Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from May 2015

29 May 2015

Weird and wild monsters in the ocean’s dark depths: revelations from the Thai Mahajanaka Jataka

The Mahajanaka Jataka is one of the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, which are popular themes in Thai mural and manuscript painting. In Thai folding books (samut khoi), the Ten Birth Tales are often used to illustrate a text with the title Mahabuddhaguna describing the Great Qualities of the Buddha (paramita). The Mahajanaka Jataka symbolises perseverance.
Wild sea monsters OR_14559 folio 5
A typical folio from a Thai folding book containing a collection of Buddhist texts including the Mahabuddhaguna in Khom (Khmer) script. The illustrations depict Mahajanaka’s sinking ship with giant fish waiting to swallow the helpless humans. On the right is Mahajanaka clinging to a wood plank while a goddess comes to his rescue. British Library, Or.14559, f. 5.

The Mahajanaka Jataka tells the story of Prince Mahajanaka whose father was killed in battle and lost his kingdom before the prince was born. When he discovered the truth of his ancestry the prince vowed to regain his father’s kingdom. He set out on a seafaring voyage with the aim of building a fortune in a distant land so he could use the wealth to set up a powerful army. However, the ship sank in the middle of the ocean and everyone on board drowned or was killed by ferocious sea creatures - except the prince. He drifted in the ocean for seven days without food, but survived through the sheer strength of his determination and perseverance. Although he refused to implore the gods for help, a goddess named Manimekhala lifted him from the waters and flew him to the royal park of Mithila in his father’s kingdom, which he finally regained in an unusual way. Thereafter, he discovered the truths of life and left his kingdom to pursue spiritual attainment. It is the story of one who would rather perish than give up.
Wild sea monsters OR_14229 folio 13
The goddess Manimekhala, believed to be the guardian of the seas in Thai Buddhist mythology, is often depicted with a body in bright blue or white colours. The illustration above is from an album of Thai character drawings from the 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 13.

The illustrations in Thai manuscripts - which mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries - capturing scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka feature a variety of ficticious sea creatures. They show how Thai people at that time perceived the ocean, which they regarded as an integral part of the Buddhist cosmology.  The paintings reveal the ocean as an endless, constantly shifting and moving substance in cold colours, with waves that could easily swallow a large trade junk or a fleet of war ships. All sorts of creatures can hide under the water and appear on the ocean’s surface without warning.
Wild sea monsters OR_16100 folio 3
Another scene from a 19th-century Thai Buddhist manuscript depicting the moment when Manimekhala lifts Mahajanaka from the water. The other people on the ship, representing various ethnic groups, struggle to survive while a mermaid and a merman watch the event. British Library, Or.16100, f. 3

The sea monsters that are believed to populate eight mythical oceans surrounding Mount Meru are fierce animals battling the waves, often with large teeth and bulging eyes, powerful tails or sword-like jaws. Other dangerous creatures are mermaids and mermen of beguiling beauty who try to pull humans under the water. Whereas some of the creatures do appear closer to real animals, like giant fish or swordfish, many of them are creations of the imagination of painters who had to rely on the verbal accounts of sailors or fishermen – stories which may often have been dramatised and embellished. Another source that painters would have used was the Thai Buddhist cosmology Traiphum, which includes descriptions of the eight mythical oceans.  
Wild sea monsters OR_16100_f048r
The eighth, or outer ocean that surrounds Mount Meru is shown in this illustration from a 19th-century Thai manuscript containing a collection of Buddhist texts together with the legend of Phra Malai. The world is shown to be resting on a giant fish at the bottom. Apart from the fish, one can see a mermaid (center) as well as Sang Thong, the boy born from a conch shell (Suvanna-Sankha Jataka), on the left. British Library, Or.16100, f. 96.

In contrast to Western descriptions of sea monsters, which often include water serpents or gigantic octopuses, water serpents do not usually appear in illustrations of the Mahajanaka Jataka. Whereas the creatures of the ocean are generally perceived as dangerous, death-bringing enemies of humans, serpents (naga) are regarded as potentially friendly to humans, and with a positive attitude towards the Buddha or a Buddha-to-be. The naga in the Thai tradition is not actually associated with the ocean, but is believed to reside on shore, for example in caves or in rivers.  

