THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

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

21 July 2017

Chinese shuttlecock: a game for all

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

17 July 2017

Some bindings from Tipu Sultan's court

In recent weeks I have been examining bindings of the British Library’s manuscripts which formerly belonged to Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799). The British Library collection probably constitutes about 25% of the original Library as it was in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. The manuscripts originate ultimately from a number of different, largely unspecified, locations, but fortunately there is a distinct corpus (23 out of 242 so far examined) which can easily be identified as belonging to Tipu Sultan's court. These are works bound in his own individualistic style of binding or else were copied or composed at Seringapatam.

I_o_islamic_3562_fblef_b copy
Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an with flap showing inscriptions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 below. This binding is unusual of Tipu bindings for its use of gilt decoration. Note also the diced patterned background which is a feature of several other manuscripts. (IO Islamic 3562
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One of the most lavish is Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (IO Islamic 3562), illustrated above (more on this in a future blog). Decorated heavily in gilt on a diced patterned background, the binding also includes a number of inscriptions. These were described in general terms by Charles Stewart in A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, (Cambridge, 1809), p.v.

All the volumes that had been rebound at Seringapatam have the names of God, Mohammed, his daughter Fatimah, and her sons, Hassen and Hussein, stamped in a medallion on the middle of the cover; and the names of the Four first Khalifs, Abu Beker, Omar, Osman, and Aly, on the four corners. At the top is “Sirkari Khodādad,” (the government given by God); and at the bottom, “Allah Kāfy,” (God is sufficient).”

I thought it would be helpful to expand on these inscriptions which are stamped on the outside of the bindings. Typically, but not always, they consist of:

  1. Front top: Sarkār-i Khudādādī ‘God-given government’
  2. Front central medallion: Allāh, Muḥammad, ʻAlī, Fāṭimah, Ḥasan, Ḥusayn
  3. Back central medallion: Qur’an Surah 2:32: Subḥānaka lā ‘ilma lanā illā mā ‘allamtanā innaka anta al-‘alīm al-ḥakīm ‘Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.’
  4. Four corners: Ḥaz̤rat Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUmar al-Fārūq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUsmān ibn ʻAffān; Ḥaz̤rat ʻAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
  5. Pendants hanging from central medallion: Allāh kāfī ‘God is sufficient’
  6. Cartouches: Lā ilāha illā Allāh Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger’
  7. Spine: Qur'an Surah 56:79: Lā yamassuhu illā al-muṭahharūn ‘None may touch it except the purified’

I_o_islamic_3562_fbrig copy  I_o_islamic_3562_fbrigr copy
Left: back board with inscriptions 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6; right: doublure; below: flap with inscription 7 which currently, perhaps as a result of restoration, lies on the outside of the front board. (IO Islamic 3562)
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I_o_islamic_3562_fbspi_a copy

A similar binding occurs on IO Islamic 3351, a less ambitiously decorated Qur’an, possibly dating from the 17th century but rebound at Seringapatam. Its small size (16.5 x 10cm) accounts for it only being inscribed in the central medallion, on the spine and with the usual sarkar-i khudādādī. Unlike many of Tipu's bindings, which have been altered during subsequent restoration, this one has been preserved in its original state with the flap designed to go inside the outer cover.

IO ISlamic 3351_binding2 copy
Back board and flap showing inscriptions 3 and 7. (IO Islamic 3351)
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Less ambitious Tipu bindings show considerable variation and demonstrate that the inscriptions could be stamped quite carelessly as illustrated in the examples below.

IO Islamic 695_binding copy   IO Islamic 491
Left: IO Islamic 695, a late 18th century copy of works by Gīsū Darāz and ʻAṭṭār, with inscriptions 1, 2, 4 and 5 stamped somewhat inexactly on the binding; right: IO Islamic 491, Javāhir al-qur'ān, an index to bowing places (rukūʻ) copied for Tipu in 1225 of the Mauludi era (1797/98) with only inscription 1 at the head.
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Not all of Tipu Sultan's bindings included his characteristic inscriptions. Two examples of comparitively simple bindings are illustrated below.

