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Oldest Japanese Manuscript on Confucius Teachings Confirmed

Oldest Japanese Manuscript on Confucius Teachings Confirmed

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Experts believe that they have found the oldest work on Confucian teachings in Japan. The find dates back almost 1500 years when the Japanese nation was only just emerging. This collection of commentaries on Confucius can help researchers to better understand the early history of Japan, as well as Chinese philosophy and religion.

Keio University purchased the manuscript from a rare book dealer in 2017. It consists of twenty pages that have been glued together into a scroll that measures 27 cm long (9 inches). The document has been deemed “invaluable” and Keio University formed a multidisciplinary team to investigate the text. Members of the team included experts in ancient Chinese and Japanese history and literature.

The manuscript (part of which is shown here) is a compilation of commentaries on Confucian teachings produced by Chinese scholar Huan Kan (488-545) and is marked suggesting ownership by the Fujiwara clan. (Image: https://www.keio.ac.jp/en/)

Invaluable Ancient Confucian Commentary

The specialists identified the book as volume five of the Lunyu Yishu , which is an exposition of the Analects of Confucius . A textual analysis showed that the manuscript was “most likely written between the Northern and Southern dynasties period and the Sui Dynasty (581-618),” reports The Asahai Shimbun . The manuscript was compiled by Huang Kan, a Confucian scholar in the 6 th century AD. It is believed that the manuscript was brought to Japan by diplomats. They were probably emissaries from the Chinese Sui or the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). 

An examination of the manuscript revealed a mark indicating that it was owned by the Fujiwara clan. They dominated the Japanese government in the Nara era (714-784 AD) and the Heian era (794-1185 AD). They achieved this by marrying their daughters into the Imperial family. This document which would have been very valuable was managed by a court official who was also a member of the aristocracy. The manuscript disappeared and was lost for centuries.

If Authenticated, the Discovery Would Be a National Treasure

Experts in the era are surprised that the manuscript has been found, although they note that it has not been authenticated conclusively. The Asahi Shimbun quotes Terukuni Kageyama, a former professor of Chinese history and philosophy, who explains that “the photo of the ownership mark and handwritten monogram on the manuscript are almost identical to those on ancient Chinese historical records in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.” If the manuscripts is authenticated then it will be considered “equal to a national treasure,” concludes The Asahi Shimbun .

The commentaries are possibly one of the oldest works on Confucius yet found in Japan. The previous oldest was a manuscript of the Confucian Analects, written during the Song Dynasty about 1200 AD. Researchers believe that it is the earliest sacred text written on paper, apart from some Buddhist texts. The Asahi Shimbun reports experts from the Keio University as saying that “the writing is also most likely the oldest among manuscripts of commentaries on the Confucian Analects that have been handed down at temples, shrines or homes.” This view has also been corroborated by experts from other institutions.

Confucius, depicted here in conversation with a little boy, was a Chinese philosopher whose ideas have influenced cultures all over the world. His disciples organized his teachings into the Analects (Rijksmuseum / CC0)

Confucius, depicted here in conversation with a little boy, was a Chinese philosopher whose ideas have influenced cultures all over the world. His disciples organized his teachings into the Analects (Rijksmuseum / CC0)

The Influence of Confucius in Japan

The Analects of Confucius represent the teachings of the great Chinese sage. Confucius did not write the work itself, rather it was compiled by his disciplines. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica , Confucianism “is a worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. It places a great emphasis on rituals and ancestor worship. The teachings of Confucius were very influential in Chinese society until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and are still respected in modern China.

Confucianism was introduced into Japan in the 3 rd century AD. According to Encyclopaedia.com the new belief-system was “supported by the political forces of centralization in the nascent Japanese state.” This was because it valued administrative efficiency and unity which were important to the elites who were forging what would become the Empire of Japan. The Chinese classic was taught in the education system and it was crucial in the development of the Samurai code. Confucianism remained very influential in Japanese society until it was removed from the school curriculum by the Allied occupation authorities in the aftermath of WWII.

Confucianism was introduced into Japan in the 3rd century AD and was crucial in the development of the Samurai code. The image shows an armoured Samurai, in a photo taken by Felice Beato around 1860. (Public domain)

Confucianism was introduced into Japan in the 3 rd century AD and was crucial in the development of the Samurai code. The image shows an armoured Samurai, in a photo taken by Felice Beato around 1860. ( Public domain )

Many researchers believe that the Lunyu Yishu should be regarded as part of the Analects itself.  Remarkably, all copies of the commentaries were lost in China during the Song Dynasty . The only reason the work has survived is because there were copies kept in Japan. This work is expected to go on display at Maruzen Bookstore in Tokyo. It is expected to reveal much about the evolution of Chinese philosophy and religion, and its influence on Japan.

Top image: Keio University purchased a manuscript from a rare book dealer in 2017. Made up of twenty pages glued onto a scroll, researchers believe they have now identified the manuscript as being a compilation of commentaries on the teachings of Confucius produced by the Chinese scholar Huan Kan. Source: Left; Rijksmuseum / CC0  Right; Keio University

By Ed Whelan

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