The Burner of Books

The China Daily News carried a very cool story this week on a major new archaeological discovery in Hubei province. According to Shen Haining,  the director of Hubei’s cultural heritage bureau,  excavators working in a tomb that dates back to the  Warring States period of China’s history  (475-221 B.C. ) recovered a trove of water-saturated bamboo strips covered in inked Chinese characters.  Resembling a snarl of soggy noodles,  the strips are remains of ancient and exceedingly rare Chinese books–a find that is sure to generate huge interest in China and abroad.

Perhaps a little Chinese history is in order here  to help make sense of this find.  The Warring States period,  as its name clearly suggests,  was a time of massive violent military clashes.  Lords of seven major states all vied for supreme power in tianxia (which means “all under heaven”),  and they threw huge infantry armies bristling with mass-produced iron weapons at one another.   These  armies also boasted for the first time in Chinese history archers with crossbows and soldiers fighting on horseback,   both of which completely transformed military engagements in the Far East, rendering them far more horrifying.

The period came to an end finally when one of the combatant lords,  Qin Shi Huang, subjugated all his rivals.  But while the new emperor brought peace to China, he committed a grave sin against history and literature.  Fearing that all earlier books would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his rule,  Qin Shi Huang  ordered most Chinese books of the day to be burned and he had scholars who possessed such forbidden writings buried alive–making bamboo-strip books dating from the Warring States period rare indeed today.

You might ask yourself why we should care today about the fate of these lost Chinese documents,  many of which were recorded on bamboo strips.   Well,  it turns out that amid all the bloodshed and chaos of the time,   many of China’s greatest thinkers were discussing warfare and dreaming of peace.   Many of their works were undoubtedly lost in the destruction ordered by  Qin Shi Huang,  though a few,  including the very famous meditation The Art of War, survived to the present thanks to later copyists.

I am dying to find out what the soggy bamboo strips in the newly discovered Hubei tomb will hold.  “It’s still to early to tell,”  Shen told the China Daily reporter.  “Let’s wait and see.  Archaeology is all about surprise.”  Hear, hear.

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