IO Islamic 464 binding1 IO Islamic 464doublure
This manuscript is a translation into Persian from Dakhni by Ḥasan ʻAlī ʻIzzat of the love story of Lal and Gohar which was commissioned by Tipu Sultan in 1778. The binding is contemporary and still carries the Prize Agentsʼ label dating from when they were first examining the collection in 1799. (IO Islamic 464)
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IO Islamic 713 IO Islamic 713doublure
Another work commissioned by Tipu, his army regulations Fatḥ al-mujāhidīn by Zayn al-Dīn Shūshtarī. The scalloped flap is the only example I have found in the collection and unlike IO Islamic 3351 above, it was designed to lie on the outside. Note also the hole, presumably for ties. (IO Islamic 713)
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Altogether I estimate that the British Library has about 600 volumes from Tipu Sultan's collection. These consist of 197 volumes of Arabic and Persian manuscripts deposited in the Library on 16 July 1806, further volumes deposited in 1807 (204 vols) and April 1808 (68 vols) and a proportion of the 308 manuscripts sent to London in 1837 after the closure of Fort William College in Calcutta and the dispersal of its collections. For more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah. I'm hoping that by examining the whole collection I may be able to discover more about the provenance of each volume and establish certain regional binding styles, but this is very much work in progress, so watch this space!


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian
 CC-BY-SA

05 July 2017

Shubbak 2017: contemporary Arab culture at the British Library

The biennial Shubbak Festival returns to London this year between 1st and 16th July with a range of exciting and engaging events on contemporary Arab culture, with an array of literary events taking place once again at the British Library.

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Shubbak first visited the British Library in 2015 attracting hundreds of attendees with an outstanding line-up of Arab authors and artists. This year sees a more diverse schedule of events that includes: a display of items from the British Library’s collections, outdoor dance performances, literary discussions and readings, and children’s poetry workshops, as well as a number of creative collaborations with writers, translators and literary magazines.

‘Comics and Cartoon Art from the Arab World’ (13 June-29 October)
Events have already kicked off with the opening a display entitled ‘Comics and Cartoon Art from the Arab World’ in the British Library’s Sir John Ritlbat Treasures Gallery. This four-case display explores the art, history and significance of Arab comics, cartoons, caricatures and graphic novels through original examples taken from the British Library’s collections.

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Left: Abou Naddara supplement (Paris, 1894). BL 14599.e.20
Right: Cover of a 1959 edition of Sindbad (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1952- ) illustrated by Mohieddin El Labbad. BL ORB.30/8320

ʻSacré Printemps!ʼ (6 July, performances at 13:00, 16:00 and 18:30)
The British Library’s piazza is the venue for three UK premier performances of ‘Sacré Printemps!’ - a dance performance by Cie Chatha and choreographed by Aïcha M’Barek and Hafiz Dhaou. Featuring life-sized silhouettes by seminal street artist Bilal Berreni (Zoo-project), which appeared on Tunis’ main avenue after the revolution. ‘Sacré Printemps!’ celebrates the diverse individuals who fought for their civil rights. Five dancers jostle, fight and compete among over 30 cut-out sculptures but also joyfully unite in their strife to join different voices and individualities into one hope.

Literature Festival (15-16 July)
The Shubbak Literature Festival brings a weekend of talks, readings and performances runs to the British Library’s Knowledge Centre. The festivals kicks off with ‘Writing Against the Grain’ with Mona Kareem, Ghazi Gheblawi and Ali Badr discussing what it means write against the grain in 2017 as an engaged Arab writer. This is followed by ‘A New Confidence: Recent Queer Writing’. Although LGBTQ characters and narratives have always been present in Arabic literature, recent years have seen a new wave of LGBTQ-identified Arab writers taking the foreground in writing their own narratives. Writers Saleem Haddad, Alexandra Shreiteh, Amahl Khouri will be joined by Alberto Fernández Carbajal to discuss their art.