Wild sea monstersOR_14068_f002r
Mahajanaka’s rescue in a more abstract painting style with a bright red background and floral decorations. The outfits of the goddess and Mahajanaka are in the tradition of the late Ayutthaya  style. This Thai manuscript from the 18th century contains the Mahabuddhaguna and other extracts from the Pali canon. British Library, Or.14068, f. 3.

Manuals for artists that feature sea creatures have been produced in manuscript form at least since the early 19th century. From the mid-20th century on, numerous printed painters’ manuals were published. Nowadays these are also used by art students and tattoo artists.   

In 1996, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand published his own interpretation of the Mahajanaka Jataka, illustrated by cartoonist Chai Ratchawat. The book was re-published several times between 1997 and 2003 and has contributed significantly to the increased popularity of the Mahajanaka Jataka in Thailand.

Wild sea monsters book

Pages from an artists’ manual of characters from Thai mythology that was published in 1993. On the left one can see a mermaid and a merman, whereas on the right there are a sea cow and a sea deer.

Further reading:

Mahajanaka Jataka (full text version)
Phrabāt Somdet Phračhaoyūhūa Phūmiphon ʿAdunlayadēt, Rư̄ang Phra Mahāchanok = The story of Mahājanaka. Bangkok: Amarin, 2000. (YP.2007.b.628)
Sētthaman Kānčhanakun, Sēnsāi lāi Thai. Bangkok: Sukkhaphāpčhai, 1993 (YP.2009.b.89)

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

26 May 2015

The 1937 massacre in Addis Ababa

In the centre of Addis Ababa in the Siddist Kilo area, stands a monument known as The Yekatit “February” 12 Square Monument. The obelisk was built in memory of the 30,000 civilians massacred by Fascists on the 19th February 1937. The indiscriminate massacre that lasted three days, was in reprisal for the attempted assassination of "the Butcher of Fezzan", the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, Rodolfo Graziani.

The Italian government carried out a substantial number of war crimes in Ethiopia from 1935–1940. The most notable being the use of mustard gas and the bombing of a field hospital run by the Swedish Red Cross. However the massacre of Addis Ababa and other mass killings are to this day repudiated by the Italian government ignoring overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. 

 Ian Campbell,  the author of  The Plot to Kill Graziani (Addis Ababa University Press, 2010), and The Massacre of Debre Libanos (Addis Ababa University Press, forthcoming), has presented  discoveries from his extensive research into the massacre of Addis Ababa, the greatest single atrocity of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and a hitherto undocumented event. Most of the documents, maps, photos and official government papers used in Campbell’s research were obtained from Italy. According to Campbell and Alberto Sbacchi (see below), there are still vast quantities of “classified information” across Italy dealing with the war.

In a recent lecture held to promote his forthcoming book, Campbell pointed to the great efforts that went to conceal the historical records in Italy dealing with the 19 February 1937 massacre of Addis Ababa.  Thanks to the courageous efforts of both Italian and Ethiopian scholars to preserve written documents there are hundreds of thousands of letters, memos, blueprints, orders, bills, speeches, articles, memoirs, and confessions.

Many accounts from survivors, eyewitness testimonies, were published in Amharic books written just after the war. Unfortunately these books had short-print runs so are now rare and difficult to find. Fortunately the British Library possesses a number of these printed books which deserve renewed attention. The following selection of books held in library, provide an account of the massacre witnessed  by Ethiopians.

Megba Ḥeṡānāt (1948). On advice and moral guidance for children, e.g on “respecting one’s parents, obligation to the country”, etc. However, pages 27 to 44 contain letters the author (Yoḥanes  Rameḥa) wrote to noted Ethiopian patriots during the Italo-Ethiopian war. For example letters addressed to Ras Abebe Aregai, Dejjach Geresu Duki, Kabada Bezunesh and others.  The book is also signed by the author (British Library ORB 30/7857)

 Ya-'Amesetu ʻāmatāte Ḥezebāwi Tegele “The five years of people’s struggle”. On the  Italo-Ethiopian War; "the massacre of Debre Libanos". Pamphlet published in 1974 by the Ministry of Information on the occasion of the anniversary of liberation (British Library ORB 30/7864)

Ya-'Iṭāliyā Ya-Qeñe Gezāt Ḥelem “Italy’s Colonial Dream” (1974). On the Italo-Ethiopian War. Pamphlet published by the Ministry of Informationon the occasion of the anniversary of liberation (British Library ORB 30/7866)

