THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

15 May 2018

From the Page Up: The Peking Gazette and the Histories of Everyday Print in East Asia (1)

Today we  welcome back guest blogger Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley. This is the first of two posts on printing and moveable type in East Asia.

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Representation of movable type at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, the Beijing Olympics opened with a demonstration of four great inventions from China’s long history: the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. In particular, you might remember the dramatic representation of movable type: 897 performers manipulated movable type blocks representing the character he (harmony) in a series of historical script styles. The display spoke to the important role that this innovation played in Chinese, and indeed world, history. Readers with a knowledge of Chinese book history, however, are probably more familiar with books printed with solid woodblocks rather than movable type.

The British Library is home to a significant collection of texts printed using wooden movable type – this is the Peking Gazette collection. The Peking Gazette was a periodical record of government communications for the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The British Library collection includes a wide variety of editions from the nineteenth century. In my last post I described the significance of the Peking Gazette as a source for understanding the political and diplomatic history of China in the nineteenth century. In this, the first of two posts, I’ll highlight the ways these material sources shed light on little known aspects of the history of print in China. Peking Gazettes contain valuable clues as to the everyday applications of wooden movable type, the diversity of premodern print techniques employed by urban publishers, and even the routes by which print and paper were made, bought, and distributed in Qing China and maritime East Asia.

Xylography, or printing from wood, enabled a vibrant print culture to emerge in premodern Chinese empires. The fine detail of the British Library’s Diamond Sutra from AD 868, the oldest dated woodblock print example, makes it clear that woodblock carving and printing techniques were already very sophisticated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In later centuries, woodblock printed books became increasingly common, especially after an explosion of commercial publishing activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To print books from woodblocks, manuscript pages were commonly laid onto prepared blocks of hardwood, on which a block-cutter carved the text, columns, and other features in relief. After carving, a printer applied ink to the block, laid paper on the surface, and pounded the paper evenly with a special brush, producing an imprint. Depending on the quality of the block, thousands of imprints could be taken from a single woodblock before it required repair. The flexibility of this technology was a key factor in the flourishing book culture of early modern China.

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The woodblock is darkened by the use of black ink for printing. On the upper right side, the original colour of the wood is visible in a hole made for replacing a character (British Library Or. 14251)
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Despite its apparent rarity, movable type came into use quite early in the history of print in East Asia. In the eleventh century, the polymath scholar Shen Kuo wrote of a contemporary named Bi Sheng, who had invented an ingenious method of using fired clay to form movable types (huo zi 活字) for printing. According to Shen, Bi laid the clay type into a frame, the bottom of which had been painted with a mixture of ash and wax. After laying the type, the bottom of the frame was heated to fix the type in place, allowing the printing process to proceed in the same way as in traditional xylography. According to surviving descriptions, movable types of fired clay, wood, and metal (predominantly copper) were used in succeeding centuries to print both Chinese and non-Chinese script. Such editions are extremely rare today.

Today, the most prevalent examples of premodern wooden movable type printing in China come from two commercial enterprises: the printing of lineage genealogies, and of government gazettes. In genealogical printing, traveling printers carried a type supply and carved new types on a per-job basis. By contrast, gazette printing took place in cities, typically adjacent to government offices or the examination yards. Still, on the level of texts, these two seemingly disparate industries shared some important qualities. Both used a limited subset of the vast corpus of characters in the Chinese written language. Genealogies used a fairly circumscribed vocabulary, focusing on names, generational and familial terms (which could be recycled between jobs); gazettes contained summaries of official correspondence and employed the constrained vocabulary of bureaucratic language. In both cases, the producers did not have any use for retaining stores of carved woodblocks—instead, they wanted to produce a fixed and limited set of copies on a quick basis. In addition, while block-cutting labor was growing increasingly cheaper in early modern China, natural resources were limited. In particular, the durable and large-format hardwoods used for woodblock printing grew increasingly rare with the pressures of population expansion, urbanization, and wartime destruction. By using movable types, often carved from relatively soft woods, printers minimized their expenses. As a result, gazettes were cheaply available in urban markets.

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Jingbao pages printed in movable type (British Library 15440 – 1872 vol.1, pt. 1)
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These gazettes exhibit the visual markers of movable type printing. A low “shoulder” on carved wooden types allows us to see the imprint of square borders around characters. The occasional mistake in type-setting resulted in a flipped character. Most types were of individual characters, but printers also produced “double characters,” that held common two-character combinations. Daily gazettes typically numbered about ten leaves of paper (thus twenty pages), each containing up to seven columns of text. However, movable-type techniques freed the printer to create a wider page if needed. In the case of a long memorial, printers could fill a wider page and simply fold the page within the gazette.

