Asian and African studies blog

20 posts categorized "Chinese"

05 June 2018

Another Chinese paper stamp in a Malay manuscript

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A few years ago, I became intrigued by the red ink stamps of Chinese paper makers occasionally glimpsed on the pages of Malay and Javanese manuscripts in the British Library, and in a post on Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper illustrated all the examples encountered so far. Recently, another example has surfaced, in a fine illuminated copy of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Muhammad Kasim in 1805. The manuscript was previously owned by John Leyden, and is therefore most likely to have been copied in Penang, where Leyden spent four months convalescing from late 1805 to early 1806. On the bottom left hand corner of f. 61 r is a red ink stamp of an animal, a rather rotund quadruped resembling a hippopotamus or rhinoceros.

Initial illuminated frames of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Muhammad Kasim on 29 Jumadilakhir 1220 (25 August 1805), probably in Penang. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff.1v-2r.  noc

Red Chinese paper stamp of an animal, in Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, 1805.  MSS Malay B.6, ff. 60v-61r.  noc

My interest in Chinese paper-maker stamps had been rekindled by the fascinating blog post about the history of printing in China by Emily Mokros, From the page up: the Peking Gazette and the histories of everyday print in East Asia. In the second installment of her post, Mokros highlighted the presence of papermakers’ stamps in mid-19th century manuscript copies from Canton of the Peking Gazette, and commented on the important role of Canton as a hub of the southern paper trade, serving both the Qing empire and markets beyond its shores in Southeast Asia. Although little research has yet been carried out on papermakers’ stamps, there has recently been interest in the subject, and Mokros provided links to the main references.

Particularly helpful is a blog post on Chinese paper stamps by Devin Fitzgerald of Harvard University in March 2017 noting the potential value of these stamps for the study of Chinese bibliography and codicology, and proposing the compilation of a database. In a response the following month, David Helliwell published all ten stamps that he had come across – by chance, rather than design – in the Bodleian Library’s collection. The most thorough study of the field to date is by Chang Pao-san of National Taiwan University. In his paper on Paper manufacturer hallmarks in rare Chinese books from the Qing dynasty, Chang proposes three categories of textual hallmarks:
Type 1: a red rectangular mark that clearly states the name of the manufacturer followed by the phrase “observed production” or “selected the material”
Type 2: a red rectangular mark that contains the name of the manufacturer and the type of paper, or only the name of the manufacturer
Type 3: a long, thin, red and blue mark of an images with parts of one or more characters. Sometimes there are no characters, only a red or blue image.

One aspect that Chang does not mention is pictorial elements, such as the animal mark found in the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah. That these pictures evidently functioned as easily recognizable trademarks is implied by the reference to the “Double Children Seal” of Changfa studios, a red ink stamp of two children holding a ball, found by Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel in a manuscript of 1798 in the National Archives of the Philippines, and published by Devin Fitzgerald in his post. Incidentally, the three related stamps documented by Ruiz-Stovel – the red ink “Double Children Seal”, accompanied by two blue ink textual seals in the name of Changfa studios – are exactly those noted in my 2014 post as having been seen by Midori Kawashima in an Islamic manuscript from Mindanao, suggesting the widespread use of that particular brand of Chinese paper in the Philippines.

“Double Children Seal” of Changfa studios, in a manuscript from the Ahmad Bashir Collection at the Jamiatu Muslim Mindanao, Marawi City, Mindanao, Ms9; image courtesy of Mr. Mahdi Ahmad Bashir through Midori Kawashima.

Following David Helliwell’s example of collating all examples known so far, presented below are the four Chinese paper stamps found in Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library, with links (where available) to the catalogue entry and the digitised manuscript.

1. Panji Angreni., late 18th-early 19th century, Java. British Library, MSS Jav 17, f. 10v [not yet digitised]  noc
Chinese - 3

2. Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, 1805, probably Penang. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, f. 61r.  noc

2. Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, early 19th century, Malay peninsula or Java. British Library, Add. 12382, f. 29v  noc
Chinese - 2

3. Syair Dang Sarat, early 19th century, Malay peninsula or Java. British Library, Add. 12381, f. 20r  noc
Chinese - 1


Chang Pao-san, Paper manufacturer hallmarks in rare Chinese books from the Qing dynasty, presentation from the conference 'Texting China: Composition, Transmission, Preservation of pre-modern Chinese textual materials', University of Chicago, 11-13 May 2012.
Devin Fitzgerald, Chinese paper stamps, blog post, 26 March 2017, Books and the early modern world: the research of Devin Fitzgerald
Annabel Gallop, Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper, blog post, 27 February 2014, British Library, Asian and African Studies
David Helliwell, Papermarks, blog post, 26 April 2017, Serica: some notes on old Chinese books by David Helliwell
Emily Mokros, From the page up: the Peking Gazette and the histories of everyday print in East Asia (2), blog post, 21 May 2018, British Library, Asian and African Studies

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

21 May 2018

From the Page Up: The Peking Gazette and the Histories of Everyday Print in East Asia (2)

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A follow up on the history of printing in China by 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.

