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Editor's Desk
Print Edition> Editor's Desk
UPDATED: November 24, 2008 NO. 48 NOV. 27, 2008
Unveiling the Past

Before paper was invented about 2,000 years ago, what did the Chinese people write on? And what was the vehicle that made it possible for ancient Chinese philosophers' thinking to be handed down to the present day? More than 2,100 bamboo strips from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), recently donated to China's prestigious Tsinghua University, may help answer these questions.

Existing bamboo strips are roughly divided into books and documents. On the 2,400-year-old bamboo strips now preserved in Tsinghua are inscribed several Confucian classics and historical works, which are very important for the exploration of China's ancient history and traditional culture.

The most exciting finding is the Book of History, the first compilation of documentary records of events in ancient Chinese history. The book is one of the five Confucian classics. It provides valuable materials for studies on the situation of China in late primitive society and the evolution of the slave system in the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (c. 2100-771 B.C.). Many of China's political institutions and philosophical thoughts can find their roots there.

The Book of History was listed as a banned book in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered all copies in the country to be torched. This "bamboo strip" edition is believed to be the first real ancient copy of the Book of History ever found in 2,000 years.

Among these bamboo strips is also an account that covers the history from 1200 B.C. to 200 B.C. It records a lot of events that have never been seen in other historical materials.

Apart from the abovementioned findings, there are also some articles that touch on topics that are extensively discussed in other Confucian classics such as the Book of Rites and the Book of Changes. During the long period of more than 2,000 years, they remained unknown. The value of these articles is also significant and they are expected to help us better understand the wisdom of ancient Chinese.

Before paper was invented, bamboo and wooden strips served as the major recording materials of books in China. They had a far-reaching impact on the country's book-making approaches in the following thousands of years. For example, bamboo and wooden strips were usually threaded together to form scrolls for the convenience of readers. China's earliest paper books also followed this model. Even today, many Chinese terms about books, as well as the writing style and method, continue the tradition that evolved in that period.

Tsinghua University said it would invite scholars from both home and abroad to conduct research on its stockpile of bamboo strips and plans to publish the first reports related to this research program in three years' time. The university has also set up a special research and protection center for the unearthed documents.

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