Beijing, as the seat of the imperial government, was naturally the main hub for gazette publishing. At least ten publishers operated in late Qing (1860-1911) Beijing, clustering in the southern commercial districts of the city, close to Liulichang, Beijing’s lively market for books and antiques. Together, the publishers produced between one and two thousand gazettes per day. Of these, about two hundred were carried by government couriers to officeholders around the empire, but the majority were sold to capital residents. Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897) called this district “the Paternoster Row of the capital” (Alcock, p. 252), in reference to London’s news district, and described the cabinets of wooden type that lined the walls of the shops in a widely reprinted account in the English periodical press. Wang Zhonglin (1818-1878), a Chinese minor official, once wrote in his diary about an idle afternoon spent watching printers “hunting for characters to fill their blocks.”[1]

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Jingbao daily edition covers, in long octavo format , showing shop names on the lower part of the page. (British Library 15440,  1861 1st to 4th month)
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The publishers typically included their shop names on an opening page or the issue cover. The names of some of these publishers and these names attest to the use of movable types (as in juxing 聚興 “assembled prosperity,” in which the use of the character ju 聚 often refers to assembled types); more commonly they simply summoned auspicious themes, with recurring terms as in the recurrence of terms like “prosperity,” (xing 興) “advance,” (sheng 升), and “success” (cheng 成).

In my next post I'll be writing about some provincial gazettes published outside the capital.

Further Reading
Rutherford Alcock, “The Peking Gazette,” Fraser’s Magazine (1873): 245-256; 341-357.
Devin Fitzgerald, “Chinese Paper Stamps,” Books and the Early Modern World blog post, 26 March 2017.
David Helliwell, “Papermarks,” Serica blogpost, 26 April 2017.


Thank you to Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel for sharing their research in Chinese paper stamps.

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley
emilymokros@uky.edu
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[1] Wang Zhonglin riji 王鍾霖日記, in Lidai riji congchao (Beijing: Xueyuan chubanshe, 2006), vol. 59: 483.

08 May 2018

Over 2,000 pages in gold: Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an now online

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an is one of the most magnificent Qur’ans in the British Library. This seven-volume Qur’an produced in Cairo between 704-5 AH/1304-6 AD is the earliest dated Qur’an of the Mamluk period. 

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The Sūrat al-Fātiḥah at the beginning of Sultan Baybars’ seven-volume Qurʼan (BL Add MS 22406, ff. 2v-3r)
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In 2002 selected pages of this Qurʼan were made available online as a ‘virtual’ manuscript in our ‘Turning the Pages’ Project (Sultan Baybars’ Qurʼan). We have now had the opportunity to digitise all seven volumes cover-to-cover and present them in our new Universal Viewer (Add MS 22406; Add MS 22407; Add MS 22408; Add MS 22409; Add MS 22410; Add MS 22411; Add MS 22412). Well-known to art historians and exhibition visitors, these amazing volumes can now be appreciated by anyone, anywhere with an internet connection!

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Digitisation in progress with Senior Imaging Technician Elizabeth Hunter

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an was commissioned by Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who at that time was a high-ranking official in the court of Nasir Muhammad. Only later, between 1309 and 1310, did he acquire the title al-Muzaffar Baybars, or Sultan Baybars II.

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Colophon page of volume seven with the date 705 AH/1305-6 AD in the last line (BL Add MS 22412, f. 166v)
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Though the Arabic historical sources make reference to this Qur’an, the purpose of Sultan Baybarsʼ patronage is unclear. It is not known whether the Qur’an was intended either as a pious gift to the mosque of al-Hakim in Cairo (built 990-1013), for whose restoration he was responsible after it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1303, or as a donation to the building of a religious foundation. The subsequent history of the Qur’an is rather vague, but it was purchased by the British Museum from the antiquarian booksellers T & W Boone on 12 June 1858.