One of the highlights of the British Library collection is that it includes many examples of gazettes published outside of Beijing. At provincial capitals, gazette publishers typically used capital editions supplied by couriers to reprint runs of the gazette on local paper. Before the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, which allowed representatives of Western countries access to the imperial capital, most British trade and diplomatic activity happened in port cities, especially Guangzhou (Canton) and the treaty ports that had been opened in 1842. For this reason, many of the British Library Peking Gazettes dating to earlier than 1860 are in fact reprints, mainly originating from Canton and Suzhou, a city not far from Shanghai.

Photo 6 - Suzhou gazette sample_2000
A page from an 1853 Suzhou gazette reprint (British Library 15440 – 1853, 2nd month pt. 2)

Provincial reprints are not identical to their capital cousins, and they have much to tell us about the material culture of publishing in nineteenth-century China. Most Suzhou reprints appeared in pamphlets of a standard size, typically eight columns in width and twenty columns in length. These were roughly the same proportions as a compact book. This format may have appealed to subscribers who obtained gazettes in monthly packets (and thus easily bound into a book format), rather than the daily pamphlets available in the capital.

Canton reprints and manuscript editions evoke the commercial networks that supported print culture in South China and maritime Southeast Asia. Canton was a major urban market for the rural papermaking enterprises located in hinterland Guangdong and especially in its provincial neighbor, Fujian. In Canton, paper firms (zhihang 紙行) controlled by natives of nearby Foshan sold a wide range of paper products transported by waterways from the mountainous interior. Through the entrepreneurship of Foshan merchants, southern paper was sold and used throughout the Qing Empire. Both papermakers and these intermediate suppliers often left their mark on the page, in the form of stamps that served advertising and branding purposes, and some gazettes bear theses stamps.

The print quality of these reprints is strikingly different from the movable type editions produced in Beijing later in the 19th century. By contrast with the fairly wobbly columns of movable type in the Beijing editions, the columns of Suzhou reprints are far more uniform. There are still markers of individual types (see the last three characters of the second column from the right on the below page, where the borders of the individual characters are clearly visible). On the whole, this page – and other Suzhou reprints – exhibits a smudgy quality, which suggests that local gazette publishers went about the printing process in a different manner than their capital counterparts, in ways that we still do not fully understand. One working hypothesis is that they may have used an intermediate medium, perhaps a wax mixture, to create a stereotype as the basis for an imprint, rather than printing directly from the assembled wooden blocks.

Stamp2  Stamp2 
Papermakers’ stamps on Canton gazette copies (British Library 15440 – Left: 1832, 3rd month. Right: 1846, 3rd month)

The stamps that I found on gazettes in the British Library collection include the name of the craftsman or brand, and advertise the quality and characteristics of the paper. While many book publishers likely trimmed off the margins and stamps, gazette purveyors were evidently less discerning. Notably, all of the stamped gazettes are manuscript editions, and may have been copied by scribes on paper purchased separately from paper suppliers.

Another tiny stamp, this one found on an 1849 gazette reprint tells that it was sold from the Jinyu lu shop (金裕祿全堂), located on Datang street. Datang street was the site of the local administrative offices and civil examination yards, and was therefore the center of government life in Canton. Both local administration and the imperial examinations were important markets for local printers and paper suppliers.

Photo 9 - tiny stamp_2000
Jinyu lu shop stamp on the cover of Jingbao (British Library 15440, 1849 vol. 2, daily edition)

The port city of Canton served as the hub of a maritime trade in paper that extended far beyond its shores. The paper trade left its marks on the city streets. Even today, there is a ‘Paper Merchants’ Street’ (zhihang lu 紙行路) in central Guangzhou. The antecedent of this street can be found on 19th century maps of the city, as seen below. A previous contribution to this blog, Malay Manuscripts on Chinese Paper (February 2014), describes the seal of a Chinese paper supplier, based outside the Taiping Gate in Canton (not far from that street), found on a Javanese manuscript from the early 19th century. Chinese merchant seals have also been found on texts in the Philippines and Japan (see examples collected by Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel, highlighted in Devin Fitzgerald’s blog entry).

