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

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
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Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

06 September 2021

Sisters from the shadows - Lady Akikonomu

This occasional series of blog posts will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries. The previous post looked at the artist Katsushika Ōi, daughter of the celebrated Katsushika Hokusai.  This time we will look at a fictional character who was also an accomplished artist.

Another female artist emerges from history in the form of a talented noblewoman in the Heian period literary classic the Tale of Genji. This story is often described as the oldest novel in the world. The author was Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), a lady-in- waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi (藤原彰子) in 11th-century Japan. The hero is Prince Genji and the main story line describes his life and relationships with various court ladies of the time. 

Lady Akikonomu is not as widely known as other famous female characters in the Tale of Genji, such as her mother Lady Rokujō, but she is the only one who paints and draws illustrations in the story.

Lady Rokujō is well known throughout the story for her charisma and beauty, and her tragic love affair with Genji. Her loving devotion does not bring joy to her life, but she manages to keep her dignity supported by her sophisticated intelligence and the outstanding beauty of her calligraphy.

Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine
Fig. 1. Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine. Chapter 10 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞,), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.11   noc

Her daughter, Lady Akikonomu is a noble but does not have a strong enough supporter to elevate her position in Heian court society when she loses her mother and becomes an orphan. At the Heian court, writing beautifully is a must-have skill. She writes gracefully but lacks the elegance of her mother who  never had any equals in calligraphy. So how does she eventually become the Empress Akikonomu? The secret to her success lies in her own special talent for drawing. 

Genji, who is a distant relative of Akikonomu, takes her under his wing and arranges for her to marry the boy-emperor Reisei. This is partially Genji’s atonement for his sin of destroying Lady Rokujo’s love for him. At the same time Genji expects Akikonomu to protect the boy emperor, who is nine years younger than her, while he still has much to learn before becoming an adult and fulfilling his duty as emperor. In the end, she is educated by her outstandingly intellectual mother, with a superb noble bloodline; in this way she becomes an ideal governess figure to him. 

A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories.
Fig. 2. A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories. Chapter 17 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.18   noc

It must have caused Genji some surprise when she caught the attention of this boy-emperor by her skills in drawing. The boy happens to be keen on drawing and he discovers that Akikonomu is so elegant when she produces her illustrations. Initially, he is attracted by her talent and intellectually stimulating conversation. As he spends time with her drawing, he discovers her gentle nature and her beauty. Gradually, a fondness between them matures and eventually he makes her his empress. 

Akikonomu successfully reveals her own identity to overcome the disadvantage of being a daughter of a legendary mother and Genji’s expectations to be an ideal figure to guide a young boy’s upbringing. She is a woman with own talent and grace, enhanced by her creative drawing and painting skills.

In these two blogs, we have looked at two women who were very different; one was a commoner who lived in the city of Edo who refused to meet expectations of a woman’s role, the other was a fictional Kyōto court lady who personified female elegance. The similarity is that both were daughters of highly charismatic people and probably they would never have questioned that the fame of their family members forced them to stay in the shadows. Nevertheless, they managed to move into the light by their own artistic talents and gained a place where they could shine as individuals, no longer just daughters of someone famous.

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

02 September 2021

Lu Tianjiao: The First Female Stamp Designer of the People’s Republic of China, 1934-2021

Since the nineteenth century, women of all backgrounds have been involved in postage stamp production. Primarily issued by governments for the prepayment of mail, stamps also carry complex visual, textual, olfactory, tactile, and audio messages making them inherently cultural. They are consequently an important channel through which women’s sustained contributions within the applied arts, design and print capitalism can be meaningfully assessed. The life and work of China’s first female stamp designer Lu Tianjiao, who sadly passed away on 1 August 2021, make these points manifestly apparent.

A black and white photograph of a women from the waist up. She is wearing a ribbed sweater, has her hair in a ponytail and is wearing glasses.
A portrait of Lu Tianjiao. 
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Born in Zhuhai, Guangdong in December 1934, she grew up in Shanghai, developing a love of art and painting from her father, a doctor and famous photographer named Lu Shifu. She enrolled at the Hangzhou State Arts School in 1950 before transferring to the Central Institute of Fine Arts, studying under prominent artists and stamp designers including Zhou Lingzhao, Zhang Ding and Zhang Guangyu. Graduating in 1954, she was assigned to work within the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ Stamp Designing and Issuing section then attached to the Directorate General of Posts.

A black and white photograph of a man in glasses, from the waist up. He is reading a newspaper while wearing a black suit and glasses.
A portrait of Liu Shuoren. 
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At work, she regularly debated with colleagues about the best approaches to apply their technical skills on improving the quality of China’s stamp designs for miniature mechanical reproduction. She also met former schoolmate and fellow stamp designer Liu Shuoren, who sadly passed away on 11 August 2021. Outside work, the couple often visited stamp shops to purchase foreign stamps for research material. The couple married in 1960 and celebrated the birth of a son the following year, going on to support one another throughout their lives, being the first to review and analyse each other’s designs.

