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By the end of the summer, Professor Li and his team had won their prize: a trove of documents that is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.Until now, this revolution has largely been confined to paleography—the deciphering of ancient texts.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.And yet the implications of these unearthed texts are so profound that they will take decades to digest.The manuscripts’ importance stems from their particular antiquity. During this time, the Hundred Schools of Thought arose, including Confucianism, which concerns hierarchical relationships and obligations in society; Daoism (or Taoism), and its search to unify with the primordial force called Dao (or Tao); Legalism, which advocated strict adherence to laws; and Mohism, and its egalitarian ideas of impartiality.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.
But the university again put its weight behind the project, convincing leaders that the strips were a national priority.But its importance is slowly spilling into other disciplines, as a result of the deciphering of the Tsinghua bamboo slips now at Tsinghua University, and several other excavations made in the past two decades.Although their significance is not widely understood in the West, in China they have already aroused popular interest, with newspapers and television reporting as these texts are edited and published.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.Led by one of China’s most influential historians of the twentieth century, Gu Jiegang, this “doubt antiquity” (yigu) movement cast aspersions on the received history that Chinese had learned for millennia, from the existence of its first dynasties to the uniformity of the great philosophical texts.