THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

16 posts categorized "Chinese"

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.

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

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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'.

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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.
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Detail from the opening page of British Library Or.11417A
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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.

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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.

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First page of Or.11417C, containing an early Chinese translation of Or.11417A
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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.

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

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Cover page of British Library manuscript Or.11417A
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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
duncan@arts.cuhk.edu.hk
 CC-BY-SA

 

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.

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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)
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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.

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

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

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


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.

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The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī (‘Chinese’) script, part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r)
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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 sīnī (‘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.
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The beginning of a late seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī script. This volume is the third of an original thirty-volume set (BL Or.15571, f. 1v)
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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.

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

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

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

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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)
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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.

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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)
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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
 ccownwork

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!

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

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

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

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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!

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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.

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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

21 February 2017

Knowledge Exchange visit to the National Library of China

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As part of “The British Library in China Project, the Library recently set up a series of Knowledge Exchange programmes with partners across mainland China and Hong Kong. Gemma Renshaw, Loans Coordinator at the Library, and Robert Davies, Editorial and Rights Manager of the Library’s Publishing team, were the two colleagues selected to visit the National Library of China (NLC) in Beijing in December. The aim of the trip was to learn from the host institution and to explore new terrain for future skills-sharing activities and collaboration.

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Robert Davies and Gemma Renshaw on the first day of their visit to the National Museum of Classical Books at the National Library of China. © British Library in China

The British Library in China Project is a UK government-funded, three-year project designed to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. The first of a series of exhibitions will be held at the NLC from April 2017 and will feature 11 iconic items from the British Library collections, including an early edition of the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscripts. As part of this project, the Library is also developing a Chinese-language website based on the successful “Discovering Literature” platform, to introduce English literature authors and themes to the Chinese public.

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Ms Guo Ni from the NLC International Office welcomed the Library colleagues. From left to right: Robert Davies, Gemma Renshaw, Guo Ni and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

While working closely together to develop a large-scale, joint exhibition, the Library and the NLC are now collaborating in new and exciting ways. The preparation of the joint exhibition has involved several months of fruitful interactions, including video conference calls between teams in London and Beijing. These regular conversations have increased mutual understanding, which helps tremendously when two organisations have different working methods and operating languages.

For Gemma, one of the important objectives of this trip was directly related to the upcoming exhibition. She hoped to find out more details about the exhibition hall facilities and conditions, as well as to finally meet the colleagues in Beijing with whom she had remotely worked for so many months! Gemma writes:

(On the first day of visit) we arrived early at the NLC and were introduced to the Exhibitions and Property Management teams. They showed us around the gallery that we’ll be displaying our objects in and we talked about the display cases, the types of objects they usually show, how the exhibition hall can be laid out for our joint exhibition and how practical work is divided between the two teams. It was really helpful for me to talk to both teams because they split the work that is done by my department at the Library between them. Also, seeing for myself what the gallery and the store room were like allowed me to get answers to important questions regarding security and exhibition hall environment, which otherwise would require a lot of email exchanges and translation help from my Chinese-speaking colleagues at the Library.

Robert paid a visit to the National Library of China Press. This trip provided a valuable opportunity for Robert to build direct contact with the NLC Press. As Robert says:

The visit to the National Library of China Press was a fascinating glimpse into the very different context of museum and library publishing in China. Our counterparts at the NLC Press have a large staff (over 100!) and publish many deeply scholarly books, curating and preserving China’s traditional literary culture for a highly specialist audience. Compared to the BL press, the NLC press focuses much more strictly on its own collection and on Chinese books.

The British Library has longstanding relationships with NLC Press for key projects – works about the Diamond Sutra, for example – but we have never had direct publisher-to-publisher contact in the past. There are clear opportunities for strengthening our partnership in future years – for example, facsimiles of ancient Chinese books and manuscripts as well as the on-going project on the retro-conversion in electronic format of the catalogues of our exceptional holdings of Chinese material from the early republican period.

This visit gave me a unique chance to see these projects from the other side and to build direct contact with editors and publishers – who were generous with their time in showing me their neighbourhood near the beautiful lakes of Beihai Park in central Beijing and provided an extremely delicious Peking duck lunch….

