In Chinese philology, the Old Texts (Chinese: 古文經; pinyin: Gǔwén Jīng; Wade–Giles: Kuwen Ching) refer to some versions of the Five Classics discovered during the Han Dynasty, written in archaic characters and supposedly produced before the burning of the books, as opposed to the Modern Texts or New Texts (今文經) in the new orthography.
The last half of the 2nd century BC was the period when new versions of the Confucian classics were discovered. Most of these new versions were found in the walls of Confucius’s old residence in Qufu, the old capital of State of Lu, when Prince Liu Yu (d. 127 BC) attempted to expand it into a palace upon taking the throne there. In the course of taking the old wall apart, the restorers found old versions of the Classic of History, Rites of Zhou, Yili, Analects of Confucius and Classic of Filial Piety, all written in the old orthography used prior to the reforms of the Clerical script. Hence they were called “old texts”. These newly discovered editions had an effect on later Confucianism.
By the time of 1st century, a new controversy had begun between these two texts. The "new texts" are those that had been transliterated into the new orthography back in the beginning of 2nd century BC, either from oral transmissions or from texts that had survived the Qin Dynasty’s burning of the books or were rescued by the Han Dynasty in the provinces. Surviving scholars in the direct line of transmission of these books got hold of surviving copies and transliterated them into the new orthography.
The "old texts" were the ones that off and on since the late 2nd and during the 1st century BC had turned up, some discovered in the walls of Confucius’s residence, or in Warring States period graves. They were called the “old texts” because they were written in the pre-Qin writing. The discoverers of the "old texts", such as Liu Xin, claimed that all existing texts suffered from an interrupted pedigree, which was rectified by the newly discovered texts. "New text" followers claim the "old texts" are forgeries that lack a line of transmission.
In reality, the burning of the books probably did little more than symbolically burn a few copies of the Confucian books conveniently at hand in the capital. Many other copies survived elsewhere, and these were available for copying into the new orthographic standard set by Qin and its clerical script successor which evolved under Han Dynasty. It was the change in orthography which divided the Warring States and early imperial period textual traditions, and in this respect the newly discovered texts were no different from those used as the basis for the "new text" transcriptions soon after the fall of Qin Dynasty.
The "new texts" portray Confucius as a prophet or "uncrowned king" that should have received the Mandate of Heaven. He could perform miracles and wrote the Five Classics himself. The New Text school, founded by Dong Zhongshu, believed the texts were sacred and carried hidden clues to the future that they tried to decode. They were also interested in apocryphal writings that were obtuse and esoteric. They believed historical events were caused by cosmic forces beyond the control of man. They also believed officials should disobey the sovereign's decree if it will harm the state or dynasty. To betray the sovereign for the sovereign's own sake will keep the Mandate of Heaven in the dynasty's hand and is an act of greater loyalty.
The Old Text school was rationalistic. They rejected apocrypha and believed that the classics were only edited by Confucius. They believed history was caused by human actions and viewed the Son of Heaven (the emperor of China) as the axis mundi whose will was absolute. Officials may advise but not disobey as it is the emperor who is ultimately responsible for keeping or losing the Mandate of Heaven.
The “old texts” had a peculiarly archaist bent. They emphasized the sage-like as opposed to the prophet-like characteristics of Confucius, thereby making him look more like the earlier sages who founded and ruled Zhou Dynasty or even the still more archaic states which preceded it. And yet, these archaic sage-kings are shown ruling China with a bureaucratic apparatus peculiarly like that available to Han Dynasty rulers, and hence by methods which strikingly echoed those of putative enemies of Wang Mang, the modernists. The Former Han (206 BC-AD 8), prior to Wang Mang, had favored New Text. When Wang seized power, he declared the Old Texts to be the state orthodoxy. After the Han restoration, the New Texts became orthodox again.
Later Han (AD 25-220) scholars began favoring the Old Text versions. Old Texter Zheng Xuan synthesized the teachings of both schools. While he was very influential, he was unable to unseat the New Text orthodoxy though the issue became moot when both schools disappeared after the collapse of the Han. Zheng became the mainstream source of interpretation until the appearance of Neo-Confucianism in the Tang and Song dynasties. The controversy was forgotten until it was rediscovered during the Qing dynasty by Han Learning scholars.
Significance of the old/new text controversy is a debate topic in the modern sinology. Martin Kern claims that the issue itself was an artificial projection of the mid-Han problematic onto the early Han realities. According to him, the issue should be seen in light of the transition from the self-referential ritual tradition (centered on the oral and multimedia practices) to the literary canon.