Sources of Early Chinese History

23 Jan, 2014 950 History of Asia

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the sources for early Chinese history. The first attempts to make a record of historical events in China date from the Shang dynasty of the second millennium BC. The earliest surviving records were inscribed on bones or tortoise shells; in later centuries, chroniclers left detailed accounts on paper or silk. In the last hundred years, archaeologists have discovered a wealth of new materials, including a cache of previously unknown texts which were found in a sealed cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Such sources are are shedding new light on Chinese history, although interpreting ancient sources from the period before the invention of printing presents a number of challenges.

Play on BBC Sounds website


  • Roel Sterckx 4 episodes
    Professor of Chinese History at the University of Cambridge
  • Tim Barrett 8 episodes
    Professor of East Asian History at SOAS, University of London
  • Hilde de Weerdt 6 episodes
    Professor of Chinese History at Leiden University

Reading list

  • Historians of China and Japan
    W. G. Beasley and Edwin G. Pulleyblank (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 1962) Google Books →
  • The Grand Scribe's Records
    Ssu-Ma Ch'ien (ed. William H. Nienhauser jr.) (Indiana University Press, 1995) Google Books →
  • Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History
    Nicola di Cosmo (Cambridge University Press, 2004) Google Books →
  • The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 1: Beginnings to AD 600
    Andrew Feldherr and Grant Hardy (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 2011) Google Books →
  • The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 2: 400-1400
    Sarah Foot and Chase F. Robinson (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 2012) Google Books →
  • Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History
    Grant Hardy (Columbia University Press, 1999) Google Books →
  • Mirroring the Past: The Writing and Use of History in Imperial China
    On-Cho Ng and Q. Edward Wang (University of Hawaii Press, 2005) Google Books →
  • Dubious Facts: The Evidence of Early Chinese Historiography
    Garret Olberding (State University of New York Press, 2013) Google Books →
  • Historical Records
    Sima Qian (trans. Raymond Dawson) (Oxford University Press, 1994) Google Books →
  • A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography
    David Schaberg (Harvard University Asia Center, 2002) Google Books →
  • The Writing of Official History under the T'ang
    Denis Twitchett (Cambridge University Press, 2002) Google Books →
  • Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han by Pan-Ku
    Burton Watson (trans.) (Columbia University Press, 1974)
  • The Tso Chuan: Selections from China's Oldest Narrative History
    Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1992) Google Books →
  • Chinese History: A New Manual
    Endymion Wilkinson (Harvard University Press, 2013)

Related episodes

Programme ID: b03qf7qx

Episode page:

Auto-category: 951 (China)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello. In 1900, a Taoist monk was exploring a cave complex on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northwest China.