Explorers find rare ancient books

By Lin Shujuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-23 08:37
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Excited archaeologists hope the discovery of rare bamboo-strip books will reveal the owner of an ancient tomb being excavated in Hubei province.

Explorers find rare ancient books

Work to uncover the tomb in Yancang, a village near Jingmen, began on Jan 17 and experts believe the site dates back to the Warring States Period (475 BC to 221 BC).

"We cannot tell how many we've got and we have no idea what's written on them, but the discovery of bamboo strips itself is exciting," Shen

Haining, director of the provincial cultural heritage bureau, told China Daily.

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Archaeologists will have to wait until excavation of the tomb is completed next week to attempt to read the strips, he said. "Sorting out those bamboo strips is like sorting out well-cooked noodles, you have to be really careful so as not to damage them."

There is a possibility the strips contain an introduction written by the owner of the tomb, "like a letter of recommendation the deceased would carry with them to the underworld to give Yanluo, the god of death", Shen said.

Ancient Chinese believed Yanluo was not only the ruler but also the judge of the underworld. Hence the deceased would bury with them an introduction letter detailing their good deeds and achievements during their life to guarantee a better afterlife.

"It is still too early to tell, let's wait and see. Archaeology is all about surprise," he said.

Archaeologists initially suspected the tomb belonged to a ministerial-level military officer of Chu, then-ruling state of Hubei province.

In addition to the books, the excavation has also uncovered a copper weapon inscribed with the year of manufacture - 384 BC - and a chariot pulled by four horses.

According to historical archives, only officials at ministerial level traveled in chariots pulled by four horses, said Meng Huaping, deputy director of the provincial archaeological institute, which is leading the excavation.

In other chambers, archaeologists have found another five chariots and 10 horses, all arranged around a flagpole as if prepared for a battle.

Bamboo-strip books are the best materials to study the earliest Chinese manuscripts because Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered most documents to be destroyed after he united China in 221 BC.

The emperor ordered all books except those about the Qin dynasty's history and culture, divination and medicines to be burned.

"As the historical documents about the early part of China's history that have been passed down are very rare, bamboo strips today are very valuable," Shen said.

The discovery in 1993 of almost 800 bamboo strips dating back to the Warring States Period in a tomb in Hubei was an international sensation as they contained the complete pre-Qin transcription of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, a philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC to 476 BC) and founder of the Taoist school of thought.