In addition to the NLC press, Robert also visited one of the most popular local bookstores – San Lian Bookstore, which is open 24/7 and is so vast that it spreads over three floors in the central area of Beijing:

Visiting a flagship Chinese bookshop was a great opportunity to find out more about the market for books in China – how they are priced, what cover designs and binding styles are used, and how translated Western books are categorised and sold among Chinese original works. It was also surprising (and inspiring) to see a very traditional bookshop – no café, and no gift products – busy with customers, late into the evening.


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Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies with Mr Lei Qiang from the Exhibition Department of the NLC. © British Library in China

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A corner for audience participation at an NLC exhibition dedicated to the guqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument that was often associated with scholarly life. © British Library in China

The exhibitions on display at the National Museum of Classical Books of the NLC were particularly interesting and informative: new media and interactive technologies have found their way into the NLC exhibition displays and narratives. For Robert, the highlight of visiting the exhibitions was a guided tour of the oracle bones gallery, which has an immersive set-up supported by multi-media projection and ambient sound effect. The way that the exhibition curator had made a complex and specialist subject into an accessible, interesting and hands-on gallery was very impressive.

Other activities of the Knowledge Exchange visit to the NLC included a tour of the book conservation studio and of the Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy department. In the conservation studio, the traditional Chinese way of master-apprentice knowledge transmission is still very prominent, demonstrated by the way the room is arranged: the master conservators’ desks are positioned in the central area of the room while apprentices’ desks are on the right side of the room by the windows.

While we were there a conservator was working on her research on paper colouration. She was using Chinese brush and mineral paints and experimented combining the paint with a wide range of materials to see which combination would better match with that of an aged page from an old book. This type of approach to paper is rooted in the long history of bookbinding and book conservation in China.

The NLC conservation studio is equipped with very advanced technology machinery, including two labs for paper testing and analysis and a newly established Western Books conservation lab, which the studio manager very kindly introduced to us. This new lab is led by Xiao Yu, a young conservator who studied at the Camberwell College of Arts and has a remarkable knowledge base of both Chinese and Western book bindings and materials.

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Visit to the conservation studio at the NLC. © British Library in China

At the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy we were given a fascinating insight into the large collection of Chinese rubbings. Chinese rubbings are paper copies of the surface of engraved items or reliefs. As a technique, rubbings enjoy a long history of more than 1,500 years in China and East Asian countries. As objects, rubbings represent an invaluable medium for preserving the history and culture contained within important stone stele, bronze vessels and objects in other material such as brick and jade. We were shown how to make rubbings out of a beautiful ink-stone engraved with plum blossoms: a piece of traditional Chinese rice paper was laid flat on the ink-stone and carefully moistened with sprayed water. After the paper dried but remained stuck to the ink-stone, an inkpad with some ink was carefully and lightly pressed on the paper, leaving an ink impression of the plum blossoms image as the carved parts of the engravings were left white on the paper.

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An expert at the NLC showing how to make a rubbing out of the ink-stone engraved with a plum blossom pattern. © British Library in China

Creating a Chinese rubbing is a delicate task: it requires extensive experience to balance the level of the moisture in the paper, the quantity of ink and the correct pressure. The British Library’s Chinese collection hosts a collection of Chinese rubbings, and the Curators of the Chinese section hope to work together with the NLC in future to gain specialist knowledge on how to better conserve, catalogue, store and digitise them.

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Experts of the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy at the NLC welcomed Library staff Gemma Renshaw and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

The Knowledge Exchange programme will continue alongside the three-year exhibitions project in China and will consist of a series of reciprocal visits between staff members of different areas and departments of the British Library and the Chinese partner institutions, including Shanghai Library and Mu Xin Art Museum in Wuzhen.


Tan Wang-Ward, Project Assistant to “British Library in China” Project, with thanks to Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies for their contributions.
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24 May 2016

Tang Xianzu, the great Ming dynasty playwright

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This year the Library celebrates one of the greatest literary figures of all time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), with a major exhibition and a rich series of events and on-line resources. Coincidently, two other world-famous writers died in the same year: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550–1616). To commemorate these two writers, the Library recently presented in its permanent free exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the display Imagining Don Quixote, and is currently showing a selection of woodblock printed editions from Tang Xiangzu’s work. For those who cannot visit the British Library to see the display on Tang in person, this blog post presents some information on the exhibits.

Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest Chinese playwrights. He was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi province, and worked as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620) of the Ming dynasty. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece is called the ‘Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭 Mudan ting). The ‘Peony Pavilion’ was written and staged for the first time in 1598 and performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng, one of the great Chinese towers in Southern China. It is still one of the most beloved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.

Tang blog 1 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. In this illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the text, we can see the opening scene, when the sixteen-year-old Du Liniang falls asleep in the garden and starts dreaming. British Library, 15327.b.15 Noc

The term ‘opera’ is often used in reference to Chinese theatre as it was common for dramatic performances to be highly choreographed and punctuated by singing and musical accompaniment. There are many forms of Chinese opera, but the ‘Peony Pavilion’ is traditionally performed as a kunqu or ‘Kun opera’, a style developed in the early Ming period, which combines spoken parts with singing and dance movements.

Tang blog 2 by Sara
The Peony Pavilion performed in Venice on 15th of June 2010 (photo by the author). The original version of the Peony Pavilion runs for 20 hours, and comprises a total of 55 scenes, but it is now usually performed in shorter adaptations.

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is sometimes referred to as ‘A Ghost Story’, because part of it takes place in the underworld and the protagonist returns from the afterlife. It narrates the love story between a girl from a wealthy family, Du Liniang, and the scholar Liu Mengmei. After seeing Liu in a dream and falling in love with him, Du dies of sorrow. Her spirit keeps looking for the young scholar and the Judge of the Underworld promises to resurrect her so that she can see him again. After appearing in Liu’s dreams as a ghost, her body is exhumed by Liu and the couple live happily thereafter.

Tang blog 3 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. British Library 15327.b.16, another copy of the same edition of the work as in 15327.b.15. Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is one of the so-called ‘Four Dreams’ (Lin chuan si meng), four of Tang’s most important plays in which dreams play a significant part in the story. They include also ‘The Purple Hairpin’, ‘The Dream of Handan’ and ‘The Dream of the Southern Bough’. The latter two in particular contain themes of rejection of traditional feudal values and the possibility of escape through love and compassion in order to achieve happiness.

Tang Blog 4 by Sara
The ‘Dream of Southern Bough’, in the collection Shi er zhong qu十二種曲, ‘Twelve operas’, by Li Yu, 1785, woodblock printed edition. British Library, 15327.a.3 Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been translated into many languages and adapted several times for television and theatre productions such as contemporary opera, ballet and musical performances, both in China and abroad. The escape from the conventions of feudal society, the power of true love to conquer even death, and the cathartic role of dreams are central themes of the ‘Peony Pavilion’. Together they created a story that is universal and beloved by students, readers and audiences around the world.

Tang blog 5 by Sara
‘Die Rückkehr der Seele’ (The Return of the Soul), translated by Vincenz Hundhausen. Zürich/Leipzig, 1937. This edition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’, translated and edited by Vincenz Hundhausen, is accompanied by forty reproductions of Chinese woodcuts from the Ming period. British Library, 11101.f.28

Further reading:
Tan, Tian Yuan and Santangelo, Paolo 'Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion' (3 vols.),  in Emotions and States of Mind in East Asia, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Tan, Tian Yuan, Edmondson, Paul and Wang, Shih-pe, 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.


Sara Chiesura, East Asian collections Ccownwork

25 January 2016

The British Library’s Collection of Chinese Propaganda Posters: An Overview

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And so my three months are up and I have completed the project: to compile and research a catalogue of the British Library’s Chinese propaganda posters. So what have I found out? Well, in the collection there are 90 individual items, considerably more than we believed there would be at the outset. The posters date from between 1950 and 1982, with the vast majority having been published in the mid-1960s, just before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), largely thanks to a couple of sets of what I have loosely described as ‘public information’ posters, dating from 1965. One set deals with what to do in the event of an enemy air raid, and the other with meteorological and agricultural observations.

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A detail from Qiang jiu shou shang ren yuan (抢救受伤人员), ‘Rescuing injured personnel’, from a set of wall charts (Ren min fang kong chang shi gua tu, 人民防空常识挂图, ‘People's Air Defence General Knowledge Wall Charts’), compiled by Tianjin shi ren min fang kong wei yuan hui (天津市人民防空委员会), the Tianjin People's Air Defence Committee, and published by Tianjin mei shu chu ban she (天津美术出版社), the Tianjin Fine Art Publishing House, in July 1965. British Library, ORB.99/79 (14).

