BEIJING — 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.”
Elizabeth A. Sackler, the foundation’s president, declined an interview request but said in an email, “The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation will continue in good faith to find a way to have the manuscript returned to its country of origin.”
Donald Harper, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Chicago, said the story of the artifact, the oldest of its kind, was a reminder of the complex relations between China and the United States over the past century and the continued looting of ancient sites.
“This story resonates when you hear about what is happening in Iraq or Syria,” he said. “What is remarkable here is that we now know exactly what happened.”
That is largely because of the work of Prof. Li Ling of Peking University, a quiet, intense man considered one of the leading scholars on ancient Chinese texts.
Professor Li, 69, began studying the Chu Silk Manuscript in 1980, working off photographs to decipher its archaic script and later examining it in person in the United States. About a decade ago, he began investigating the silk’s excavation and what happened to it afterward, which led him to interview two of the original tomb robbers and examine records at museums in Kansas City, Boston, New York and Washington.
Looted art is a delicate issue in any country. But the silk manuscript is of special interest in China because it dates to the crucial Warring States period, when lasting Chinese traditions such as Confucianism and Taoism took shape. It is also important because it offers the earliest descriptions of the gods that Chinese worshiped in that formative period.
Professor Li said he wanted to restore the document’s history. “I wanted to make this object live again,” he said, “to resurrect it through archaeological means.”
In 1942, tomb raiders in the Zidanku suburb of the central Chinese city of Changsha unearthed a remarkable find: an intact tomb that included a sword, a scabbard and a silk document, blackened with age.
According to Professor Li’s research, the thieves sold the loot to a local dealer, who mounted the silk on paper and displayed it in his shop. It was purchased less than two years later by an antiquities dealer and amateur historian named Cai Jixiang.
Mr. Cai would later write that he was struck by the age of the silk, which measured about 14 by 18 inches, and suspected it was from the Warring States period. He hoped to study it and perhaps resell it.
But Changsha was at the center of Japan’s last-gasp offensive to defeat Chinese forces in World War II. Mr. Cai and his family joined the crowds streaming out of the city. Before fleeing, he rolled up the manuscript and put it into an iron tube.
Japanese troops caught the family on an island where they had sought refuge. A witness from that era, whose account Professor Li helped republish, described how an officer tried to rape Mr. Cai’s wife, who broke free and threw herself into a pond. One of their daughters also got away and jumped into the waters, where the two drowned in each other’s arms.
Mr. Cai escaped with his four remaining children to a nearby mountain town. As he tried to “cope with these manifold disasters,” he later wrote, he turned to the manuscript, “hoping to focus my mind.”
Unable to consult other scholars or even basic reference books, Mr. Cai still managed to puzzle out most of its script. He discovered that it spoke of how humans dealt with fate and death — thoughts close to his heart.
He wrote an essay with his conclusions, drew a precise map of the Zidanku site and, to explain why he had done all of this, added a friend’s detailed account of the suicides of his wife and daughter.
A local printer published the work in 1945.
Two years later, Mr. Cai traveled to Shanghai to sell some of his antiques. Japan had been defeated, but China was gripped by civil war and hyperinflation, and he was desperate for money.
In Shanghai, he met an old acquaintance, John Hadley Cox, a 34-year-old American who had worked for the Yale-China Association in the 1930s.
Mr. Cox was now a key officer in the Office of Strategic Services, the American military intelligence service that preceded the C.I.A. Even before the Japanese surrender in 1945, Mr. Cox had been sent to Shanghai to collect intelligence.
He was also an amateur historian and art collector. According to correspondence discovered by Professor Li, Mr. Cox asked to buy the silk manuscript after reading Mr. Cai’s book. The two struck a deal: Mr. Cox made a $1,000 down payment and promised $9,000 more upon resale.
Within days, Mr. Cox contacted another American military intelligence officer who flew the silk and other items to the United States, taking them through customs as Chinese antiques, “value unknown.”
It was not illegal in the United States at the time to import looted art, but China prohibited the export of excavated antiquities, which were considered state property.
“It’s fair to say it was smuggled out of China,” said Lai Guolong, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in Chinese antiquities laws. “It’s just that China was too weak to do anything.”
In the United States, Mr. Cox — who went on to pursue research into ancient China and donated some of his other holdings to the Freer Gallery in Washington, and his alma mater, Yale — offered the ancient manuscript to numerous museums.
None seemed to grasp its historic value — and it was too dark and fragile to dazzle crowds and patrons.
A few months after making the deal, Mr. Cai asked for the silk back. In one letter to Mr. Cox, he even offered to return the $1,000 deposit.
But Mr. Cox, who had left the O.S.S. and was working odd jobs, appears to have ignored the request. After Mr. Cai managed to get friends visiting the United States to pester him, Mr. Cox finally replied with a vague promise to sell the manuscript or return it. But he never did.
After the Communists took power in China in 1949, diplomatic ties with the United States were cut, making it impossible for Mr. Cai to reach Mr. Cox.
In 1964, desperate for money, Mr. Cox sold a cache of his collection that included the manuscript at an unknown price to a collector, J.T. Tai, acting on behalf of one of America’s most famous arts patrons: Arthur M. Sackler.
Mr. Sackler had made his fortune by applying the principles of Madison Avenue to the pharmaceutical industry. Along with two brothers, he donated lavishly to an array of institutions, endowing galleries at Harvard, Princeton and the Smithsonian Institution, making the family name synonymous with Asian art.
According to Professor Li’s research, Mr. Sackler bought the Zidanku manuscript immediately after examining it in Mr. Tai’s apartment. The sale price has not been disclosed, but records indicate that Mr. Tai had been asking for $500,000.
Fascinated by its antiquity, Mr. Sackler would later call it the most important item in his collection.
But Mr. Sackler also appeared troubled by its provenance. He wrote Mr. Cox and others involved in its smuggling out of China, asking for details of its ownership. The letters, which Professor Li published along with his study, make clear that Mr. Cox was not the owner but had been acting on behalf of Mr. Cai.
Perhaps because of these concerns, Mr. Sackler never displayed the piece in his museums. Instead, he held it back in a private family foundation, and he often expressed a desire to return it to China.
Twice, he almost did. During a visit to China in 1976, he planned to make a grand gesture by returning it to a senior Communist Party official, Guo Moruo. But Mr. Guo was ill, and the meeting never took place, Mr. Sackler later wrote.
According to accounts uncovered by Professor Li, Mr. Sackler also made plans in the 1980s to donate it to a new museum in Beijing. But he died in 1987, before the museum opened.
The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation later tried to sell the silk to the Hunan Provincial Museum, but negotiations broke down over the price, according to people familiar with the talks. More talks are expected in the coming months, this time with the central government in Beijing.
Professor Li has had the chance to inspect the manuscript only once. It had been neglected so badly that mold had grown on it.
“I hope it can come back to China,” he said. “Maybe just for a visit.”
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