In light of the recent discovery of Warring States period bamboo slips, now in the collection of Tsinghua University, inscribed with texts described as shu, “documents” or “similar to shu”, this article explores the question of “what were shu?” It suggests that shu can be understood as a literary form apart from the history of the Confucian classic, the Shang shu 尚書 (Ancient Documents) or Shu jing 書經 (Book of Documents) and the Yi Zhou shu 逸周書. Formal characteristics include: shu were – or pretended to be – contemporaneous records; and shu include formal speeches by model kings and ministers from ancient times. Many shu include the expression wang ruo yue 王若曰, which is also found in bronze inscriptions, where it indicates that a royal speech was read aloud by an official. Thus, the literary form originated with the practice of composing speeches in writing before they were read out in formal ceremonies, with a bamboo slip copy presented to the officials addressed. Later shu were fictional compositions, written in the style of these ancient documents.
* Research for this paper was supported by a Chiang Ching-kuo Senior Research Fellowship, 2009–10. An earlier version, “Shu de laiyuan yu yiyi 書的來源與意義” (The origin and meaning of the Documents), was delivered as the Wang Guowei Lecture, Tsinghua University, 17 December 2010. Some of the ideas were also published in: “Hewei ‘shu’ 何為《書》” (What were the “documents”?), Guangming ribao 光明日報, 20 December 2010; and “What is a shu?” Research essay in the Newsletter of the European Society for the Study of Chinese Manuscripts, April 2011, 1–5.