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A detail from Qi xiang zhi shi (si). Yu qing he shang qing (气象知识 (四). 雨情和商情), ‘Meteorological knowledge 4. Rainfall and soil moisture content’, from a set of wall charts (Qi xiang zhi shi gua tu (gong xiao xing zhan lan), 氣象知識挂图 (供小型展览), Wall chart of meteorological knowledge (for small scale exhibitions)’, compiled and published by Tianjin shi ke xue pu ji xing xiang zi liao she (天津市科学普及形象资料社), ‘Tianjin popular science image resource group’, in February 1965. British Library, ORB.99/87 (4).

Overall the poster collection covers a range of genres, from new nian hua and revolutionary romanticism – a fusion of socialist realism and guo hua brush and ink painting – to photographic portraits. I have categorised them according to a number of different themes:

•    Posters related to the Mao cult, including colourised and heavily airbrushed photographic portraits of Mao Zedong dating from the late 1960s, and several examples of his calligraphy (and poetry).
•    A series of posters featuring chubby babies and children, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s, several of which promote the one child policy.
•    Revolutionary nian hua prints, dating from the early years of the People’s Republic, and which I looked at in depth in my last blogpost.
•    A set of posters featuring the ubiquitous and (probably) semi-mythical soldier-hero Lei Feng (雷锋) and which eulogise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
•    A fairly rare set of posters featuring satirical caricatures of the ‘Gang of Four’ (si ren bang, 四人邦), the group headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and which was blamed for the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976.
•    The aforementioned sets of public information posters dating from 1965.
•    Documentary and feature film posters - the Library’s collection seems fairly unique in this respect; these are not something I’ve seen in large quantities in other collections.
•    Posters featuring scenes taken from the revolutionary model works (yang ban xi, 样板戏), including ‘The White Haired Girl’ (Bai mao nü, 白毛女), ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’ (Hong deng ji, 红灯记) and ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (Hong se niang zi jun, 红色娘子军).

While copyright implications have stymied the original plan to digitise the collection and make it publically accessible online, the catalogue – minus images – will shortly be available to download as a PDF from the new Chinese collection webpages.

Over the last three months I have had an absolutely fantastic time. It’s been a great experience to work at the Library and I was made to feel very welcome. The project has provided me with plenty of research material for the future, and what a privilege it was to get hands-on with the collection!
All that remains is for me to thank Professor Robert Bickers and BICC for funding the project and Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, curators of the Chinese collection at the British Library for hosting me.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral researcher  Ccownwork

11 January 2016

Last Chance to See: Records of a lunar eclipse from over 3,000 years ago

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FINAL WEEK: The exhibition ‘Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing’, which features the oracle bone described here, is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library until 17 January 2016.

Today’s post was written with the help of Dr Roberto Soria, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Curtin University in Western Australia. We are grateful to him for his expertise and valuable contributions.

The significance of the inscribed oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BC) for the study of Chinese civilization cannot be overestimated. Not only do they bear the earliest known examples of the Chinese written language and are therefore of great significance to linguists, but they are also the earliest primary source of documentary evidence for a much-disputed period of Chinese history. Through deciphering these texts scholars gained unprecedented insight into the concerns of the time, sometimes with astonishing historical detail. An excellent example of this is Or.7694/1595 (Yingcang 886)[1], a bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection at the British Library, which records a lunar eclipse that can be precisely dated to the night of the 27 December 1192 BC.

Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.13.45Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.14.15
Shang dynasty oracle bone containing a reference to a lunar eclipse (British Library Or.7694/1595)
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Oracle bones – primarily the shoulder bones (scapulae) of sheep or cattle and the flat under-shells (plastrons) of tortoises – were central to an ancient divination ritual during which questions were posed to the ancestors of the Shang royal house and the answers interpreted from the distinctive Ⱶ-shaped cracks that formed in the bones when heat was applied to pre-prepared hollows on the underside. Although this practice, known as ‘pyromancy’, can be traced back to Neolithic times, its heyday seems to have been during the last two centuries of the second millennium BC (i.e. the late Shang) when the Shang cult centre was at Yin 殷, near modern-day Anyang. Over 150,000 oracle bones are thought to have originated from there, approximately 50,000 of which bear inscribed records of the questions, answers and outcomes of the divination process.