Photo 10 East Asia Library_2000
Map of central Guangzhou (Canton) with sites including Taiping Gate, Zhihang jie, and Datang jie. From: Guangzhou fu zhi [Guangzhou Prefecture Gazetteer] (Guangzhou: Yuexiu shuyuan, 1879, juan 8). Image courtesy of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

Details like flipped and smudgy characters and incidental stamps may seem like trivial matters in the history of Chinese print culture, and indeed in the history of the Peking Gazette. However, our knowledge of Chinese book history is so dominated by elite tastes and collecting practices that these elements of commercial production and exchange remain virtually unknown. These fragmentary impressions on the page are hints at a complex history that encompassed a larger variety of materials, techniques, and geographical spaces than we previously thought possible.

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


15 May 2018

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

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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.

image from
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.

Photo 2 - woodblock_2000
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)

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.

Photo 3 - movable type_2000
Jingbao pages printed in movable type (British Library 15440 – 1872 vol.1, pt. 1)

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]

2  2
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)

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

[1] Wang Zhonglin riji 王鍾霖日記, in Lidai riji congchao (Beijing: Xueyuan chubanshe, 2006), vol. 59: 483.

07 March 2018

Introducing the Lotus Sutra Project

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Conserving and digitising the Stein Collection's Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra at the British Library

The Lotus Sūtra, whose earliest known Sanskrit title is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. Through the medium of parables and short stories, it delivers the message that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. As such, it is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and it is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.

Frontispiece of Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sūtra, "The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs" (British Library Or.8210/S.1511)    noc

The most prevalent versions of this Sūtra in Chinese are the Zheng fahua jing (徵法華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Correct law”), translated by the monk Dharmarakṣa between 286 and 288, and the Miaofa lianhua jing, (妙法蓮華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”), translated by Kumarajiva over a century later, in 406. There is also an alternative version called the Tianpin Miaofa lianhua jing (添品妙法蓮華經 “Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law"), compiled in 601 by the masters Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta.

Images and scenes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra can be seen in the murals adorning the caves of the Mogao Buddhist complex, near the oasis-town of Dunhuang, Gansu. An estimated 4,000 copies of the Lotus Sūtra were also found in one of the caves, commonly called the Library Cave or Cave 17. They are now dispersed across various institutions in Beijing, Paris, St Petersburg and London. In the British Library's collection, the Lotus Sūtra outnumbers all the other Chinese Buddhist texts brought back by Sir Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia (1906-1908). There are over a thousand manuscripts, some of which are scrolls measuring up to 13 metres long.

End piece of Or.8210/S.54, with wooden roller  (British Library Or.8210/S.54)    noc

If a few have already been digitised and are now accessible via the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website, a large proportion has remained practically untouched since their discovery in 1907 and is currently unavailable online. Thanks to a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, in Hong Kong, work is now underway to address this issue. The aim of this four-year project is to conserve and digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese, with a view to make images and information about them freely accessible on the Internet.

For the past six months, I have been busy checking the condition of all these manuscripts in order to plan both the conservation and digitisation workflows for the years to come. I have been extremely lucky to be joined in this task by three colleagues from the British Library Conservation department, who have volunteered some of their precious time to assess the collection with me. Together, we have been writing up detailed condition status reports to facilitate future conservation treatment and handling during photography. Another important part of my curatorial role has also been to enhance information on each of the corresponding catalogue recor

Meanwhile, Vania Assis, full-time conservator for the project, has started conserving the scrolls. Although an initial estimate based on a sample of manuscripts had established that between 200 and 300 items would need to be conserved, the ongoing assessment of the scrolls has so far revealed that most of them require some level of intervention. They are extremely fragile: they present tears, missing areas, creases and other damage that make photographing them in their current state inadvisable. Vania has already completed treatment of more than 50 items and will tell you about her amazing work in a separate post.

The project's team should soon include two senior imaging technicians, who will be ensuring the digitisation of the Lotus Sūtra copies. We will let you know how the project progresses and will post updates as regularly as possible, so watch this space!

Mélodie Doumy, Curator, Chinese collections

08 January 2018

The script of the Naxi, their religious literature and early translation attempts

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This week’s guest blog post is by Dr Duncan Poupard, Assistant Professor (Translation) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Naxiologist. He sheds light on some of the most extraordinary, mysterious and visually interesting manuscripts we hold in the Chinese section of the Library: the Naxi dongba manuscripts, commenting also on some of their early translations in the Library

The British Library holds a modest but important collection of religious texts from a lesser-known people: the Naxi of the Himalayan foothills in southwest China. Among China's officially-recognised ethnic minorities, the Naxi are a relatively small group, especially when compared to their more populous neighbours to the north, the Tibetans. But the Naxi are nevertheless significant, not least for the unique way in which they record their religious literature: the dongba script.