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Left: Ali Badr, Bābā Sārtir: riwāyah (Beirut: Riyāḍ al-Rayyis, 2001). BL YP.2012.a.2086
Right: Alexandra Chreiteh, Ali and his Russian mother (Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2015). Arabic edition at BL YP.2017.a.2689

As ever, poetry is prominent in the festival. On both Saturday and Sunday British-Egyptian poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz hosts a lively, fun and interactive free poetry workshop in which children will be able to weave their everyday experiences into the fabric of Arab folk tales. On the Saturday evening, ‘Keepers of the Flame’ sees Malika Booker return to Shubbak to host bilingual performances of four poets: Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail, New York-based poet-writer-translator Mona Kareem, Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi and Syrian Kurdish poet and translator Golan Haji.

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Left: Dunya Mikhail, Uḥibbuka min hunā ilá Baghdād: qaṣāʾid mukhtārah [I love you from here to Baghdad: selected poems] (Cairo: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, al-Hayʾah al-ʿĀmmah li-Quṣūr al-Thaqāfah, 2015). BL YP.2016.a.5604
Right: He tells tales of Meroe: poems for the Petrie Museum (London: Poetry Translation Centre, 2015.). BL YP.2015.a.7162

Sunday’s opening event is ‘The Walking Nightmare’ which puts a spotlight on the use of horror, realism and black humour in depicting post-revolutionary Egyptian dystopias. Literary translator Elisabeth Jacquette joins writer and psychiatrist Basma Abdel Aziz, IPAF-nominated author Mohammad Rabie and graphic artist Ganzeer via Skype.

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Left: Ganzeer, Solar Grid
Right: Mohammed Rabie, ʿUṭārid : riwāyah [Otared] (Cairo: Dar al-Tanwīr, 2015). BL YP.2016.a.3599

Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq play a dominant role in the Arabic literary scene while writers from outside these countries are not widely known or translated. ‘Under the Radar’ brings Libyan-born IPAF-short listed writer Najwa Benshatwan and Yemeni Nadia Alkokabany in discussion with Bidisha exploring the multiple marginalisation of being a female writer outside the Arab literary mainstream.

The Shubbak Festival closes with Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa in conversation with South Africa born British novelist, playwright and memoirist Gillian Slovo. Abulhawa’s 2010 debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, is a multigenerational family epic that looks unflinchingly at the Palestinian question. It became a bestseller translated into thirty-two languages. Her second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, was released in 2015 and also met with global acclaim. Although she writes in English, her work is deeply rooted in the land and language of her ancestors, taking inspiration from the Palestinian literary canon, such as Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa.

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Left: Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin (London: Bloomsbury, 20103). BL H.2010/.7013. Also available digitally in the British Library reading rooms ELD.DS.100960.
Right: Najwa Benshatwan, Zarāyib al-ʿabīd: riwāyah [The slave Pens] (Cairo: Dār al-Sāqī, 2016). BL YP.2017.a.2695

Literary Collaborations
Since mid-June Syrian journalist and author Rasha Abbas has undertaken a month long creative residency commissioned by Shubbak and the British Library, where she focuses on the period of the Arab Union, as part of the research for a planned historical novel. The culmination of her research will be presented in an event at the Shubbak Literature Festival in a narrative framed by specific tarot cards. The highly delineated lens of each card – Free Will, Forced Fate, Justice, and so on – will provide an idiosyncratic approach to the historical material in question.

The digital magazine Words Without Borders has published newly translated works including political nonfiction from Basma Abdel Aziz; an extract of Nadia Alkokabany’s new novel about the Yemeni revolution; an extract of Mohamed Abdelnabi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted gay Egyptian novel; and a short play by seminal Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf. This special feature went live on 1 July 2017 on both shubbak.co.uk and wordswithoutborders.org.

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Left: Basma Abdel Aziz, al-Ṭābūr: riwāyah [The queue] (Beirut: al-Tanwīr, 2013). BL YP.2017.a.2687
Right: Mohamed Abdelnabi, Fī ghurfat al-ʿankabūt: riwāyah [In the spider’s room] (Cairo: Dār al-ʿAyn, 2016). BL YP.2017.a.1440

Modern Poetry in Translation’s summer issue will also include a Shubbak focus on Arabic-language poetry, with new work from the poets appearing at the festival, including the festival’s new commission by Golan Haji, in translation by Stephen Watts. A range of podcasts and recordings will accompany the magazine.

For the full programme and booking information, visit bl.uk/events/shubbak. You can also follow Shubbak on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections
 CC-BY-SA

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