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The beginning of  Sūrat Āl ʻImrān. Text page written in gold thuluth script outlined in black, with the chapter heading overlayed in red ink (BL Add MS 22406, ff. 86v-87r)
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The physical size of this Qur’an, measuring 47.5 x 32 cm., enabled the calligrapher, Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, together with a team of three illuminators, Muhammad ibn Mubadir, Abu Bakr Sandal and Aydughdi ibn ‘Abdallah, to work not only with a large script and extensive decoration but also within a spacious page layout. Its 1,094 folios (2,188 pages) written in gold thuluth script spread over seven volumes give an indication of its monumental stature.

The calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, mentioned in all the colophons, was born in Damascus in the mid-thirteenth century though he lived most of his life in Cairo. This Qur’an is the only known surviving example of his work.  His choice of thuluth is rather strange, for by the Mamluk period this cursive script was generally considered ornamental, being used primarily for chapter headings and not for the body of the text. The gold thuluth script is outlined in black, with vowels marked in red and other spelling signs in blue. The layout of the calligraphy is also of special interest. Unlike many Qur’ans which have an odd number of lines per page, each page of the Baybars Qur’an carries six lines of text. Of interest, too, is the fact that the text layout is continuous, without large illuminated panels to indicate the beginning of a chapter, as in many other Qur’ans of the period. In this Qur’an, chapter headings are merely indicated by a change of colour, with red ink overlaying the gold, with no additional spacing between the lines. Ornamentation in the margins include illuminated medallions to indicate the end of a tenth verse; pear-shaped medallions to mark the end of a fifth verse; and illuminated oval markers for the sajdah, instructing the reader when to prostrate during the recitation of the Qur’an.

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Detail of an illuminated medallion containing the word  ‘ashr in gold kufic script  indicating the end of a tenth verse (BL Add MS 22409, f. 92r)
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Detail of an illuminated pear-shaped medallion containing the word khams in gold kufic script indicating the end of a fifth verse (BL Add MS 22412, f. 156v)
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Sajdah
Detail of an illuminated oval marker containing the word sajdah instructing the reader to prostrate at this point during the recitation of the Qur’an (BL Add MS 22412, f. 156r)
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Each volume of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an has a magnificent double frontispiece or carpet page indicating the volume number in its central design. The illuminators worked on specific volumes: the colophon of volume one is signed by Muhammad ibn Mubadir and volume three by Abu Bakr Sandal, the master illuminator in charge of the team.

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Volume one signed by Muhammad ibn Mubadir in the marginal ornaments (BL Add Ms 22406, f. 155v
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Volume three signed by Sandal in the ornamental semi-circles (BL Add MS 22408, f. 154v)
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The style of ornamentation of volumes two, four, and six makes it more than likely that these volumes, though unsigned, were illuminated by Muhammad ibn Mubadir, and that volumes five and seven, also unsigned, were illuminated by Abu Bakr Sandal. Aydughdi ibn ‘Abdallah worked on all the volumes. According to the inscription in volume seven, his role was to paint-in “either the gold or polychrome areas”. This accords with David James’s interpretation of the Arabic verb zammaka in the inscription (James, Qur’ans of the Mamluks, p.67).

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The inscriptions in the top and bottom panels describing the role carried out by Aydughdi ibn ‘Abdallah in all seven volumes (BL Add MS 22412, f. 2v)
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Below the seven opening frontispieces are shown together for the first time:

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Frontispiece to the first volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22406, ff. 1v-2r)
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Frontispiece to the second volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22407, ff. 1v-2r)
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Frontispiece to the third volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22408, ff. 1v-2r)
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Frontispiece to the fourth volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22409, ff. 1v-2r)
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Frontispiece to the fifth volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22410, ff. 1v-2r)
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Frontispiece to the sixth volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22411, ff. 1v-2r)
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Frontispiece to the seventh and final volume of Sultan Baybars' monumental Qurʼan. Cairo, 1304-6  (BL Add MS 22412, ff. 1v-2r)
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Further reading
Baker, Colin F., Qur'an manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design, London, 2007, pp.43-56.
James, David, Qur’ans of the Mamluks, London, 1980, pp. 34-75.

Colin F. Baker, Head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections
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02 May 2018

‘Soo Dhawoow’: Somali community welcomed to the British Library

On Wednesday 7 March, the British Library welcomed members of the local Somali community to the Learning Centre for the first ever ‘show and tell’ of the Library’s Somali collections. Further to the success of the opening event of the Somali Week Festival, which the Library hosted last October, ‘Soo Dhawoow’ , meaning ‘welcome’ , invited artists, students, poets and historians from the Somali Community to participate in a proactive archiving engagement.