Naxi picture 1.jpg
Example of Naxi script, from the British Library volume containing Or.11417A to Or.11426A

This script can probably be dated to at least as early as the Mongol period (1253 -1382). The Naxi ritual texts, hand-written in books and read from left to right, form the basis for what we know about the culture and beliefs of the Naxi people. The dongba script is often touted as the world's last living pictographic script, although this classification is problematic as they are not really in active use, and are not strictly pictographic either.

The graphs can be seen in and around the city of Lijiang (centre of the Naxi population in Yunnan province), on shop fronts and road signs, but as the general populace cannot read or write the script, these signs are mostly for show.

Naxi picture 2 with circle.jpg
Starbucks Coffee shopfront, Lijiang old town. Intercultural globalisation in action
© the author

In this picture, the Naxi (top) and Chinese (bottom) names for 'Starbucks' can be seen on the board above the English lettering. In Naxi, 'Starbucks' is translated as 'gee bbaq kee'.

Naxi picture 3.jpg
The first character above means 'star' (gee, depicted as three stars), the second and third graphs being phonetic loans, the flower (bbaq) and the dog (kee) together approximating the sound of the English 'bucks'; it is a combination of literal and phonetic translation.

In fact, the script was historically reserved for the dongba religious practitioners and was primarily used for ritual, not secular (or Starbucks-related!) purposes. The books are recited by a dongba during the performance of religious ceremonies such as funerary rites, or when appeasing a vast pantheon of gods and spirits. Looking at the Naxi manuscripts themselves, which are written on specially made paper, and knowledge of which was historically only passed down the male family line, we would be forgiven for thinking they looked like comic strips: especially as they are separated into clearly marked rectangular sections. Of course, however, there's a lot more to this writing than meets the eye.
Naxi picture 4.jpg
Detail from the opening page of British Library Or.11417A

The image above is from a manuscript titled Ssee zhul: El-miq Rherq Zhail (Increasing longevity: calling upon the power of great dongba El-miq), recited at a ceremony held after a funeral to prolong the life of the surviving members of the family. This particular book is a call to a powerful dongba from Naxi history, El-miq, entreating him to aid the dongba who is conducting the ritual by investing him with power. In the first section on the top left, after the page decoration on the left, there are a total of ten graphs.

Naxi picture 5.jpg
Here we have the character for the sky, beneath it three stars (just as in the Starbucks sign), beneath the middle star a piece of jade, to its right a svastika (a symbol of good luck in Naxi culture that was likely borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism), then an image that looks like a cross on a triangle that originally meant 'to hang (as an object hanging off a cross)', and below it the earth, sprouting tufts of luxuriant grass. To the right we have the more easily identifiable sun, above a person pointing to their left (but our right) and the moon above someone pointing to their right (our left). Lines emanating from the celestial bodies indicate light being cast (and for the sun, by extension, warmth).

This first section is an opening benediction, an incantation that is supposed to bring about good fortune for the ceremony to come, but also contains much of the cosmological wisdom of the Naxi people. These ten characters, when read out during a performance of this text (for all such ritual texts are to be orally performed, not read silently), will become 40 spoken Naxi words. How can this be so? Simply because the relationship between what is written and what is said follows no clearly defined rules. The characters are often called in to use more than once, and much of what is said is not actually written. Despite this, every dongba would be able to recite this section without any problems. An English translation might read,

The stars shine bright in the sky
And today they shine brightest
The grass grows green on the earth
And today it grows greenest
The sun comes from the left, giving off its warmth
The moon comes from the right, giving off its light

One may wonder why the sun is on the left and the moon is on the right. The Naxi have a creation myth that tells the story of how, after the heavens and the earth were separated, the people all came together to build the holy mountain Jjuqnalsheel’loq, which acted as an axis mundi, propping up the heavens. Once the mountain was completed, they used a giant iron chain to tie the sun to the left of the mountain and the moon to its right. Thus, in the Naxi cosmogony, the sun and moon rotate around the holy mountain, in between the sky and the earth, and these opening lines are a microcosm of the Naxi cosmogony.

