Archaeologists in China have found a collection of bamboo texts – including copies of the I Ching, Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius and other classics. New York Times reports on the fragile, waterlogged library that’s older than Jesus:
“When we opened the box it had a bad smell. Moldy. Many were broken,” said Li Xueqin, an eminent historian and paleographer at the university. Underneath the hard, impacted mud was something stunning: ancient literary texts, written on the bamboo strips in pure, stable ink. For three months, Mr. Li’s team cleaned the slender strips, a difficult job because the very cells of the bamboo were saturated with water, making them as soft as cooked noodles.
Inscribed with some of the earliest known texts of the Chinese classics and believed to have been illegally excavated from the tomb of a historian who lived in the state of Chu during the Warring States period, around 300 B.C., the bamboo strips are revolutionizing our understanding of ancient thought and raising issues rooted in the past that feel stunningly contemporary: Is there such a thing as fixed meaning? Is what we think of as truth actually true? Exhortations to cleave to orthodoxy — “Love the Communist Party” and “Study the Classics” — are common in China and often linked, but what, in fact, are the classics?
The Tsinghua manuscripts and the two other collections, also dated from around 300 B.C. (one excavated from the historical Chu state area of Hubei Province, while the other was bought on the Hong Kong art market), together include: The earliest known copy of the “I Ching,” the ancient book of divination; hitherto unknown poems from “The Book of Songs”; texts attributed to Confucius that are not found in later renditions of “The Analects”; the oldest version of Laozi’s “Dao De Jing,” or “The Taoist Book of the Way” (with many differences from later editions); and previously unknown chapters of “The Book of Documents,” the Confucian history classic of speeches about good governance by model kings, which carried great political significance. This work would become a target for destruction by later rulers.
It’s simply extraordinary in its implications, said Mr. Li.
“It would be like finding the original Bible or the ‘original’ classics,” he said in an interview at Tsinghua, as the inscribed bamboo strips lay in boxes of distilled water in a cool room on a floor above us. “It enables us to look at the classics before they were turned into ‘classics.’ The questions now include, what were they in the beginning, and how did they become what they became?” he asked.
By contrast, the oldest known texts of the New Testament are about 600 years younger than this.