People living under China's first feudal empire, the Qin (221- 207 BC), may have been forced into hard, penal servitude for failing to pay their debts, but they also had a mail service, probably including express delivery.
Ancient bamboo slips unearthed in central-south China's Hunan Province have revealed numerous valuable clues in the study of the imperial Qin Dynasty from its postal service to administrative set-up.
Bundle after bundle of slips, found in early June from layers of silt at the bottom of an abandoned ancient well in Liye Village, Longshan County in western Hunan, were originally mud-covered and illegible. It took experts from the Hunan Provincial Archaeological Institute several weeks to clean and restore 2,000 slips, nearly one tenth of the total.
Last week the cleaned slips, preserved in water with some covered by glass plates, were shown to a small group of visitors, mostly prestigious Chinese archaeologists and scholars.
Wu Rongzeng, a noted historian, believed that one of the slips bearing two Chinese characters, "Kuai Xin" (fast delivery), was actually mail of the Qin Dynasty period.
"Judging from the meaning of the two characters, we could say there was already some kind of 'express mail service' more than 2,200 years ago," Wu said.
Wu also found several slips carrying words like "loan", "payment" and "penalty," which he said vividly revealed the strictness of the political and legal system in the Qin Dynasty.
The slips showed that the people of Qin Dynasty had to repay every penny of their debts to the government and that those unable to pay had to compensate with hard labor, Wu explained.
The founder of the Qin empire, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, was described as one of the most inhuman and ruthless rulers in Chinese feudal history as he enslaved millions of laborers to build the world-renowned Great Wall and his imposing imperial palace and mausoleum. Historians believe Qin's merciless rule partly contributed partly to the short life of the dynasty, which lasted only 14 years.
Owing to its very short span, there was also a grave shortage of authentic historical records on the Qin dynasty. The records of many Qin events could only be found and proven in the historical writings of its successor, the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).
Zhang Chunlong, a leading expert on the ancient Chinese language, was both surprised and excited to see one slip carrying the words "Dong Ting County."
"From this we can see there was a county named Dongting during the Qin Dynasty, a stark fact which was not recorded at all in all major history writings of the ensuing Han Dynasty. This finding has rewritten the Qin history," Zhang claimed.
A county in the Qin Dynasty equals more or less a province in modern China. Scholars believe that the area under the administration of the ancient Dongting County is most probably in today's Hunan province, where the vast Dongting Lake lies, the country's second largest freshwater lake connected to the Yangtze River.
Most of the scholars, after studying these slips with meticulous care, agreed that they were mainly official documents from government archives in the Qin Dynasty.
They hold that the finding of the slips could rank among China's most significant archaeological discoveries of the past century along with the excavation of Yin Xu, the ancient capital of the Shang Dynasty (around 16th Century - 11th Century BC) and the discovery of Dunhuang.
(Xinhua News Agency August 1, 2002)