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As Beijing prepared to host the 2008 Olympics, a small drama was unfolding in Hong Kong.
Two years earlier, middlemen had come into possession of a batch of waterlogged manuscripts that had been unearthed by tomb robbers in south-central China.
Earlier versions and competing ideas were lost—until now.
When China’s imperial system collapsed in the early twentieth century, iconoclasts used the lack of ancient texts to question everything about China’s past.
These were plausible theses, but Gu had no archaeological evidence to back his ideas, instead relying on close readings of the transmitted texts to find inconsistencies.
Although this schema can still be seen in some Chinese museums, few people have truly believed in it since the disasters of the Mao era discredited Communist ideology.
With the nation on high alert for the games, security officers blocked the scientists from bringing stabilizing chemicals into the locked-down capital.
But the university again put its weight behind the project, convincing leaders that the strips were a national priority.
Chinese political thought as exemplified by Confucius allowed for meritocracy among officials, eventually leading to the famous examination system on which China’s imperial bureaucracy was founded.
But the texts show that some philosophers believed that rulers should also be chosen on merit, not birth—radically different from the hereditary dynasties that came to dominate Chinese history.