Alongside 107 dongba manuscripts, the British Library holds a number of Chinese and English translations of several of the texts: these were in fact the first Chinese and English translations of Naxi manuscripts to be completed, making them especially important to the history of Naxi studies. The Library's translations were commissioned by the British Foreign Office after a recommendation by S Wyatt Smith (1887-1958). They were acquired by a Pentecostal missionary (probably James Andrews, a British missionary in Lijiang during the 1920s and 30s) on the consul's behalf, and translated into Chinese, with the help of a Naxi to read the manuscripts and a Chinese translator to translate them. Some of the manuscripts were subsequently translated into English at the consulate. As is the case in much of translation history, the translators remain invisible, as the identities of the Naxi, Chinese and English translators have, it seems, been lost to history. The translation work stopped in 1931 as it presumably became prohibitively expensive: three translators were required to get the final English translation, and prices of the original manuscripts in Lijiang were rising as Joseph Rock, the Austro-American explorer and Naxiologist, began to make bulk purchases in the region.

Naxi picture 6.jpg
First page of Or.11417C, containing an early Chinese translation of Or.11417A

In 1934 the collection was given to the British Museum and the India Office. The 1930s were an exciting time for translations of Naxi manuscripts: many of the English versions that we have today were completed in this decade. There was a serious popular interest in the Naxi during this period, fostered by Joseph Rock's National Geographic articles on the region which highlighted this ‘strange tribe’. Joseph Rock began seriously translating and publishing his work on the Naxi in the 1930s, and he eventually went on to monopolise the field, with a somewhat unassailable combination of exhaustive (some may say pedantic) scholarship, a knack for self-promotion, and deep pockets.

Naxi picture 7.jpg
Provenance note on the first page of Or.11417C to 11426C, containing the Chinese translations of the correspondent “A” volumes in Naxi

Rock is dismissive of the Library's translations, writing that they have ‘totally wrong titles and explanations in Chinese’. This is, I believe, an unfair assessment. Even a preliminary look at the translation of this first manuscript shows a quite accurate rendition, with the title, Si Chong, being the correct name of the ceremony in romanisation. Perhaps Rock was unhappy as to the nature of the Library collection's acquisition: some fifty Ssee Zhul texts were acquired by the missionary acting on behalf of the Foreign Office from the officiating dongba after the Ssee Zhul ceremony had been performed for Rock. This was a purchase that transpired without Rock's knowledge.

Naxi picture 8.jpg
Cover page of British Library manuscript Or.11417A

The British Foreign Office's translations were pioneering, despite being somewhat unilluminating. They are presented without introduction and without any exegesis, which, combined with the large number of proper names present in the texts, makes for slow and mystifying reading for the uninitiated.

Anthony Jackson has suggested that a dictionary (as yet undiscovered) was compiled from this translation work, which would have been used to translate more of the texts without going through a Naxi intermediary. This was probably wishful thinking; to this day, Naxi dongba are required to give a reading of a book before it can be translated. This is because the texts are fluid: there is so much that is not written, there are graphs that are written and not read, and there are incantations that are recorded in a phonetic system separate to the picture-based graphs.

Translation of the Naxi texts is a practice that has all but died out in the modern era, as the remaining dongba grow fewer in number and their traditions become less relevant to modern life in Lijiang. This makes the library's collection all the more invaluable, for there will come a time when such translations will be all but impossible to carry out.


Further reading:
Jackson, Anthony. 1966. “Mo-So Magical Texts,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48: 141-74.
Poupard, Duncan. 2015. “Beyond the pictogram: echoes of the Naxi in Ezra Pound’s Cantos”. Neohelicon 43 (1): 233–249.
Rock, Joseph F. 1963. A Na-Khi - English encyclopedic dictionary. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.

Duncan Poupard, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


11 December 2017

An Introduction to the Peking Gazette at the British Library

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Today’s post is by Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley. She wishes to thank the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies for funding a trip to the British Library in summer 2017. This post draws on research from her 2016 doctoral dissertation on the Peking Gazette and for her book on the same subject.

Pages from a manuscript gazette, 10 January 1841 (Daoguang 20). From collection of Dr. James Art Sinclair, surgeon in the Bombay Army (BL Add 14333)

In January 1808, the missionary Robert Morrison recorded some musings on news and politics in south China, where he had recently arrived under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. He wrote:

A court gazette from Pekin falls into the hands of some, & the loquacious Chinese, who spend much of their time in chatting parties, soon diffuse reports, and as is general, with considerable additions. I have called the Chinese loquacious, it is however only to be understood of them when by themselves. To foreigners they are reserved on every topic that regards the internal affairs of the Empire.
(Robert Morrison, Journal, January 1808, in CWM/LMS Collection, SOAS, University of London)

By early 1809, Morrison had begun to translate the court gazette (jingbao) for his new employers, the East India Company (EIC). Confined to posts in Macao and Canton, English traders yearned for access to Beijing, the nerve-center of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. The “Peking Gazette” promised a glimpse at the activities of the imperial court and bureaucracy. Soon, translations of the Peking Gazette by Morrison and his students became common in London newspapers and journals. Meanwhile, the EIC, the British Superintendency of Trade (established in 1842), and the Chinese Secretary’s Office (established in 1860) began to collect, transcribe, and translate the gazettes. European and American visitors to China sought out copies of the gazette as souvenirs of their encounters with the Qing state.