Capture.PNG11_1200 Capture.PNG12_1200
Tebé 'Akesume Manu' Aneta? “Axum says, ‘Who are you?ʼ”(1959). An account of the history of foreign invasions of Ethiopia, up to the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935 and on the history and development of the Ethiopic (Ge’ez ) alphabet (British Library 754. uu. 25)


Further reading
Campbell, I., The plot to kill Graziani: The attempted assassination of Mussolini's viceroy. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2010
Sbacchi, A., Legacy of bitterness: Ethiopia and fascist Italy, 1935-1941. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1997
Sbacchi, A., Ethiopia under Mussolini: Fascism and the colonial experience. London: Zed, 1985
Hardie, F., The Abyssinian crisis. London: Batsford, 1974


Eyob Derillo, Asian and African Studies

22 May 2015

40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War

30 April 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. On 30 April 1975, the Vietnam War, or the Resistance War against America as it is known by the Vietnamese, came to an end when North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon just before mid-day and President Dương Văn Minh of South Vietnam surrendered at the Presidential Palace in Saigon.  One of the most iconic images which marks the end of the war is that of a North Vietnamese tank storming into the front gate of the Presidential Palace. Following the Paris Peace Accord of 27 January 1973, Hanoi had started a final push under the Ho Chi Minh Campaign with the aim of seizing Saigon by 1975. The capture of Saigon brought jubilation to many Vietnamese, who were exhausted from the long war.

The Vietnamese press took the opportunity to capture the public mood by depicting their cheerful and celebratory emotions in a variety of formats. Articles, poetry, songs, paintings and drawings about the historic victory over the Americans and the unification of North and South Vietnam were widely published. The long and painful history of the war is probably best summed up by just a few frames of drawings from Tiền Phong (Vanguard), a weekly newspaper from Hanoi, in its 6th May 1975 issue. These illustrate the history of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, from when the U.S. refused to sign or acknowledge the Geneva Accord in 1954 and decided to support Ngô Đình Diệm as the leader of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). This was followed by a military escalation under the Johnson administration in 1965, the Têt Offensive in 1968, the Nixon Doctrine and Vietnamisation in 1972 when President Richard Nixon decided to withdraw the American military from the war, and eventually the victory of Hanoi in 1975.

Tiền Phong, No.18, 6 May 1975, p.15. British Library, SU224/2

Hanoi’s successes in driving out the Americans and their allies from Vietnam and the reunification of the country have been immortalised in repeated images of the events. Tiền Phong (No.18, 6 May 1975, p.5) published a drawing of the Americans being swept out from the country. The front cover of this issue also depicted an event of the communist forces capturing Tan Son Nhat airport. Twenty years later, in its issue 437 (May 1995), Báo Ảnh Việt Nam celebrated the 20th anniversary of the end of the war by publishing a photo of Vietnamese children having fun with a tank from the war era.

The Americans being swept away, Tiền Phong, no.18, 6 May 1975, p.5. British Library, SU224/2

Capturing Tan Son Nhat airport, Tiền Phong, no.18, 6 May 1975, front cover. British Library, SU224/2

20th anniversary of the end of the War, Báo Ảnh Việt Nam, no.437, May 1995, front cover. British Library, 1863.105000

Not only did Vietnamese artists capture images of individual moments. They also gave accounts of key events and campaigns during the war. On its cover of No.2, 1987, Mỹ Thuật, a Vietnamese journal  for art reviews, reproduced a lacquer painting by Quách Phong, entitled Tiền  về Sài Gòn (Forward to Saigon), depicting Vietnamese communist guerrillas heading to the former capital of the South for a reunification battle.

Tiền  về Sài Gòn by Quách Phong in Mỹ Thuật, no.2, 1987. British Library, 16671.c.2

However, not every Vietnamese embraced the Hanoi victory of April 1975. The anti-communist Vietnamese who managed to leave the country and settled abroad, especially in the United States, Canada and France, organised resistance movements in attempts to bring down the communist government in Vietnam. One of the most active movements was the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Mặt Trận Thống Nhất Giải Phóng Việt Nam), founded  by Vice Admiral Hoàng Cơ Minh on 30 April 1980 in California. Key members of this Front were former military officers or government employees of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). For a large number of overseas Vietnamese, 30 April brought back bitter memories and they normally had different reasons to commemorate the day, the aim being to fight against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The resistance movement against Hanoi among overseas Vietnamese was most active in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There were attempts to recruit the Vietnamese abroad for military training and sent them back to operate in Vietnam. These activities also brought about diplomatic tension between Vietnam and Thailand since some of these movements used Thai territory as their operation bases.

