An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書

Jul 21, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

The alliance tablets of Houma (Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書) are an "archived" collection of ceremonial agreements (meng 盟) between several noble houses in the regional state of Jin 晉 during the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). Apart from the alliance inscriptions of Wenxian 溫縣, Henan (found 1980-1982), they are the only testimonies of the custom of ceremonial alliances between ruling houses during the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). The tablets of Houma were discovered in 1965 in Houma 侯馬, Shanxi. They date from the early 5th century BCE.

Transmitted sources like Zuozhuan 左傳 or Shiji 史記 report of frequent covenants during which alliances of peace were concluded. They were usually conducted in a dense ritual matter, including the sacrifice of victims to ancestral spirits and deities. How much such ritual covenants belonged to the ceremonial way of relationship between the kings of Zhou and the regional rulers, is described in some of the state offices listed in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮. Victims and one copy of the alliance oath were buried in pits (kan 坎, keng 坑), while copies were stored in the archives of the participants.

The finds in Houma are custom of this custom. Most tablets – made of jade or other stones – were buried in pits, yet separated from sacrificial animals like cows or pigs. Apart from the bones, the victim pits contain sacrificial jades (jiyu 祭玉), many of them in the shape of rings (bi 幣, i.e. bi 璧). The largest number of alliance tablets has an oblong shape, with pointed tip, which is the typical shape of gui 圭 "scepters" (insignia of office). The length ranges between 18 and 32 cm. Until today, more than 5,000 tablets were unearthed, but the texts of only 656 can be deciphered. The length of the inscriptions ranged between a dozen and more than 200 characters.

The inscriptions of the tablets speaks of two opponents, one having arranged the covenant against the other person. In the inscription, the host is called Zi Zhao Meng 子趙孟. Scholars interprete this persons and his enemy differently, and therefore come to different conclusions about the date of the covenant. The first interpretation is Zhao Yang 趙鞅 (Zhao Jianzi 趙簡子) vs. Zhao Ni 趙尼 (Zhao Ji 趙稷), 497 BCE; the second Zhao Zhang 趙章 (Zhao Jinghou 趙敬侯) vs. Zhao Bei 趙北 (Zhao Shuo 趙朔 or Zhao Chao 趙朝), 424 BCE; the third Zhao Jia 趙嘉 (Zhao Hengzi 趙桓子) v. Zhao Hua 趙化 or Zhao Huan 浣 (Zhao Xianhou 趙獻侯), 386 BCE; a fourth interpretation dates the covenant to the 580s BCE.

Figure 1. Lithic sticks with alliance inscriptions
Photography (right), deciphering (middle), and transcription into modern script (left) of two stone sticks bearing alliance inscriptions. From Shanxi sheng Wenwu Gongzuo Weiyuanhui (1975).

Experts discern between five main topics dealt with in the covenant texts, namely declarations of allegiance to the ruling house and their ancestors (zongmeng 宗盟), the presentation of a hostage to the partner of the covenant (weizhi 委質), oaths not to appropriate the assets of the partner, like fields, or workforce (nashi 納室), the pronunciation of a curse against a perpetrator of law (zuzhou 詛咒), and preparatory divinations carried out before the sacrifice (bushi 卜筮). Most oaths are accompanied by a the announcement of sanctions in case of violation of the peaceful alliance.

The characters of the inscriptions were written with a brush before being incised and coloured with cinnabar. Only a small number is coloured black. The ductus of the characters resembles those of late Spring and Autumn period bronze inscriptions. It found much interest by students of calligraphy and palaeography because the inscriptions are testimonies of the development of a clerical script (lishu 隸書) that deviated from the ancient seal or bronze script (zhuanshu 篆書).

The original excavation report was published in 1976 by the Wenwu Press 文物出版社出, called Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書.

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