THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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3 posts categorized "Literature"

16 January 2017

The curious tale of Solomon and the Phoenix

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One of the more enigmatic manuscripts now in the British Library (IO Islamic 1255) from the rich library of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore (d. 1213/1799), is the untitled qiṣṣah or tale featuring a figure popular across the range of Persian literature, the Prophet Sulaymān (the biblical Solomon, son of David). In this tale, the prophet-king is confronted by the head of the ranks of birds, the Sīmurgh (Phoenix), expressing its disbelief in the doctrine of predestination (qaz̤āʾ va qadr). Having angered Allāh, Jibrāʾīl (the archangel Gabriel) is sent to inform Sulaymān of a prophecy foretelling the birth of the Prince of the East (Malikzādah-′i Mashriq) and the Princess of the West, daughter of the Malik-i Maghrib, who together bear a child out of wedlock. The Sīmurgh believes it can prevent this outcome. Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh conclude an agreement (qawl) to reassess the situation after fifteen years, by which time the accuracy of the prophecy would be apparent.

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The Prophet Solomon and the Phoenix’s agreement is witnessed by members of his court; the two yogis in the foreground represent the assembled jinns. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 2v. Noc

The tale additionally interweaves several digressive subplots focussing on the adventures of the Prince of the East from his minority to adolescence. In the process, his development into a pious youth is mapped through a succession of episodes where he interacts with magical beasts, Satan, kings, courtiers, merchants, and sages. This didactic tale may be part of the ‘mirror for princes’ tradition, but as we shall later discover, there is more to it than appears at first glance.

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The Prince of the East (not shown) overhears a king’s angry exchanges with his courtiers while seated amid special trees. Note the lengthy jamahs and sweeping turbans that indicate eighteenth-century courtly fashions, while the patterned floorcoverings attempt to capture the rich texture of contemporary embroidered and brocaded soft furnishings. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 8r. Noc

Profusely illustrated, the manuscript IO Islamic 1255 has surprisingly eluded scholarly attention. Although it ends without a dated colophon, the distinctive style and details of its 63 illustrations on 26 folios offer sufficient evidence to locate its origins in mid-eighteenth-century Deccan, possibly even the Carnatic, ruled by the Nawabs of Arcot. On the other hand, the coarse nastaʿlīq script tending toward taʿlīq makes it clear that this is not the product of an élite or royal workshop. The absence of gold illumination and the use of a muted colour palette further strengthen this impression. The unusually tall and narrow format underscores the peculiarity of the volume as a whole. Though the paintings have oxidised in areas, the manuscript must have been a valued item in Tipu’s library, as the work was bound in a contemporary finely-tooled, gilded, and painted leather binding.

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The Prince of the East is discovered by his two Arabian horses while sheltering under the hide of a horse at the foot an isolated tree. This image shows the increased levels of pigment oxidation in paintings towards the end of the manuscript. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library, British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 22r. Noc

The tale’s literary significance is heightened when considering the version in another British Library manuscript catalogued recently, entitled Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr (IO Islamic 4806). We encounter the familiar characters of the Prophet Sulaymān, the Sīmurgh, the Prince of the East and Princess of the West, with the narrative sharing the same basic structure. Like the version in the Tipu manuscript, the tale’s author is not named. Differences lie in the laconic style of the substantially abridged account, with some passages and episodes rearranged, and others omitted. Occasionally, the simplicity of prose is abandoned in favour of a more formal style and additional poems, while adjectives and titles take on a distinctly courtly flavour. Notwithstanding, the overall feel is that of a relatively faithful retelling of the Tipu version.

The most original feature of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr is its introductory matter (ff. 1v-3r), which elevates it to the status of pseudo-history and prophetic tradition. Accordingly, when the Prophet Muḥammad was troubled by Meccan groups, Jibrāʾīl appears and gives him the seal of Sulaymān, a gift from Allāh. Jibrāʾīl is asked if it prevents death. He clarifies that there are two kinds of death, qaz̤ā-′i muḥkam or conspicuous (avoidable?) death and qaz̤ā-′i mubram or certain death. After a few days, Jibrāʾīl reappears and narrates the tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh to demonstrate how nothing escapes the certainty of fate. The tale begins from this point forward in much the same way as the Tipu manuscript.

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Illuminated sarlawḥ and opening passage of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr. British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 1v. Noc

The tale’s connection with the Prophet Muḥammad is established on the authority of a tenuous chain of transmission, mentioning the names of Ibn Saʿd (d. ca. 66/686), who heard it from Ḥasan Baṣrī (d. 110/728), who heard it from one of the unidentified muʿtamadān or confidants of the Prophet. Whether or not the chain of transmission is authentic, such details are unnecessary for the purpose of a mere adventure tale, indicating the intention to emphasise its moral and pious message. While subsequent details correspond closely with the Tipu manuscript, these extraordinary passages do not appear in that version.

The Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr manuscript is not dated and owners’ marks have been erased. It consists of 26 folios commencing with a gilded and painted sarlawḥ or headpiece, and has gold rulings throughout, with scribal nastaʿlīq on thin burnished paper. The nine brightly coloured illustrations are painted with sparsely populated simplistic compositions. Only the King of the West and the Prince of the East are depicted wearing Persian (Safavid) costume, while the remaining characters are dressed in eighteenth-century Hindustani attire. Neither manuscript has chapter or section headings, making it difficult to follow the programme of illustration in both manuscripts without closely reading adjacent text. A comparative list of illustrations in both manuscripts can be found here: Download Solomon and the Phoenix illustrations.

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The King of the West’s men shoot at the Phoenix stealing the Princess’s cradle. Note the differentiation in status between figures reflected in their costume. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 3v. Noc

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The Princess of the West falls in love with the Prince of the East, who finds his way to the foot of the isolated tree where she is held captive by the Phoenix. The Princess here is dressed in the Hindustani peshvaz and dupattah, while the Prince sports a turban in a distinctly Safavid style with the ends of the qamarband always tucked in. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 19r. Noc

Given that both manuscripts discussed here are associated with South Asia, one might be forgiven for taking this as an indication of the tale’s origins, perhaps traceable to some obscure Sufi source of moralistic parables. Evidence to counter this regional association is found in a fragile Judaeo-Persian manuscript from the British Library’s Gaster Collection (Or 10195). Although the fragmentary volume has several compositions in poetry and prose, one of these comprises yet another prose rendition of the same tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh. While the work needs to be studied in detail, it would be particularly revealing if it could be verified that this version commences with or without the prophetic tradition, and whether it consists of the lengthier or abridged version. The systematic comparison of all texts may form the basis of future research to identify a common Urtext, which might not even be in Persian at all. It is hoped this article may mark the start of the process.

Bibliographical note on IO Islamic 1255
Charles Stewart, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the Late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, Cambridge, 1809, p. 84, where it is listed as the third of the Persian fables. Hermann Ethé, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office, Oxford, 1903, vol. 1, coll. 544, no. 854. Another undated manuscript (IO Islamic 1627), also from Tipu Sultan’s library, reproduces over ff. 106v-111v an independent work based on a fragment of the same tale comprising episodes 14-28 (Ethé, no. 853).

Dr Sâqib Bâburî
Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams for referring me to IO Islamic 1255. I would also like to thank Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda for their research and help with Judeo-Persian.

09 January 2017

Malay literary manuscripts in the John Leyden collection

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The collection of Malay manuscripts formed by the Scottish poet and scholar of Oriental languages John Leyden (1775-1811), now held in the British Library, is an exceptionally important resource for Malay literature. Leyden spent four months in Penang from late 1805 to early 1806, staying in the house of Thomas Stamford Raffles, initiating a deep friendship which lasted until Leyden’s early death in Batavia in 1811. The 25 volumes of Malay manuscripts in the Leyden collection contain 33 literary works, comprising 28 hikayat in prose and five syair in narrative verse, with some titles existing in multiple copies. Nearly all the manuscripts come from the environs of Kedah, Perlis and Penang and were collected by Leyden or Raffles, while a few were copied in Melaka, where Raffles was stationed in 1811 and where Leyden spent some weeks en route to Batavia. 24 of the works are dated to between 1802 and 1808, and over ten names of scribes are found in the colophons. The collection thus affords a remarkable snapshot of literary activity along the northwest coast of the Malay peninsula in the first decade of the 19th century.

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John Leyden, by an unknown artist. Ink on paper. Bequeathed by W.F. Watson, 1886. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, PG 1686

Some of the Malay works in Leyden’s collection are found in multiple copies and versions all over the Malay archipelago.  For example, manuscripts of the Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka date back to the 17th century, and there are three copies in Leyden's own collection. Hikayat Dewa Mandu is known from at least 14 other Malay manuscripts from the peninsula, Sumatra and Java, and is also found in Cham regions in present-day Cambodia and Vietnam, where it is known as Akayet Deva Mano. Other texts are less familiar: Leyden’s copies of Hikayat Raja Dewa Maharupa and Hikayat Ular Nangkawang are the only manuscripts known of these works, while his copy of Hikayat Silindung Dalima is the only prose copy known of this work usually encountered as a syair.

