In a Washington mall, the Chu Silk manuscript – China’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls – can be found. Journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao describes how those precious relicts disappeared from China and ended up in the US, a journey now meticulously describes by the Chinese scholar, Prof. Li Ling of the Peking University for the New York Times.
Sitting in an underground storeroom near the Washington Mall is a tiny silk parchment. Written 2,300 years ago, it is a Chinese version of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with text that swirls like the stars through the firmament and describes the relationship between humans and heaven.
For decades, the ancient document, known as the Chu Silk Manuscript, has fascinated people seeking an understanding of the origins of Chinese civilization. But it has been hidden from public view because of its fragility — and the uncertain circumstances by which it ended up in the United States.
Now, a prominent Chinese historian and archaeologist has pieced together its remarkable odyssey in a meticulously documented analysis that has caused a stir in the rarefied world of Chinese antiquities and raised broader questions about collectors who profit from pillaging historic sites.
The 440-page study traces the provenance from tomb raiders who discovered it during World War II, to an antiques dealer whose wife and daughter died fleeing Japanese troops, to American spies who smuggled it out of China and finally to several museums and foundations in the United States.
The findings have put new pressure on the manuscript’s current owner, the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, to return it to China after decades of on-again, off-again efforts to sell it to Chinese institutions. According to people briefed on the discussions, the foundation is now in renewed talks with Beijing and indicated that it was willing to settle for a “finder’s fee.”
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