The northeastern China province of Liaoning hopes to contribute a set of six ancient official documents to the United Nations "Memory of the World" program.
The papers, still largely legible despite missing a few characters, were drafted in 714 AD, the second year of the Kaiyuanreign by Emperor Li Longji in Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), said Zhao Yunpeng, a noted historian and professor of history with Liaoning University.
Except for a list of acting monks at nationwide temples, most of the six documents were legal papers signed by officials of different ranks, said Zhao, also a head of the provincial archives where the papers are kept. "Some are indictments against troublemakers at the imperial court; others are coroner's reports," he said.
Though some paragraphs were incomplete, what was left of the documents was still "an invaluable record" of public security and religious life over 1,200 years ago, said Zhao.
The six documents are about the size of A-4 sheets, and their texts read vertically from right to left, as is the long-standing custom of Chinese scholars.
The documents were found in the Cave for Preserving Scriptures in Dunhuang, northwestern Gansu Province, by a Taoist named Wang Yuanlu in 1900, among more than 50,000 sutras, documents and paintings of nearly 10 dynasties ranging from the 4th to the 11th century.
The six papers had been kept by Luo Zhenyu, a scholar who was among the first to publish works on Chinese Dunhuang studies in 1910, before they were handed down to several collectors and finally to the provincial archives of Liaoning, said Zhao.
The papers had not decayed over the centuries because they were made of a special material, very likely hemp fiber, said Zhang Ping, a specialist with the National Library of China, who works to keep ancient books and papers intact.
"We have many other papers from the same historical period, all made of hemp fiber and very well preserved, too," he said.
The National Library is home to some 16,000 pieces of the Dunhuang treasure uncovered in 1900.
In addition to the durable material, Zhang said the pH scale of the papers also contribute to their survival. "Papers that are over seven in pH scale tend to last longer than neutral or acid papers," he said.
Constant temperature and humidity also helped keep the papers intact, said Zhang. "Generally speaking, books are preserved better at lower temperatures," he said.
Other countries have also reported success in preserving centuries-old books and papers, mostly written on sheepskin, said Zhang.
The six documents were included in 2002 in a list of ancient Chinese archives, and the Liaoning provincial archives are applying to the State Archives Administration to include the papers as one of China's candidates for the 2005 inscription for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) "Memory of the World" program.
The program was initiated in 1992 as an extension to the World Heritage List to call upon the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world.
Over 90 pieces of the world's documentary heritage have been included in the UNESCO list, including voice recordings of traditional Chinese music, documents written in Manchu language about European priests' lives and preaching in China in the 17th century, and the "Dongba Classic", an encyclopedia of the ancient culture of China's ethnic Naxi group.