2,200-Year-Old Documents Hidden in a Well

In spring 2002, Chinese local authority in a remote park in Hunan province decided to build a 3 km long embankment to protect Liye Town from floods.

The area affected by construction includes a section of the ancient city wall, so a Chinese archaeologist team led by Chai Huanbo (柴煥波) was sent to conduct a quick excavation before the commencement of the project.

An Ancient Well

2,200-year-old wellIt was during this rescue digging, square timber frames with mortise and tenon joinery were uncovered beneath 8 layers of mud mingled with broken pieces of pottery and tiles deposited over the past two thousand years.

They were constructed in a style typical to the wells built in the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC), but what buried deep in the well was extraordinary.

For over 2,000 years, the short-lived Qin Dynasty, one of the most important turning points in Chinese history, was shrouded in mystery due to the lack of original written records.

Yet this unsatisfactory situation was changed from that moment on because what they discovered in the ancient dry well were the original documents recorded on 37,000 bamboo slips.

2,200-year-old Qin Dynasty documents on bamboo splits

The further digging eventually confirmed the “wells” were never meant to be used to draw water, but operated as the entrance to underground achieves, where documents produced 2,200 years ago by the government of the Qianling County (迁陵县) were deposited, apparently, in hurry.

Part of the timber slips unearthed from the wells in Yeli Town

Part of the timber slips unearthed from the wells in Yeli Town

The ancient Qianling County, situated in the area around today’s Liye (里耶) Town in Hunan Province, was a county-level administration during the reign of First Emperor Qi, and 37,000 bamboo slips that record on the local events were recovered.

Prior to this discovery, China only unearthed 4,000 bamboo slips in total from Hubei, Gansu, Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces.

Chinese research circle views the excavation as the most important archaeological achievement, only second to the terracotta warriors, in terms of helping understand the mighty but short-lived Qin Dynasty that is one of the most significant turning points in Chinese history.

The documents were written using brush pens, covering the period of 25 years under First Emperor Qin’s reign and one year under his successor, with contents ranging from county-level memorial services, registered names of towns and villages and the distance between each settlement, county’s population records, land reclamation, property development, tax regulation, financial balance, food stored by local government, residents’ service duty to the county, military personnel and goods allocated by the state, postal service, court rulings, prison management, public education, medical services and all policies and directives issued by the county administration.

Based on the signatures left and the dates specified, there were more than a dozen office administrators involved in the data entry.

What Did the Bamboo Slips Tell Us about the Short-live Qin Dynasty?

A Unified Written Language

Chinese hieroglyphic written system is believed to be created during Xia Dynasty (2070BC–1600BC) in the Oracle bones form, while the more abstract seal script was developed during the Zhou Federation (1046BC-256BC) and widely used in the Qin Kingdom among the warring states.

Evolution of Chinese script

The diagram above shows the Evolution of Chinese script (from the top to the bottom: the oldest to the latest):

Oracle Bone script,
Inscription script,
Small Seal script,
Official script,
Regular script (KaiTi),
Cursive script,
Running script (handwriting)

For thousands of years before Qin, China was basically a society based on feudalism, with a social system similar to that in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown to form a highly autonomous vassal state, and each vessel state had its own laws, language and a certain number of military forces.

When First Emperor of Qin (the owner of the Terracotta Warriors) reunited China, he abolished feudalism and transformed a chaotic federation into a centralised China.

Further to facilitate the nation’s unity, he issued a standard writing language script to ease the cultural exchange, thus the Qin variant of seal script became the official written language of the empire.

A Unified Measurement System

Further to facilitate the nation’s unity, apart from issuing a standard writing language, First Emperor Qin also unified a measurement system to boost the inter-regional trading business.

The unified measurement also helped to regulate and develop mathematics and other basic science. Below is the 2,200-year-old Nine Times Tables unearthed from Liye well, along with 36,000 documents written on bamboo slips.

Nine Times Tables

Right: the unearthed math chat on bamboo slips; Left: a printed clearer version of the math chat.

This Nine Times Tables is said to be almost identical to the one studied by Chinese kids in school today, except the ancient version also covers some fractional operations.

A Unified Width of Rail for Carriages

According to the Biography of Jia Shan in Book of Han (汉书·贾山传), compiled during the following Han Dynasty, a typical Qin road was about 70 metres wide with pine trees planted in every 7 metres and the edges of the road reinforced with metal cones. Such roads were extended from the Xi’an to today’s Shandong Province in the east coast, and Suzhou and Hubei in the south of the Yangtze River. The road is about 30 meters wide, and each 10 metres long, there is a tree. There are metal wedges inserted in the foundation of the road at both edges reinforcing the structure, and a pine tree planted by the wedge to make the metal pieces invisible (秦为驰道于天下,东穷燕齐,南极吴楚,江湖之上,滨海之观毕至。道广五十步,三丈而树,厚筑其外,隐以金椎,树以青松).

The fact that the path for horse carriages would need to be in an excessive 30 meters width indicates they might not just be flat roads but included a single or double line railway.

In Nanyang (南阳), Henan Province, a double-line railway was found lying in a remote mountainous area. The wooden sleepers are all decayed, but the tracks, made of hardwood trees, clearly received advanced anti-corrosion treatment, are still intact.

2,200-year-old railway

The standard distance between the sleepers of the modern railway is not designed according to standard walking or running pace of man but matches the galloping pace of horses. Apparently, along this double-track railway, the heavily loaded carriage could be pulled by horses running on sleepers.

According to the carbon 14 (C14) dating results, the wooden sleepers and tracks were produced 2,200 years ago during the Qin Dynasty.

Previously the historians were puzzled as to why there was a need to unify the width of the roads until this rail system was discovered. Clearly, Qin was not the only kingdom built the railway and other kingdoms constructed the rail in different widths.

Using a unified written language to encourage cultural exchange, establishing a standard measurement system to ease the inter-regional trading activities, and apply the same width to all railways to facilitate the physical communication, these three significant policies have ensured Chinese civilisation to last for another two thousand years until today.

A Life during the Qin Dynasty

A scene of Chinese people's daily life during Qin Dynasty 2,200 years ago exhibited in Qin Document Museum at Liye, Hunan Province

A scene of Chinese people’s daily life during the Qin Dynasty 2,200 years ago exhibited in Qin Document Museum at Liye, Hunan Province

The 36,000 unearthed bamboo documents have revealed the first time in detail how ancient Chinese lived their lives during the short-lived Qin Dynasty.

One entry in the documents recorded correspondence between the county magistrate and his superior. The magistrate recommended a man to fill the popular job vacancy of the postman (邮人), but his superior rejected the candidate.

Like in today’s China, a public servant was a prestigious and secure job by then, which included mail and parcel delivery work. Postmen enjoyed a tax-free income and were not required to serve military and volunteer labour duties.

Another entry was a penalty notice. The offender was required to pay the fine in the form either a military shielder (一盾) or an armour (一甲).

The penalties for criminal offenses recorded on the documents include to clean shave (数耐) their face.

The Royal Decree from First Emperor Qin

Bronze-plate printing for a Qin Dynasty royal decree, 221 BC

Bronze-plate printing for a Qin Dynasty royal decree, 221 BC

The decree in Qin-style Seal Script with a total of 40 characters declares the standards of the measurement in the newly unified China:

The 26th year under First Emperor Qin’s reign, The Emperor has unified the land under heaven, brought peace to the kingdom and become the Crown of China. Now His Majesty instructs Prime Minister and his office to issue a standard measurement code for everybody to follow.

These three significant policies have ensured Chinese civilisation to last for another two thousand years until today.


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