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Letter from Beijing:
China's "Dead Sea Scrolls"
Volume 54 Number 4, July/August 2001
by Wang Tao

Recently discovered bamboo manuscripts could revolutionize our understanding of Daoist and Confucian traditions.

[image] Shanghai Museum director Ma Chengyuan examines slips recovered from a Hong Kong dealer. Museums must compete with private collectors to acquire bamboo slips, right, many of which contain previously unknown ancient texts. (Courtesy Wang Tao) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the summer of 2000, more than 100 scholars convened at the Dayuan Guesthouse in the suburbs of Beijing to discuss early philosophical manuscripts written on bamboo slips. These slips, found earlier in the decade, include the oldest version of the famous Daoist canon, the Laozi, found in a tomb in the Hubei Province, and a group of early Confucian manuscripts, bought at a Hong Kong antique market. Copied onto slips during the fourth century B.C., not long after the death of Confucius and during the lifetimes of his famous follower, Mencius, and the Daoist master Zhuangzi, these texts have been described by Sinologists as the Chinese equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dayuan Guesthouse conference brought together archaeologists who presented details of their most recent discoveries of bamboo slips and reported on the archaeological context and conservation issues concerning these materials. They believe that the texts, which have shaped the thought and behavior of Chinese people for more than 2,000 years, have the potential to change our understanding of early Daoist and Confucian traditions.

Wang Tao is a lecturer in Chinese archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He specializes in Chinese paleography and Bronze Age cultures.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America