Central to this divination ritual is the belief that the ancestors of the Shang ruling house had the power to predict and influence events on earth. The extent of their perceived influence is evident from the range of topics touched upon in the oracle bone inscriptions, including warfare, agriculture, hunting, dreams, illness, natural disasters and astronomy. The darkness caused by a solar or lunar eclipse was deemed a negative omen, indicating an ancestor spirit in need of mollification.

The text inscribed on Or.7694/1595 records one such lunar eclipse and even includes evidence of the date on which it occurred. In the introduction to Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Allan, Li & Qi 1985) it is described as ‘a series of inscriptions proposing that there will be no misfortune during the coming ten-day week. Following the inscription made on the gui-chou day (50th of 60-day cycle), a verification inscription on verso confirms a lunar eclipse on the geng-shen (57th) day.’ This ‘verification inscription’ reads as follows: 

已未Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 20.04.32庚申月㞢[食]           
“[In the night between] jiwei (day 56) and gengshen (day 57) the moon was eclipsed”

Over the years, a number of studies have been carried out by astronomers and sinologists alike in order to calculate the precise date of this and other eclipses recorded on oracle bones according to Western dating conventions. The date for this particular lunar eclipse has been verified as having taken place between the 27th and 28th December 1192 BC. Dr Roberto Soria has confirmed that the total phase of the eclipse, viewed from Anyang, would have lasted from 21:48 to 23:30 (±17 minutes) local time.

This is shown in a diagram generated by NASA:

LE-1191-12-27T
A diagram of this eclipse from NASA’s Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses (Espenak & Meeus 2009)

In case you were wondering (as we did) why this diagram has the date -1191 rather than -1192, Dr Soria explains: ‘the astronomical negative years in the “Canon” must be increased by one to secure historical years BC. The reason is that the Julian calendar[2] does not have a year 0, it went straight from 1 BC to AD 1. However, any automatic computer program that calculates the position of the earth and moon cannot handle this jump… So, NASA’s dates plotted in those tables are “fictitious” years that go…, -2, -1, 0, 1, …, but keeping in mind that 2=AD2, 1=AD1, 0=1BC, -1=2BC…-1191=1192BC…’.

According to Dr Soria, the historical dates and times of lunar eclipses are also important to geologists and astronomers because they allow them to measure how the earth rotation has been slowing down over the centuries. The average day has got longer by about five hundredths of a second since the Shang dynasty. This may seem like a small quantity, but a difference of a few 1/100 seconds each day, 365 days a year, over 3000 years, means a total delay of several hours accumulated from the Shang dynasty to today.

Interestingly, there is another bone which refers to the same lunar eclipse held in the Hopkins collection at Cambridge University Library (CUL 1, Yingcang 885), one of the nearly 900 oracle bones purchased by Lionel C. Hopkins (1854-1952) from the American Presbyterian missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862-1914) who also helped to form the collection here at the British Library.

Emma Goodliffe, Curator, Chinese Collections
 ccownwork

Further reading:

Sarah Allan (Ai Lan 艾蘭), Li Xueqin 李學勤, and Qi Wenxin齊文心, Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Chinese title: Yingguo suocang jiagu ji 英國所藏甲骨集), Zhonghua shuju, Beijing, 1985 (Part I, 2 volumes) and 1991 (Part II, 2 volumes)
Chou Fa-kao, “On the dating of a lunar eclipse in the Shang period”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25 (1964-5): 243-247
Homer H. Dubs, “The date of the Shang period” T’oung Pao. 40 (1951): 322-335
Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus, Five millennium canon of lunar eclipses, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2009
Han Yanben and Qiao Qiyuan, “Records of solar eclipse observations in ancient China”, Science in China Series G: Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, 52, 11 (2009): 1639-1645
David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978


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[1] ‘Yingcang’ numbers are the reference numbers used in Yingguo suo cang jia gu ji (Allan, Li and Qi 1985-92).

[2] The Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar that was later superseded by the Gregorian calendar.