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Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The Somali collections at the British Library, which range from archives and sound recordings to photographs and printed books, contain vital cultural and historical information on Somalia and Somalis, both at home and as part of the diaspora. The collections in the Somali language include books, periodicals, sound recordings, microfilms, maps and newspapers. There are also bibliographies of writings in Somali. In addition to this, the British Library holds a wide variety of relevant published materials in other languages such as English, Arabic, Italian, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Swedish.

Attendees were shown the highlights of the Library’s Somali collections, including two 20th century wooden Qur’an boards, ritually used for rote learning of the Holy Scripture, as well as printed books in languages such as Somali, English and German.

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Qurʼan board BL Or.16442. Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The British Library also holds historic manuscripts and archives relating to Somalia and Somalis including correspondence about Somalia and Somaliland in the India Office Records and the India Office Private Papers. During the colonial period, the British Raj, the UK’s authority in India, managed the Empire’s holdings in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. To find archives and manuscripts, go to our catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts. These collections are currently being digitised and are available in the Qatar Digital Library. Photographic collections include studio portraits of members of the Somali diaspora in Aden which were published in an 1877 publication An Account of the British Settlement at Aden in Arabia compiled by Captain Frederick Mercer Hunter.

Representation of the Somali community was a key theme explored in the discussion at the engagement event, specifically the legacies of colonial photography.

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Male Somali’ from An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia, London, 1877, compiled by Captain F.M. Hunter (Printed collections T.11308)
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Given the need to expand existing heritage collections and open discussion, the Library’s Somali Collections Project Officer Mahamed Ali worked with visual artist Venetia Menzies to develop a unique programme for this community event. ‘Soo Dhawoow’ not only provided an insight into the Library’s Somali collections but asked the participants to produce heritage archives of their own.

In response to the artefacts, written books and poetry in the Somali collections, participants later contributed artistic responses that expressed their own snapshot of Somali culture as members of the diaspora. The results were wide-ranging, including an array of mediums such as photography, poetry, paintings and graphic designs. These were exhibited at London Gallery West from March 27th to April 3rd.

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One of the participants, Huda Hassan, a graphic designer, depicted Somali idioms such as ‘cagta wax ka dey’, which literally means ‘search feet’ and is a metaphor for ‘run’. Huda said that the engagement event was ‘informative’, and ‘very promising’, but noted that the scope of the collections could be developed. The British Library welcomes suggestions for this collection, specifically from those publishing books in Somali from around the world.

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Artist Credit: Huda Hassan
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Anab Aided, a painter, produced colourful paintings of Somali staple goods, as well as common onomatopoeia in the Somali language. Anab, an art teacher working with Somali children with the Galbur Foundation, also encouraged her students to contribute. They produced a colourful selection of pictures and drawings depicting aspects of Somali culture.

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Photo Credit: Anab Aided and Venetia Menzies
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The youngest attendee, Khadar Mahi, contributed a poem depicting the Somali landscape that was eloquent in both English and Somali. Khadar’s main interests are physics and poetry, which he claims are one and the same.

All the livestock
within your sight
whichever way you look,
grazing near the homestead.

The herding youth
in their white sheets
resting in the shade,
passing time with games,
chatting without a care.
(Poetry: Khadar Mahi)

Photographer Abdul Aziz Ismail contributed photographs depicting his journey by sea from Yemen to Somalia, as well as from Bosaso in Puntland.

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Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz Ismail
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Mohamed Mohamud, founder of the project Somali Sideways, contributed portraits from his ongoing body of work. Somali Sideways collates portraits of Somalis from around the world standing sideways, aiming to highlight that there are always two sides to an individual. It provides a platform for representations of the success, determination and entrepreneurship that characterise the Somali diaspora. These works were exhibited alongside portraits of the participants.

The British Library’s Somali collections exist for the public to view. A reader pass for the Library is free, and offers everyone the opportunity to experience these collections for themselves. The British Library is always seeking to expand its outreach with regard to its collections, so individuals within the Somali community in the UK are encouraged to engage with the collection. The British Library also has a growing number of printed books in the Somali language, which offer an indispensable source of information for older members as well as young people in the Somali community to use for their own comprehension.

To find out more about our collections, you can search our main catalogue Explore. For more information on the British Library’s holdings see our subject guide to African collections.


Mahamed Ali, Somali Collections Project Officer
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