Overseas Vietnamese publications, especially in the United States and Canada, lent support to the resistance movements. There were articles dedicated to reporting the movements and normally on the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (April or May issues), they published special issues to remind themselves of the bitter experiences of the war time, their nostalgia  and determination to fight against the communist regime with a bellicose approach.

Lửa Vệt, Toronto, no.53, April, 1985, front cover. British Library, 16641.e.2

Làng Văn, Toronto, no.69, May, 1990, front cover. British Library, 16641.e.13

However, after more than two decades of unsuccessful action by the resistance movements, together with the economic changes introduced by Hanoi, known as Đổi Mới (Economic Renovation) towards the end of the 1980’s, Vietnam appeared eventually achieve what the country had fought for: unification and peace.

Ngày hội chiến thắng (Celebration of Victory), engraving of a painting by Xu Man, Văn hóa nghệ thuật, no.51, November 1975. British Library, S.U.225 (1)

Báo Ảnh Việt Nam.  British Library pressmark: 1863.105000
Làng Văn.  British Library pressmark: 16641.e.13
Lửa Vệt. British Library pressmark: 16641.e.2
Mỹ Thuật . British Library pressmark: 16671.c.2
Văn hóa nghệ thuật.  British Library pressmark: S.U.225 (1)

Vietnam war art

War cartoons and propaganda from North Vietnam

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

19 May 2015

A Jawi sourcebook for the study of Malay palaeography and orthography

, 'The beginning', first word of Kitab pengajaran. MSS Malay B 13, f. 1v (detail)  noc

Malay manuscripts rarely give full details about when and where they were written, and we are often reliant on the biographies of western collectors in order to date a manuscript or gauge its origin. Little such information is available for one Malay manuscript (MSS Malay B 13), entitled blandly Kitab pengajaran pada segala orang sekalian, ‘A book of instruction for everyone’. It contains moral guidance on all aspects of social behaviour, with sections for example on anger (murka, f.31r), hopes and fears (pengharapan dan ketakutan, f.25r) and love and passion (berahi dan asyik, f.35r), on family relations including the role of fathers (pangkat bapak, f.42r) and sons (anak laki-laki, f.44r), and between layers of society, such as masters and servants (orang yang dipertuan serta yang diperhamba, f.52v). The annotation ‘Hastings MS’ indicates it may have been owned by the Marquess of Hastings, who succeeded Lord Minto as Governor-General of Bengal from 1813 to 1823.

Mss_malay_b_13_f001v-2rOpening pages of Bahwa ini kitab pengajaran pada segala orang sekalian; note the very neat handwriting and use of paragraphing. British Library, MSS Malay B 13, ff. 1v-2r  noc

One possible clue to the provenance of this manuscript may lie in the handwriting. The manuscript is written in a clear, neat and precise hand, with carefully spaced words, meticulous diacritical marks, and - very unusually - paragraphs: all hints that the book was probably specifically written for a European patron and thus needed to be very legible. Such a school of scribes was active in Batavia in the early 19th century, associated with the General Secretariat (Algemeene Secretariaat) of the Dutch administration, founded in 1819. Manuscripts by this group of scribes can be seen in Leiden University Library, the National Library of Indonesia and the Berlin Staatsbibliotheek, all distinguished by great care in the writing, and stylish use of rubrication and bold letters for certain significant words. One highly distinctive letter form found in MSS Malay B 13 which is associated with this school is the ‘squashed’ form of medial ha, with the loops above and below both bent to the right, which suggest that the Kitab pengajaran was copied in Batavia in the early 19th century (despite endpapers of English paper watermarked '1794', which may have been added later when the MS was rebound in Calcutta). If it was acquired during the British administration of 1811 to 1816, this would make it one of the earliest known examples of this characteristic 'Batavia' hand.      