Originating from the intelligence missions of British diplomatic and trade representatives in China, the British Library now holds the most comprehensive collection of nineteenth-century Chinese gazettes in the world. The collection is almost continuous between 1820 and 1910, and contains both manuscript and print editions for many periods. In total this amounts to about a million pages, documenting events like the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and subsequent efforts to modernize and rescue the ailing dynasty. At that time, most Chinese archives, libraries, and scholars saw gazettes as cheap daily publications, and not suited for long-term collection. As a result, the British Library collection is singular in scope.

A page from an 1853 printed gazette. Peking Gazette Collection, 1853, 3rd month (2). (BL PB 15440)

Government gazettes are valuable sources for historians who want to understand state communications, and the exchange of official information between the central state, its officials, and the public. By reading the Peking Gazette, we can better understand what people in nineteenth-century China knew about the Qing state and its operations. Gazettes contained details of wars, disaster relief campaigns, criminal cases, and everyday personnel transfers. They were both distributed to imperial officials, and sold on the streets and by subscription. Gazettes reveal what types of information the state made available to readers throughout the empire, and how quickly this information could travel. Finally, they are important exemplars of the print and textual methods employed in early modern China.

Chinese gazettes offer exciting transnational comparisons to both other official counterparts and to commercial newspapers emerging around the globe at the same time. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the English government published a daily gazette called the London Gazette. By the nineteenth century, the London Gazette contained advertisements, and was subject to a press tax. Like the Chinese gazette, this paper excerpted from official documents. In comparison with the London Gazette, the Peking Gazette included relatively candid representations of state operations, because it published critical internal reports about the misbehavior of serving officials and the salacious details of criminal cases.

Like newspapers, gazettes provide insights into everyday life and social conditions. However, gazette writers did not act as editors. They did not include their own opinions, solicit letters, or publish commercial information. The Qing government regulated the contents , and punished accidental or intentional variations. Although the state controlled gazettes, it did so in order to maintain the document’s authority, rather than to eliminate unfavorable representations of court and officials as we might expect.

In addition, the margins of the Peking Gazette collection reveal hidden dimensions of historical Sino-British interactions. Many gazettes in the British Library collection were annotated by readers: names were marked, Western dates were added, and pencil summaries in English were included.

Gazette with names marked. Peking Gazette collection. 1855 1st month (Daily Edition) (BL PB 15440)

We also see  evidence of the idle moments of the Chinese clerks who worked through gazettes, including whimsical sketches and calligraphy practice on unused pages.

Sketch in a gazette. Peking Gazette collection. 1845, 3rd-4th month (BL PB 15440)

British diplomats also compiled translated summaries of the Chinese gazette. The archives of the Chinese Secretary’s Office, held at the National Archives at Kew, reveal this process in action (see in particular FO 233 and FO 1080).

The diary of Sir Chaloner Alabaster (1838-1898), held at the University of London, details his experience as a student interpreter in China. British student interpreters worked through translations each day as part of their language training. One day in 1856, eighteen-year-old Alabaster wrote in his diary:

…we worked away but did not do much today the teachers being remarkable stupid at 12 1/2 down to office & when there wasted my time nicely reading extracts from the Peking Gazette however as it was by Wades [Thomas Francis Wade, Chinese Secretary] order it was alright.
(Diary of Sir Chaloner Alabaster, 1856, n.p, MS 380451, SOAS, University of London)

Today, as in Alabaster’s day, it is possible to waste your time quite nicely reading the Peking Gazette collection at the British Library. It is a fascinating glimpse into the daily reading of individuals across nineteenth-century China, from emperor to interpreter.

Further reading
For a study of the place of the Peking Gazette in the late Qing newspaper Shenbao, see:
Barbara Mittler, A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai’s News Media (1872-1912) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), Chapter 3.

For a pioneering scholarly introduction to the Qing gazette, see:
Jonathan Ocko, “The British Museum’s Peking Gazette,” Ch’ing shih wen-t’i 2, no.9 (1973): 35-49.