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Hikayat Raja Dewa Maharupa, copied in a fine neat hand, completed on 22 Zulkaidah 1216 (26 March 1802) in Penang.  The manuscript shows clear signs of having been read, with smudges and small red crosses in the margin. British Library, MSS Malay D 2, ff. 1v-2r  noc

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Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, early 19th c. British Library, MSS Malay A 1, ff. 1v-2r  noc

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Colophon of the Hikayat Silindung Dalima, copied in Melaka on 5 Muharam 1223 (3 March 1808). The name of the scribe is given as Tuan Haji Mahmud from Bintan or Banten (b.n.t.n), but this may be the name of the scribe of the original MS from which this copy was made. British Library, MSS Malay C 6, f. 65v  noc

Five of the manuscripts in the John Leyden collection are copies commissioned by Raffles, as stated clearly in the colophon, but most of the others appear to be ‘working’ manuscripts created for a Malay audience and used within that community, as can be gauged by well-thumbed and smudged pages, and reading marks throughout the text. Paper was clearly a valuable commodity: in most of the manuscripts the text is written densely across the full surface of the page, with no extraneous embellishment. On two pages of Hikayat Dewa Mandu, the scribe has taken the decision that ink scribbles should not hinder the continued usage of the paper, and he has annotated the top of the page: ini surat dipakai tiada salah, 'this page has been used, there is essentially nothing wrong with it' (MSS Malay D.1, ff. 37r, 39r).

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Part of a page of Hikayat Isma Yatim, early 19th c., with an 'x' in the margin probably indicating the place reached by a reader.  The two '//' marks at the end of the third line have been used by the scribe as a 'filler' to ensure a neat right-hand edge to the text block. British Library, MSS Malay C 4, f. 17r (detail)  noc

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Page from Hikayat Dewa Mandu, copied in 1808, which the scribe decided to use despite the ink scribbles on the paper, writing at the top ini surat dipakai tiada salah. British Library, MSS Malay D 1, f. 37r (detail)  noc

 On the initial page of Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, the scribe has practised writing out the basmala and the heading for the opening of the Qur'an, with the words Sūrat al-Fātiḥah al-Kitāb sab‘ah āyāt, ‘The Chapter of the Opening of the Book, six verses’.  Recent research by Ali Akbar (2015: 317) has shown that the headings Sūrat al-Fātiḥah al-Kitāb or Sūrat Fātiḥah al-Kitāb for the first chapter of the Qur'an are strongly associated with Ottoman Qur'an manuscripts, and in Southeast Asia are only encountered in Qur'an manuscripts from the east coast of the Malay peninsula, in the Terengganu-Patani cultural zone. In Qur'ans from all other parts of the Malay world, such as Aceh, Java and Sulawesi, the chapter heading is presented simply as Sūrat al-Fātiḥah.  This suggests that the scribe of Hikayat Ular Nangkawang was familiar with this Ottoman practice, perhaps through its manifestation in Qur'an manuscripts from the east coast of peninsula, which were exported to many other parts of the Malay world.

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Heading for Surat al-Fatihah, from the beginning of Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, early 19th c. British Library, MSS Malay A 1, f. 1r   noc

All the Malay literary manuscripts in the John Leyden collection have now been fully digitised and are accessible through the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website or via the Malay Manuscripts project page, or directly from the hyperlinks below:

Prose works (hikayat)
Hikayat Bayan Budiman, MSS Malay B.7 & MSS Malay B.8
Hikayat Budak Miskin, MSS Malay D.6
Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, MSS Malay C.1 & MSS Malay C.2
Hikayat Dewa Mandu, MSS Malay D.1
Hikayat Hang Tuah, MSS Malay B.1
Hikayat Isma Yatim, MSS Malay C.4 & MSS Malay C.5
Hikayat Lima Fasal, comprising five short works: (1) Hikayat fakir; (2) Hikayat orang miskin yang bernama Ishak; (3) Hikayat Raja Jumjumah dengan anak isteri baginda; (4) Hikayat anak saudagar bersahabat dengan orang kaya dan miskin; (5) Hikayat anak saudagar menjadi raja, MSS Malay B.10
Hikayat Maharaja Boma, MSS Malay C.8
Hikayat Mesa Tandraman, MSS Malay C.3
Hikayat Mi’raj Nabi Muhammad, MSS Malay B.3
Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, MSS Malay B.6 & MSS Malay D.5
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, Perlis, MSS Malay D.4
Hikayat Nabi Muhammad berperang dengan Raja Khaibar, MSS Malay D.5
Hikayat Pandawa Jaya
, MSS Malay B.4
Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka, MSS Malay B.2, MSS Malay D.5 & MSS Malay B.10
Hikayat Parang Puting, MSS Malay D.3
Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, MSS Malay B.12
Hikayat Putera Jaya Pati, MSS Malay B.5
Hikayat Raja Dewa Maharupa, MSS Malay D.2
Hikayat Silindung Dalima, MSS Malay C.6
Hikayat Syahi Mardan, MSS Malay D.5
Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, MSS Malay A.1

Poetical works (syair)
Syair orang berbuat amal, MSS Malay B.3
Syair Silambari, MSS Malay B.3
Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, MSS Malay B.3
Syair Jaran Tamasa, MSS Malay D.6 & MSS Malay B.9

Further reading:
Ali Akbar, ‘The influence of Ottoman Qur'ans in Southeast Asia through the ages’, in From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, eds A.C.S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop; pp.311-334.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. (Proceedings of the British Academy; 200).
John Bastin, John Leyden and Thomas Stamford Raffles.  Eastbourne: printed for the author, 2003.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

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.

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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