Mss_malay_b_13_f005v-syahdan  Kl.7, pp.441-2-syahdan  IMW125GallopIntro-FigVII-Hk Iskandar-syahdan
The word syahdan, 'then', with distinctive 'squashed' medial ha, in three manuscripts. Left: Kitab pengajaran. British Library, MSS Malay B 13, f.5v; Middle: Hikayat Bujangga Indera Maharupa, copied by Muhammad Cing Saidullah, Batavia, 1830. Courtesy of Leiden University Library, Kl.7, p.442;
Right: Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, copied by Muhammad Hasan, probably in Batavia in the early 19th century. Courtesy of Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.1967, vol.2, p.249

Awareness of the importance of palaeography – the study of historical styles of handwriting – for the study of manuscripts was the impetus behind the recent publication of ‘A Jawi Sourcebook for the Study of Malay Palaeography and Orthography’ as a special issue of the journal Indonesia in the Malay World in honour of Professor Ulrich Kratz, who recently retired from SOAS after three decades of teaching Malay and Indonesian literature. The Jawi Sourcebook was compiled with the aim of presenting a body of source material to enable a fresh look at Jawi script, and is modelled on a landmark guide to European palaeography by my former colleague Michelle Brown (1990), despite a complete reversal of theoretical grounding. Brown’s book, A guide to Western historical scripts from Antiquity to 1600, presented photographic facsimiles of manuscripts accompanied by comments on the handwriting, in order to illustrate over 50 acknowledged styles of script in Latin letters. Yet in the absence of any recognized categorization of Malay hands, all that the Jawi  Sourcebook aims to do is to to present, in chronological order, the raw material that could be utilised to advance the study of Malay palaeography and orthography. This has been done by selecting a corpus of 60 securely dated or dateable Malay manuscripts from the late 16th to the early 20th century, each of which can be located in a specific part of the Malay world, from Aceh to Aru and from Melaka to Mindanao. Thanks to the recent Malay manuscripts digitisation project, which has enabled full online access to all the Malay manuscripts in the British Library, many of these were selected by international contributors to the Jawi Sourcebook. A selection of sample lines from British Library manuscripts, accompanied by comments on the handwriting by various scholars, is presented below.

ACEH, 1764
Mirat al-tullab, by Abdul Rauf of Singkel, composed in 1074/1663, this MS copied on 14 Muharam 1178 (14 July 1764) in Aceh. British Library, Or.16035, f.4r.  noc

'In this MS, two dots are connected and look like a short line, while three dots look like ‘one dot and a short line’. Note the unusual appearance of segala, here and elsewhere in this MS, as the ga-lam resembles a capital ‘B’' [at the end of the first and third lines above].   Yumi Sugahara, Osaka University (Jawi Sourcebook, no.17)

Hikayat Raja Pasai, copied in Semarang, central Java, ca. 8 Syaaban 1211 (6 February 1797). British Library, Or. 14350, f. 78r.  noc

'The script is small and neat, and appears to have been written by a professional scribe. The initial sin is in the form of a flowing stroke. In order to preserve a straight left edge, the copyist varies extended and close strokes, resulting e.g. in a relatively long tail of the wau in the pre-final line or in a rather ‘crammed’ way of writing the last words in the final line.' Edwin Wieringa, Cologne University (Jawi Sourcebook, no.21)

PENANG, 1806
Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, copied by Ibrahim ca. 18 Syawal 1220 (9 January 1806), British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f. 40 r.  noc

‘Ibrahim does indeed possess ‘characteristic handwriting’ (Teeuw et al 2004: 16): very upright, inscribed confidently and with considerable brio. The letter forms are very distinct, though he is occasionally somewhat cavalier about the dotting. There are no dots to distinguish ga and kaf.’ Mulaika Hijjas, SOAS (Jawi Sourcebook, no.25)

Kitab ubat-ubat dan azimat, ‘Book on medicine and talismans’. A note on the front cover reads: ‘Tay Segalla obat or The Malay Materia Medica, from the practice of Tama, Physician to the Royal household of His Majesty of Pontiana, copied May 17th 1813’. British Library, MSS Malay B.15, f. 2r.  noc

'The handwriting in this manuscript is neat and clear with a faint slant towards the left. Occasionally letters that follow an alif are raised upwards to link to the top of that alif (e.g. the nga in ‘jangan’). The letter kaf is sometimes written in an elongated form (e.g. ‘manteraku’). Although the hand is legible the spelling is erratic and inconsistent, making it difficult to determine the ingredients and spells used in the treatments. Therefore a comparison with similar texts found in other manuscripts is necessary to determine the correct reading.' Farouk Yahya, SOAS (Jawi Sourcebook, no.28)

