A Revolutionary Discovery in China

An eighteenth-century painting showing Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty ‘burning all the books and throwing scholars into a ravine’ in order to stamp out ideological nonconformity after the unification of China in 221 BCE. ‘For over two millennia,’ Ian Johnson writes, ‘all our knowledge of China’s great philosophical schools was limited to texts revised after the Qin unification.’ Now a trove of recently discovered ancient documents, written on strips of bamboo, ‘is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.’ Illustration from Henri Bertin’s album The History of the Lives of the Chinese Emperors.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource
An eighteenth-century painting showing Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty ‘burning all the books and throwing scholars into a ravine’ in order to stamp out ideological nonconformity after the unification of China in 221 BCE. ‘For over two millennia,’ Ian Johnson writes, ‘all our knowledge of China’s great philosophical schools was limited to texts revised after the Qin unification.’ Now a trove of recently discovered ancient documents, written on strips of bamboo, ‘is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.’ Illustration from Henri Bertin’s album The History of the Lives of the Chinese Emperors.

1.

As Beijing prepared to host the 2008 Olympics, a small drama was unfolding in Hong Kong. Two years earlier, middlemen had come into possession of a batch of waterlogged manuscripts that had been unearthed by tomb robbers in south-central China. The documents had been smuggled to Hong Kong and were lying in a vault, waiting for a buyer.

Universities and museums around the Chinese world were interested but reluctant to buy. The documents were written on hundreds of strips of bamboo, about the size of chopsticks, that seemed to date from 2,500 years ago, a time of intense intellectual ferment that gave rise to China’s greatest schools of thought. But their authenticity was in doubt, as were the ethics of buying looted goods. Then, in July, an anonymous graduate of Tsinghua University stepped in, bought the soggy stack, and shipped it back to his alma mater in Beijing.

University administrators acted boldly. They appointed China’s most famous historian, seventy-five-year-old Li Xueqin, to head a team of experts to study the strips. On July 17, the researchers gingerly placed the slips in enamel basins filled with water, hoping to duplicate the environment that had allowed the fibrous material to survive so long.

The next day, disaster struck. Horrified team members noticed that the thin strips had already started developing black spots—fungus that within a day could eat a hole through the bamboo. Administrators convened a crisis meeting, and ordered the school’s top chemistry professors to save the slips.

Over the following weeks, the scientists worked nonstop through the eerily empty campus—the students were on vacation, and everyone else was focused on the Olympic Green just a few miles…


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