Chinese museum housing ancient bamboo, wood slips to open to public in 2021

A Chinese museum that houses bamboo and wooden slips dating back some 2,000 years is expected to open to the public in 2021.

A Chinese museum that houses bamboo and wooden slips dating back some 2,000 years is expected to open to the public in 2021.

The main structure of the Gansu Jiandu Museum was completed over the weekend in Lanzhou, the capital city of northwest China's Gansu Province. "Jiandu" in Chinese refers to the bamboo and wooden slips on which ancient Chinese wrote with brush and ink before paper was invented.

The museum's predecessor was a slip sorting and research office set up in the 1970s in the Gansu Provincial Museum. It was turned into a specialized museum in 2012 exclusively for academic study and relics preservation. The museum was scheduled to open to the public for the first time at the end of 2021.

"We have a collection of more than 40,000 slips that date back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and Western Jin Dynasty (265-316)," said Xiao Congli, research director of the museum.

Content written on most slips and some of their pictures have been published for academic and general readerships, according to Xiao.

While sorting out and interpreting the slips, the museum has digitalized 1,679 pieces classified as first-class national cultural relics for further study and better protection, he said.

Many of the slips uncovered today were abandoned by ancient people, who handled expired documents by using them as firewood for cooking and heating, flooring horse stables, or just dumping them into wells.

"In some cases, the slips were the best 'toilet paper' people could have in ancient times," said Xiao.

Since Emperor Qinshihuang of the Qin Dynasty unified China for the first time in history, the Chinese characters have largely remained as what they looked like more than 2,000 years ago.

"The slips we see today are all legible," said Yang Mei, a researcher with the museum, adding that as the first-hand written records of history, the slips tell more details, thus are more authentic relatively.

One of the treasures in the collection specifies a catering bill split among the local frontier officials of Jianshui Pass, ruins of which are located in Jinta County near the Heihe River in Gansu Province.

According to the slips, the local officials treated emissaries sent by the imperial court to comfort them. Twenty-seven officials split the bill that covered millet, rice, mutton, wine, vegetables and bean pasta that soldiers ate.

"The story was well documented on the slips. However, we have not come across any historical records about regulations on paying such bills on their own," said Xiao. Usually, such passes and fortresses were financed by the central government.

"For some reason, we assume that the officials split the bill because the pass had a tight budget or ran out of money at that time," he said. "As the frontier had undergone financial difficulties, the officials were a bit upset whenever there was a reception."

Zhu Jianjun, the curator of the museum, said that the study of jiandu relates to various disciplines including history, archaeology and paleography, among others. It covers all aspects of ancient people's food, clothing, housing and transportation, and mirrors the origin of exchanges among civilizations along the ancient Silk Road.

"Interpretation and promotion of such historical information are more conducive to deepening the world's understanding of China," said Zhu.

Gansu Province, home to the World Heritage of Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, is located at the strategic passage of the Silk Road. More than 80,000 bamboo and wooden slips have been unearthed in the province since 1907 when British explorer Marc Aurel Stein trekked far out in the desert and discovered the first batch of slips at the site of the Great Wall beacon in Dunhuang. Among them, some 70,000 slips were from the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), making over 80 percent of all Han slips discovered in the country.

"The Han slips recorded various aspects of the political, military, cultural, diplomatic and social life in the Hexi Corridor along the Silk Road," said Yang.

The Han slips are of high historical, scientific and artistic value as they function as a physical encyclopedia of ancient China, recording the development and prosperity of the ancient Silk Road, the researchers believe.

Zhu said his museum would work with universities and research institutes to further study the slips.

The first museum of this kind was the Changsha Jiandu Museum opened in 2010 in central China's Hunan Province. The museum displays Qin Dynasty bamboo slips excavated from Liye township in 2002.

The discovery of the Liye slips has been hailed as an archaeological breakthrough and compared to the uncovering of the terra-cotta warriors and horses in Shaanxi Province.

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