On the history of news in Europe before the modern newspaper, see:
Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

On the history of the London gazette, see:
P.M. Handover, A History of the London Gazette, 1665-1965 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1965).

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley

17 August 2017

Illumination and decoration in Chinese Qur'ans

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A seventeenth-century Qur’an from China in the British Library recently attracted much interest in a belated Eid show-and-tell arranged for the local community. This provides an ideal opportunity to go into more detail about the British Library’s collection of Chinese Qur’ans.

Or15604_f2r copy
The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in ṣīnī (‘Chinese’) script, part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r)

Visitors are always surprised when we show them a Chinese Qur’an, as they don’t automatically associate Islam with China. But in the eighth century, Muslim merchants were already trading in China and a community is known to have been established in Xi'an, where a mosque was built in 742. The impact of Islam in China was, however, not strongly felt until several centuries later during the Song and Yuan dynasties: the network of routes, known as the Silk Road, became the conduit for the spread of religious and cultural influences as well as for goods and merchandise.

Chinese Qur’ans were often produced in thirty-volume sets rather than in a single-volume codex, and many of our Chinese Qur’ans are sections (juz’) from a number of different thirty-volume sets. The script used was a variation of muḥaqqaq and penned in a way which suggests that the pen strokes were influenced by Chinese calligraphy. This is often referred to as ṣīnī (‘Chinese’) Arabic. A central panel is a prominent feature of Chinese Qur’ans on their decorated pages, which usually contain as few as three lines of text, with only a few words on each.
Or15571_1v copy
The beginning of a late seventeenth-century Qur'an written in ṣīnī script. This volume is the third of an original thirty-volume set (BL Or.15571, f. 1v)

The assimilation of local traditions in Islamic manuscripts produced in areas not normally associated with the art of Islamic calligraphy and illumination is evident in Chinese Qur’ans. While the illumination and decoration have the same function in all Qur’ans, the influence of local style and culture is manifest, without infringing Islamic practice in sacred art. The adaptation of symbols common to Chinese art and culture is therefore felt very strongly. In the final opening of a seventeen-century Qur’an, a lantern motif has become the visual vehicle for the text in the diamond design in the centre of the lantern. The impression of a Chinese lantern is further reinforced by pendulous tassels attached to the hooks on the outer side of the structure.

Or15256_1_f55-6 copy
The decorated final text opening with lantern motif from a seventeenth-century Qur'an (BL Or.15256/1, ff. 55v-56r)

In the same Qur’an a decorative leaf, exemplifying the use of local flora, functions as a section marker indicating the halfway point in part six of a thirty-volume set.

Or15256_1_f30v copy
A decorative leaf serving as a section marker (BL Or.15256/1, f. 30v)

Chinese Qur’ans often incorporate vibrant colours and gold for typical motifs such as crescents and banners. The impression of petals in the shamsah (sunburst) illumination below is produced by the intricate design of overlapping circles.

A shamsah medallion placed before the beginning of the text (BL Or.15604, f. 1r)

Chinese influence is also visible in the swirling lettering of the basmalah inscription in this shamsah medallion occurring in an eighteenth-century Qur'an, Or.14758, part ten of a thirty-volume set.

Or14758_2r copy Or14758_binding copy
Left: The shamsah containing the basmalah, and right: the same design used as part of the design of the binding (BL Or.14758, f. 2r and front binding)

An  unusual Qur’an is a nineteenth-century volume of selections accompanied by a Chinese translation (IO Islamic 3440). The Chinese translations are placed sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle of the lines and occasionally between them.

IO Isl 3440_f13-14 copy
The beginning of Sūrah 36, Yasin from a nineteenth-century Qur'an with Chinese translation, formerly belonging to the presumably Muslim Admiral at Amoy (BL IO Islamic 3440, f. 13v-14r)

This Qur’an has an interesting history. It was presented to the India Office Library in 1883 by Hugh W. Gabbett, whose father Lt. (later Major General) William. M. Gabbett of the Madras Horse Artillery was Lord Gough’s aidedecamp when Amoy (Xiamen) was taken in 1841 during the First Opium War. A faded note in pencil on folio 1r by William Gabbett describes it as “A Koran found by me at Amoy found in the Admiral’s House. W. M. Gabbett” and “The most valuable Book yet found in China. W. M. G.”

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007.
Annabel Teh Gallop, “Was the mousedeer Peranakan?: In search of Chinese Islamic influences in Malay manuscript art”, in Jan van der Putten and Mary Kilcline Cody, Lost Times and Untold Tales of the Malay World. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009: pp. 319-339.

