SINOGRAPH Ancient texts uncover meritocracy debate
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Imagine we were to discover a series of ancient manuscripts revealing that Plato actually copied all of his ideas from Parmenides, a preceding philosopher from Elea in southern Italy; that Aristotle rewrote treatises originally penned by Archytas, another philosopher from Taranto; and actually the whole philosophical debate in ancient Greece was about politics (a very sensitive subject for the Roman Empire), not truth (a topic more consistent with later widespread Christian beliefs).
The same manuscripts could prove the Romans copied everything they had from the Etruscans, and history was later doctored by Roman emperors to undermine the importance of other Italian
civilizations conquered by Rome and present their home city as the one true representative of culture from Italy, which was then ruling the Mediterranean world.
This discovery would make our heads spin and make us reassess the trajectory of history and all our considerations about the future.
Something similar actually happened in the West in the 18th century with the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii by German historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann, which sparked the fire of Enlightenment. And it is happening in China now possibly on an even grander scale with the discovery and first understanding of three sets of manuscripts buried at the end of the 4th century BC. They cast a totally new light on the history and philosophical debate in ancient China.
The discovery of Pompeii proved to 18th century Europe, which was growing disaffected with Christianity and the Christian tradition, the importance of pagan history and its legacy. It helped to free European minds from the fetters of dogmatism, justified by a superficial reading of the Bible, and launched Europe on the path to developing the modern world. This discovery had a further support with the then immense influence of literature and ideas coming from China through the translations of Jesuits. That literature proved the existence of a non-Christian state with a high level of civilization and yet introduced to Europe through the work of the ultra loyal branch of the Church, the Jesuit order.
On August 30, 2013, at an international conference organized by Dartmouth College with Beijing's Tsinghua University, participants will discuss the findings from the first work on interpretation of the Tsinghua manuscripts acquired in 2008.
Three massive sets of bamboo slip manuscripts buried around 300 BC have now been found; one in a tomb in Hubei, in a site next to the capital of the ancient state of Chu; another looted from a tomb and sent to Hong Kong before being bought for the Shanghai Museum.
The Tsinghua University set, also bought back after looting, is probably the most significant because of its historical nature and relationship to several of the Confucian classics. The manuscripts are written in the script of the Chu state, so many characters are unknown (they are not the standard Chinese characters adopted after the unification under the first Qin emperor), and many others are illegible.
According to Professor Sarah Allan, the organizer of the conference at Dartmouth, and along with Tsinghua Professor Li Xueqin one of the main forces behind the reading of the manuscripts, it will take decades to fully understand the material. The discovery of Pompeii also took decades to be fully understood and internalized by European culture.
In any event, there are already quite a few very important findings, according to Professor Allan. The manuscripts revolutionize our understanding of ancient Chinese history, philosophical debate, writing, and circulation of ancient texts. The writing system was standardized by the Qin emperor, who also destroyed much of the traditional literature, so these texts give us a glimpse of what texts were really like before they were reconstructed - in practice often rewritten - in the Han dynasty (the dynasty ruling China from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD).
The writing is in a regional style and has many unique characters, but the spoken language it reflects is similar that that of the central plains. Perhaps there was already a common spoken language, like later Mandarin or today's putonghua. It also appears that ancient texts were not organized in finished sets like the ones we have now, but were more open-ended collections of writings, perhaps transcribed from oral dictation. 
However, the bigger revelations are about history and philosophical debate. Not much contradicts presently known facts, Professor Allan says, but so much more becomes known that the interpretation may become totally different. It is as if we were just seeing a sweet face and from that we guessed it belonged to a girl, but then the frame expands and we see the body of a person who is clearly a boy.
Li Xueqin just this month made Chinese headlines  by arguing that the Qin people (who unified the Chinese empire) came from the east - not the west, as previously thought - and might have been related to the Shang Dynasty, which ruled the central plains before the 11th century BC and preceded the Zhou Dynasty.
Moreover, as Professor Li was reportedly arguing, "What kind of culture was that of Qin? At the time, what was the peculiarity that historically shaped the Qin power in relation with other cultures of the time? We research the problem of the formation and the origin of the Qin culture. If we simply see the Qin culture as one of violence and military prowess, then it was a backward and closed culture. Then by using the Qin culture to unify the whole country, from the whole historical point of view, this was not useful for progress and development. This point is especially important to consider now." 
The point Li is making is extremely important for modernity, as the Qin emperor and his culture were the model of statecraft openly used by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.
On the other hand, research by Professor Allan has cast a different light on a mostly neglected aspect of the ancient political debate. Professor Allan found a large body of evidence supporting the importance of debate in the selection of the new king through abdication: a king chooses his successor from any walk of life, abdicates, and promotes him as the new king. This idea, according to the extant texts, seemed a quirk of Mozi (a philosopher of the 4th century BC and adversary of Confucius). But the manuscripts prove now that it had very wide support, in opposition to the idea that prevailed at the time and was supported by Confucians of succession through blood lineage.
This seems more in line with the present choice of the Communist Party to renounce blood succession and select leaders according to their merit. In a way, at the 18th Party Congress, Hu Jintao, like the ancient mythical kings Yao and Shun, abdicated and gave power to Xi Jinping.
The political parallels are of course too simplistic when considering the complex influence these findings will have on the rewriting of ancient history. Yet these archeological discoveries, casting a new light on Chinese history, find a parallel in the immense influence on China of a foreign culture which is reshaping the Chinese vision of the world and of its future. Here there is a new analogy with the discovery of Pompeii.
Moreover, Confucius, the mainstay of Chinese culture for centuries, here appears a part of a broader movement of rujia "soft scholars", who were very widespread at the time and included a broad spectrum of political ideas that were avidly debated. Most importantly, the whole body of Chinese culture that we have about the period begins to appear now almost as a doctored selection of texts from which many ideas inconsistent with the ideology of later times have been expunged or simply lost through disinterest.
Two elements concealed by this ideology begin to surface, and thus can be attributed to Han (the dynasty ruling China from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD) "spin doctors". One is that the Qin, cast as a semi-barbaric culture from the "wild west", now appears to be part of the core of the Chinese culture, actually from a dynasty preceding the Zhou Dynasty (the model of civilization for Confucius, the ideal thinker for the Han ideologues).
Another is that the idea of blood succession, punctuated by dynastic change, which prevailed through 3,000 years of Chinese history, was powerfully challenged at the time. If these two concepts were basically expunged from present texts, how many more ideas and facts were hidden or cancelled by the Qin and Han rulers, eager to spread their own propaganda through history?
Was there an idea of one China already? It is hard to answer to this question from the distance of over two millennia, when their idea of state and territory was so different. It is true, there were big differences, but the texts also reflect a language was largely similar to that used by the people people of the states located in central plains.
The debate we find in the manuscripts is consistent with the tradition we have; it was not totally different. Then this indicates the existence of a strong cultural community where everybody was talking about the same things. This cultural community possibly allowed the political unity of China to endure for many centuries. Chinese identity and Chinese history are intimately entwined and the findings in the next decades could change forever the understanding of history.
1. Ai Lan: "Guanyu Zhongguo zaoqi wenxian de yige jiashe", Guangming ribao, January 10, 2012 ; Sarah Allan, "On Shu (Documents) and the origin of the Shangshu (Ancient Documents) in light of recently discovered bamboo slip manuscripts", BSOAS,75.3, 547-557.
2. "Li Xueqin: Jiekai Qinren yuanyu dongfang zhi mi", China Youth Daily, June 18, 2013.
3. See here
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org