the vicinity of Youyang (near Chongqing).

The journey west was tremendously perilous as the transport truck traveled around hairpin turns on steep mountain roads. In one instance, as the truck followed a bend in the road, the driver swerved to avoid colliding with an oncoming vehicle but lost control of the truck, which came to a stop on the edge of a ravine. Realizing the impending danger, the driver, assistants, and soldiers quickly abandoned the truck before the loose ground on the side of the road collapsed and sent the vehicle careening into the ravine. The stone drums were also safely resting on solid ground before the truck met its demise.

The art connoisseur Na Zhiliang (1908–1998) assisted in the relocation and later wrote of this particular event in his book Seventy Years of Protecting the National Treasures of the Palace Museum (Dianshou Gugong guobao qishi nian li). He recounts how when the crates holding the drums were loaded onto the truck, they were not fastened down due to their weight; so, when the truck was overturned and began its disastrous descent into the ravine, the crates fell off the vehicle onto solid ground. The transit crew quickly proceeded to open the crates and inspect the ancient monuments. After inspecting each drum, they were amazed to find that not one had sustained any damage. They were most astonished at how foregoing the typical fastening of the crates had, in fact, protected the priceless cargo. The stone drums and their irreplaceable inscriptions had once again been spared a disastrous end. In fact, this averted disaster was the second time the drums had survived the truck’s overturning; the first time was when the driver became fatigued after driving through the night and accidentally crashed into a tree.

The primary reason why the stone drums remained undamaged throughout the many relocations during the war was the packing method. Parts of the inscribed outer layers of the stone drums had been separated from the rest of their respective monuments sometime before transport. If the inscribed outer layer were lost, the stone drums, although priceless artifacts, would drastically decrease in usefulness and perceived value. The Museum’s staff took pieces of Korean paper (Chinese, Gaoli zhi, which is made from the bark of paper-mulberry trees), soaked them in water, and used them to cover each stone drum; they then used cotton to press the paper onto the stone surface. The wet paper adhered to the surface of the drums and filled every crack, indentation, and—most important—the incised characters. Once dry, the strong fibers of the paper would serve as an effective layer of protection and guarantee that the inscribed outer layers would not separate from the monuments. Each stone drum was also wrapped in two layers of cotton padding bound with braided ropes before being loaded into a wooden crate stuffed with straw and reinforced with iron slats. This packing method successfully protected the drums during the hazardous relocations. Eventually, the stone drums were moved back to Nanjing and safeguarded until they could be returned to Beijing.

Ming-Dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period - View 11The Palace Museum

People’s Republic of China (1949–Present): Homecoming

Having survived over two millennia of turmoil and averted disasters, the stone drums are successfully returned to the Palace Museum and eventually displayed to provide visitors from across China and around the world an opportunity to learn about history through the testament of these ancient monuments.

Ming-Dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period - View 6The Palace Museum

How to study the texts?

In order to ascertain the original inscriptions and interpret their meaning, scholars must rely upon the rubbings of the inscriptions made throughout China's dynastic history.

Ming-Dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period - View 2The Palace Museum

Rubbings of the stone drums were made as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907), but those early examples are no longer extant.

The earliest extant rubbings are three copies created in the Song dynasty (960-1279) and formerly housed in the Ten Drum Studio (Shigu zhai) of the art connoisseur An Guo (1481–1534) during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Creatively named Vanguard (Xianfeng ben, also known as Qianmao or Forward Patrol), Middle Guard (Zhongquan ben), and Rearguard (Houjin ben), all three Song copies were eventually acquired by a collection in Japan.

The Palace Museum’s rubbings date to the Ming dynasty and have a distinguished provenance.

First preserved by the Ming-dynasty artist Sun Kehong (1532–1611), the rubbings were later in the possession of Zhu Yian (1882–1937), who served as an art connoisseur and authenticator at the Palace Museum.

The Museum acquired the rubbings from the Zhu family by bequest of the late scholar.

Credits: Story

Source Material:
Ding Meng, “The Content of the Stone Drum Inscription” (Shigu de faxian yu qianxi), A Narrative History of the Stone Drums (Shigu shihua) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui chubanshe, 2005): 47-65.
Yin Yimei, “Ming-dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period” (Ming ta zhanguo shigu wen ce), online description, translated by Adam J. Ensign and edited by Zhuang Ying, (Beijing: The Palace Museum, 2018).

Adapted and translated by Adam J. Ensign

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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