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December 25, 2017

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Ancient wooden slips reveal first emperor’s search for immortality

The pursuit of immortality was common among the most powerful people in ancient China — the emperors. According to new archeological findings, China’s first emperor even went so far as to make it a government function, more than 2,000 years ago.

A set of wooden slips found in central China’s Hunan Province contain the emperor’s executive order for a nationwide search for the elixir of life and official replies from local governments.

Zhang Chunlong, a researcher at the provincial institute of archeology, said the emperor’s decree reached as far as frontier regions and remote villages.

According to the script on the narrow wooden slips, a village called “Duxiang” reported that no miraculous potion had been found and implied the search would continue. Another place, “Langya,” in today’s Shandong Province, presented a herb collected from an auspicious local mountain.

The discovery of the order demonstrated the emperor’s centralization of authority.

“It required a highly efficient administration and strong executive force to pass down a government decree in ancient times when transportation and communication facilities were undeveloped,” Zhang said.

Ying Zheng was the first person to unify China and declared himself Qin Shihuang, or the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). To consolidate his power, he standardized the system of weights and measures, and issued currency.

A previous study of the slips suggested the Qin Dynasty already had a mail service.

However, most historians see Ying Zheng, who lived from 259 BC to 210 BC, as one of the most brutal tyrants of China’s feudal society, who threw millions of peasants into slavery and forced them to build the Great Wall and his mammoth imperial palace and mausoleum. The wooden slips, over 36,000 of them with more than 200,000 Chinese characters, were discovered in June 2002 in an abandoned well in Liye village, Longshan county in western Hunan.

The slips dated from 222 BC to 208 BC and covered politics, the military, the economy, law, culture and medicine.

After studying the 48 medicine-related slips, Zhang said the Qin Dynasty, although it lasted just 15 years, had a sophisticated medical system and documentation, as well as multiple treatments that continued to be used by for a long time.

Zhou Qi, an assistant research fellow at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, said people at the time knew various treatments of traditional Chinese medicine such as moxibustion, acupuncture, oral administration and topical therapy.

The slips also revealed that doctors were only allowed to treat patients under the direction of the government, and treatment details had to be recorded in official documents. The patients mostly came from the upper class.

The Qin Dynasty left few records. Most major events are only known through traces in the historical writings of the ensuing Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220).

The new discoveries shed light upon China’s ancient medical history and fill in some gaps regarding the emperor’s governance, Zhang said.


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