Lu Tianjiao’s career mirrors political changes within the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao and the early ‘Reform and Opening Up’ era. Producing regular work between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, her output rapidly declined during the Cultural Revolution, possibly spending time, like some of her colleagues in a ‘May 7 Cadre School.’ A second steady stream of work followed between 1976 and 1985, when reforms in the procedure and selection of stamp designs resulted in a permanent decline in her work.

She retired in 2001 and was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards, which was successfully treated. In 2009, state media interviewed her, where reflecting upon her career, she concluded: ‘I have designed stamps for my country for fifty years and I have recorded the changes of our Republic in this small piece of paper. I am happy to witness and record our history. It has been an honour not all could have.’ As expected of officially state-sanctioned works of art, the designs cover various social, political, and economic themes. Holistically, they supply important insights into the heart, soul, and aspirations of the People’s Republic of China.

A postage stamp in blue ink with images of electricity pylons and lines, with Chinese script belowA postage stamp in light brown ink featuring an scene of a metalworker with a large vat of molten metal, below text in Chinese script
(Left) Lu Tianjiao's design celebrating overhead transmission of electricity. 
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(Right) Lu, Sun and Dong's design celebrating the mid-point of the 5-year plan. 
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Coming to power in 1949, the Communist Government set about transforming China’s feudal economy into an industrial one via the collectivisation of its agricultural sector whilst initiating successive Five-Year Plans for large-scale industrial development. Lu Tianjiao’s first commission for the 26 February 1955 ‘Development of Overhead Transmission of Electricity’ issue celebrated the successful completion of a key project during China’s first Five-Year Plan. Months later, she collaborated with colleagues Sun Chuanzhe and Dong Chunqi developing eighteen iconic designs for the 1 October 1955 issue commemorating the mid-way point the same five-year plan.

A postage stamp featuring a woman riding a tractor in close-up. The woman is in white with a pink handkerchief on her head, and the tractor and background are light greenA postage stamp in colour with a man holding a machete, a woman holding a stick and a small child peaking out between them. The man and woman are in black and the child in red. The stamp also features text in Chinese characters
Lu Tianjiao's designs celebrating women's communes (left) and encouraging solidarity with the South Vietnamese struggle (right).
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Several of her designs also focused on the social impact arising from the development of the ‘People’s Communes.’ This work promoted the significant role Chinese women played in Socialist construction, such as the 8 March 1964 ‘Women of the People’s Commune’ issue. International relations are another recurring theme a notable example including the 20 December 1963 ‘Support South Vietnamese People’s Struggle for Liberation’ issue. The first design based upon a yet unidentified Vietnamese Propaganda Poster reveals the intertextual nature of stamp design.

A postage stamp in colour showing Vietnamese men and women in traditional clothing with bayonets charging beneath a Viet Cong flag
Another of Lu's designs supporting the South Vietnamese struggle. 
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Her designs also did much to promote the diversity of China’s historic and contemporary cultural heritage globally, her six designs for the 10 June 1975 ‘Wushu’ issue promoting Chinese martial arts when they were becoming popular worldwide.

A colour postage stamp showing two young women in pink jumping above a stick brandished by a man in yellow, who is lunging at them.
Lu's design celebrating wushu, traditional Chinese martial arts.
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Sticking to the theme of culture, her designs for the two separate stamp issues commemorating China’s ancient numismatic history in 1981 and 1982 received international acclaim and several awards. Her final commission prior to retirement was the 11 December 2001 ‘China’s Membership of the World Trade Organization’ issue marking the watershed event which initiated China’s current economic, political, and military pre-eminence.

A colour postage stamp with the logo of the World Trade Organization, a totem pole, and an office and park complex against a yellow backdrop, with cloud bands weaving through the items. The stamp also features Chinese script.A black and white photograph of a woman seated at a desk, looking into the camera. Her hair is in pig-tails and she is wearing a jumper and glasses.
(Left) Lu's final design, celebrating Chinese accession to the WTO. 
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(Right) Lu Tianjiao at her desk. 
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Lu Tianjiao excelled in rising to the pressures and challenges placed on stamp design occasioned from national advances within the security printing industry, her designs seamlessly transitioning between intaglio, lithographic and photogravure printing processes. Nevertheless, the examples just discussed are merely a fraction of her total output. She produced or collaborated in the development of seventy separate stamp issues, totalling over two hundred and sixty separate stamps designs, comprising around one-eighth of China’s total stamp design output during her time of employment. Clearly prolific, was she significant? Her work is of fundamental importance for anybody interested in design, printing, and public messaging within the People’s Republic of China. Her career also spans core phases in the nation’s history as well as developments in design, security printing and print culture.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections
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Sources

1. Xiao Miao. ‘My visit to stamp designers house’ in China Philately. Spring 1983, pp. 24-26.

2. Yu Xiaohui. ‘Zhou Lingzhao on stamp designing,’ in China Philately. November 1983, pp. 26-27.

3. Zhang Jingming. ‘Who designed China’s best stamps?’ in Postage Stamps of the People’s Republic of China 1977-1980 . (Great Wall Books, 1983) pp. 96-97. Song Licai. 50 Years Devotion to Stamp Design. http://www.womenofchina.cn/html/people/Crowd/102243-1.htm. Accessed 24 February 2020 .

4. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections, Henke Collection

5. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections, UPU Collection: China.