Colin F. Baker and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections

21 July 2017

Chinese shuttlecock: a game for all

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Ching Yuet Tang is a cataloguer on secondment from the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She is currently assisting with the retro-conversion of catalogue records relating to Chinese collections at the British Library.

When I started work on the cataloguing project on early printed Chinese materials in September 2016, little did I know that it would include an early twentieth century guide to a game that I used to play at school in my small village in Hong Kong.

‘Shuttlecock’, or, jianzi 毽子, is a favourite pastime in China, enjoyed for centuries by adults and children, both rich and poor. It can be played just about anywhere, at any time, and whether you are on your own, in a pair or part of a group. The aim of the game is to try to keep the shuttlecock in the air using only the feet, and to get as many kicks in as possible without dropping it. The item I encountered – Le Volant Chinois, written by Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy in 1910 – is a helpful illustrated manual providing detailed instructions for a total of 38 techniques, ranging from simple tricks to spectacular acrobatic displays!

The book starts with simple techniques, such as kicking using the left or right foot. British Library, 15235.b.1

It continues with the sideways kick. British Library, 15235.b.1

And then moves on to more advanced techniques, such as the crab-style kick. British Library, 15235.b.1

And even demonstrates jumping with both feet! British Library, 15235.b.1

Although jianzi can be bought from shops, they are incredibly easy to assemble at home too. It requires no more than a few feathers, some rubber bands, an old exercise book (preferably with a hardback cover for strength) and a pair of scissors. A jianzi is light-weight and pocket-sized, making it a perfect form of instant mobile entertainment in pre-digital times. It is easy to make, simple to play and, most of all, it is fun!

Cheap and cheerful: examples of shop-bought jianzi

Jianzi has a long history of over two thousand years. According to the International Shuttlecock Association (ISF) website, jianzi (or a version of it), can be traced to at least the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) if not earlier. It is believed to have evolved from an activity called cuju 蹴鞠 undertaken by military troops for relaxation and exercise. Over the years, its popularity grew and extended to people from all walks of life. This can be seen clearly in a nineteenth-century Chinese export album, in which two men can be seen having a go at kicking a jianzi made of chicken feathers. According to the description, they managed to score over 1000 points in a row.

A common street scene. The caption describes the basic components for making a jianzi, namely a small coin about the size of a halfpenny, some feathers and a piece of string. British Library, Or 11539

Another historical reference to jianzi is given at the beginning of Le Volant Chinois, which reads:

楊柳兒青放空鐘 « Quand le saule verdit, on lâche le diabolo :
楊柳兒死踢毽子 Quand le saule se flétrit, on lance le Volant. »

This is a quote from another early printed book also held in the British Library, Di jing jing wu lüe 帝京景物略 by Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng, an account of Beijing in the early seventeenth century. It discusses seasonal leisure activities pursued by ordinary people, and mentions jianzi as a typical winter pastime enjoyed by many.

In recent years, jianzi has been transformed from a folk leisure activity to a formal competitive sport on a national and international scale. It not only has well-established official rules but also strict specifications about the components of a standard jianzi, from its weight and dimensions down to the number of feathers and the texture of its plastic base. It is now played over a net and deploys some of the goal-shooting techniques of football. The shuttlecock is kicked towards the other side and points are scored when the opposing team is unable to return it, as in the case of volleyball or badminton. The game has singles and doubles tournaments for men, women and mixed teams.

According to the ISF, jianzi entered the international spotlight when a Chinese athlete from Jiangxu demonstrated it at the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936. The sport has since gained great recognition and has spread to many countries around the world. Since the foundation of the ISF in 1999, the list of official members has expanded to include England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Laos, Vietnam, Greece, France, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. Members take turns to organise their own championships and I am thrilled to hear that the 9th World Shuttlecock Championships 2017 will be coming home to Hong Kong.

Do not despair if you are not yet at competitive or championship level, as you can still enjoy a simple game of jianzi as a much-needed break from a busy modern lifestyle, while also keeping fit and active. So if you are looking for a new hobby, why not get inspired by the manual of Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy? You might just find yourself tapping into a hidden talent, and may soon be showing off your dexterity and endurance.

Further reading:
Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy, “Le Volant Chinois”, Bulletin de L’Association Amicale Franco-Chinoise. Vol. 2, no. 4 (October 1910): 319-35.
International Shuttlecock Association (ISF), “History of shuttlecock sport”.
Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng, Di jing jing wu lüe. (Published in China by an unknown publisher, between 1766 and 1795.)

Ching Yuet Tang, Cataloguer, Chinese Collections