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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 east.
Modern historians question how many books really were burned.
(More works probably were lost to imperial editing projects that recopied the bamboo texts onto newer technologies like silk and, later, paper in a newly standardized form of Chinese writing.) But the fact is that for over two millennia all our knowledge of China’s great philosophical schools was limited to texts revised after the Qin unification.
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.