Of all the variations that the book took in form over history, none may be less influential to how we know books today than the Chinese bamboo scrolls. Like all forms of book, the bamboo scroll was a product of the resources available and the primary book form the 17th century BC to 4th century AD (Stromer). The choice to use bamboo is intuitive in that it is widely available in China. Because bamboo is thin, they were cut into strips and sewn together with hemp, silk, or leather. Writing required a fine point marker, either in the form of a brush or a carving tool, rather than a broad instrument. This contributed to the complex characters of the Chinese writing system. Amaranth Borsuk reports, “The tradition Chinese style of writing from top to bottom arises directly from the book’s materiality—a bamboo slip was too thin to permit more than one character per line” (26). Additionally, Borsuk explains that Chinese writing also reads from right to left because Chinese writers found it faster to add blank slips with their left hands. I find this not to be a satisfying explanation, however. For one, this doesn’t explain why the slips were used vertically. I can imagine using them horizontally just as well. This would allow for both a left-to-right writing and reading system as well as a more simplified form of writing since more than one character could be placed on the same line. Secondly, I see no reason why we could not create a writing system that forms words vertically rather than horizontally. Thirdly, a look at some bamboo scrolls show that it was common to add complex sketches that expanded onto many slips. Perhaps a better explanation as to the use of complex characters is that the scrolls would be cumbersome so it would be more economical to fit more communication into smaller spaces. Perhaps attempting to refer to book materials for explaining all the choices in the development of the book and writing is erroneous.
The bamboo scroll is extremely impractical for most books in English. However, the artist who wishes to display some shorter poems or very short prose could modify the scroll by writing on the scrolls horizontally rather than vertically. I came across some pictures of popsicle sticks sewn together in a similar fashion to the bamboo scrolls. Those interested in arts and crafts can make a quick afternoon project out of it.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018.
Stromer, Daniel et al. “Virtual cleaning and unwrapping of non-invasively digitized soiled bamboo scrolls.” Scientific Reports. 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-39447-0, accessed 10 Sep. 2021.
2 thoughts on “The Bamboo Scroll”
Wow – there are some really good critical questions and hypotheses here, especially (in my opinion): “perhaps a better explanation as to the use of complex characters is that the scrolls would be cumbersome so it would be more economical to fit more communication into smaller spaces.” I wish I knew whether the conclusions about the scroll form and its effect on writing have a basis in historical evidence (writings on the matter, etc.) or are mainly speculation (a kind of archeology–how does this bone seem to fit?). But the first source in the book’s bibliography seems promising place to start answering that question.
I was wondering the same thing, Prof. Michelle. Borsuk seems to present it as speculative, but I wasn’t sure if this was merely a matter of presentation on her part and an interpretation on mine.