Sources for, and Versions of, the Daybook

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

Sources for the Daybook

One possible source for the ideas that underpin the Daybook is mythological stories that purported to “record” divine actions that took place on particular dates in the remote past. One example of such a story preserved in the Daybook concerns travel. It says:

On all these [above mentioned] days, the Red Emperor will always descend to the people and inflict calamities. One should not do anything, for it would not be beneficial.

Since there is no reference to the Red Emperor 炎帝 in any of the traditional historical sources, it is possible that this text refers to a mythological or legendary narrative. Seeing as these sources would have existed only as oral traditions, it is difficult for us to know what they may have been like. What we can infer, however, is the way such sources were used. In this case, it was known that the Red Emperor would inflict calamities on people, and so the Daybook could advise people to avoid these calamities simply by ascertaining on which days the Red Emperor would descend. The premise, apparently, was that the Red Emperor’s power would be limited to certain slots in the sexagesimal cycle, and so these dates were incorporated into the divination system. Once again a quasi-scientific (today we would be apt to say “pseudo-scientific”), or at least a methodical and mechanical system, was utilized for the purpose of controlling spiritual agencies.

The Different Versions of the Daybook

Although the earliest version of the Daybook dates to the mid-third century BCE, many factors indicate that this version, like other collections of day-divination texts, was the product of a long history of development. The Daybook comprises many different sections that apply to all kinds of daily needs. Such a variety of subjects could not have been produced in a short period of time. In addition, our tomb owner’s possession of two similar versions of the Daybook suggests the existence of multiple copies. To date, archaeologists already have discovered ten versions of the Daybook. If this many have survived to the present, it is reasonable to presume that there must have been many more versions in circulation in ancient times.

The versions that survive date from the third century BCE to the second century CE and have been found at sites ranging from Gansu 甘肃 in the west to Hunan 湖南 in the south. Another Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) version of the Daybook has been discovered as far away as two thousand kilometers west of Shuihudi 睡虎地 in Gansu province. The Gansu version is very close to the Shuihudi versions. The almost simultaneous appearance of such similar versions of a text at the far-flung ends of this vast stretch of territory is evidence of a fairly homogeneous popular culture that constituted the market for divination texts. That the demands of this market were so consistent over a vast expanse can be attributed in part to the existence of a unified empire with good roads, a postal system, and a unified written language.

The Daybook of Shuihudi (睡虎地), as mentioned earlier, has been found in two versions. A comparison of the two shows that they differ in some important details. First, the arrangement of the chapters is very different. This indicates that neither is a copy of the other. It is more likely that each is an adaptation of a third or earlier copy. From the arrangement of the different chapters, we can surmise that the Daybook was essentially a collection of individual day-choosing texts, with no apparent order in the arrangement, except perhaps for the first and second texts. Because these two texts usually take the form of comprehensive, general predictions for the entire year, they were logically placed at the beginning of the entire collection.

The adhoc nature of the collection is indicated by the insertion of some shorter interpolative texts into whatever space was available. It seems as though the scribe was looking for any “free” space in order to squeeze in as many texts as possible even if they did not necessarily belong together. One suspects, therefore, that a number of texts from the “original” document were left out to accommodate the interpolations. Looking at this from another perspective, the extant Daybook could be a combination of more than one “original” source. Nothing is known about either the “original(s)” or from which people could have made copies or the owner(s) of the “originals” who would have made them available for copying.

For a broader perspective on popular belief, check out its GLOBAL CONTEXT.

Back to top