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Working with Looted Manuscripts: A Vindication of the Peking University Han Bamboo Strips

November 28, 2016 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Over the last two decades, remarkable collections of Warring States, Qin and Han manuscripts have been purchased on the behalf of major academic institutions in China, offering exciting new materials that have the potential to dramatically impact the study of early China. By the same token, these collections also present a great risk to our field, should they prove to be forgeries. With so much at stake, it is important not only to discuss candidly the authentication of purchased manuscripts, but also to reflect upon the role our scholarship plays in enticing continued looting. In this talk, I introduce the immense value of one such collection, the Peking University Han bamboo strips, and make an argument for both its antiquity and further study. Recently, it has been proposed that the Peking University Laozi 老子manuscript is in fact a forgery. Drawing in part from my own observations of the artifact, I refute this accusation. An initial methodology for positively authenticating the Peking University Han manuscripts is also offered, and content from the Cang Jie Pian 蒼頡篇– another manuscript in this cache that is the focus of my research – is raised in particular as a case study. Having established confidence in the antiquity of these texts, ethical concerns over the study of purchased artifacts are then addressed, giving voice to the “rescue archaeology” orientation largely adopted in Chinese scholarship. My hope is to inspire a more open dialogue over how to engage the Peking University Han manuscripts responsibly in our research, as they are simply too important for scholars to ignore.

Speaker: Christopher Foster is a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department. His dissertation, “Textual Production in Early China: A Study of the Cang Jie Pian Character Book,” utilizes newly excavated manuscript sources to evaluate the role of writing during the Western Han period.


November 28, 2016
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Event Category:



Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

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