Sejarah Melayu, copied by Husin bin Ismail in Tanah Merah, Singapore, on Saturday 16 Rajab [1248] = 8 December 1832. British Library, Or. 16214, f. 2r.  noc

'The writing is neat and regular which is typical of Husin bin Ismail. In contrast to Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi (no. 38), this scribe has no evidently distinct features in his writing. A characteristic which he shares with other scribes is writing kaf for ga ... Interestingly, in our fragment he writes orang besar differently on both occurrences, first conjoined and then separated. Remarkable is the spelling of cucu, using the number ‘2’ (c.w.2).' Roger Tol, KITLV, Jakarta (Jawi Sourcebook, no.35)

BRUNEI, ca.1900
Syair Baginda, concerning Sultan Abdul Mumin of Brunei (r.1852-1885). On the basis of the watermark (‘Superfine 1895’) can be dated to ca.1900. British Library, Or. 14549, f. 3r.  noc

‘The syair is written in black ink in two columns, in a characteristic Brunei literary hand familiar from hikayat and syair manuscripts, notable for its extreme horizontal aspect, and very different from the chancery hands evident in royal Brunei letters over the centuries (Nos. 1 and 5). The orthography too reflects Brunei phonetic norms such as the preference for medial a rather than ĕ pĕpĕt.’  Ampuan Haji Brahim bin Haji Tengah, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Annabel Teh Gallop, British Library (Jawi Sourcebook, no.56)

Further reading

A Jawi sourcebook for the study of Malay palaeography and orthography’. Contributors Wan Ali Wan Mamat, Ali Akbar, Vladimir Braginsky, Ampuan Haji Brahim Haji Tengah, Ian Caldwell, Henri Chambert-Loir, Tatiana Denisova, Farouk Yahya, Annabel Teh Gallop, Hashim Musa, I.R. Katkova, Willem van der Molen, Mulaika Hijjas, Ben Murtagh, Roderick Orlina, Jan van der Putten, Peter G. Riddell, Yumi Sugahara, Roger Tol and E.P. Wieringa; edited and introduced by Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesia and the Malay World, Special Issue in honour of E.U.Kratz, March 2015, 43 (125): 13-171.


Michelle Brown, A guide to Western historical scripts from Antiquity to 1600. London: British Library, 1990.

Teeuw, A., Dumas R., Muhammad Haji Salleh and Van Yperen, M.J.  2004. A merry senhor in the Malay world: Four texts of the Syair Sinyor Kosta. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

15 May 2015

The Henry Ginsburg photo collection: an insight into a curator’s life and work

Henry David Ginsburg (1940-2007), the former Curator of the Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections at the British Library, started work at the British Museum Library in 1967 as a Special Assistant. He spent his entire life conducting research on Southeast Asian arts and cultures, but passed away in 2007 without finishing his last two research projects, on Thai banner paintings and the Chakrabongse Archive of royal letters held at the British Library. Henry Ginsburg left behind a huge collection of books, photographs and art treasures, which he had collected over forty years through personal and professional contacts. He was friends with several members of the Thai royal family, as well as with scholars, private collectors, and colleagues from a variety of institutions all over the world. As a curator Henry was well-known for his specialism in Thai manuscripts and manuscript painting, but his interests and expertise were far broader than this.

Henry Ginsburg was born in 1940 in New York as a son of prominent traders of Jewish-Russian descent who dealt in antique furniture, decorative art and accessories, and textiles. Having grown up in a family that admired the arts and dedicated much of their time to collecting and researching antiquities, he studied Russian and French at Columbia University and began to travel during this time. His first Asian experience was a trip to India in 1963, where he acquired a taste for cultural research. One year later he joined the American Peace Corps in Thailand to teach English in Chachoengsao, an experience which thence set the course of his future life. From this time on Henry started to live on three different continents (Europe, North America and Asia) and his part-time contract with the British Library from 1973 onward allowed him to pursue his own research and travel interests all over the world. 

Henry Ginsburg (fourth from left) with students in Chachoengsao in the mid 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(17)

Perhaps influenced by the Ginsburg family’s photographer Aaron Siskind, Henry left a remarkable collection of photographs, which tell the story of his professional life as well as of his own distinctive artistic and travel interests. The earliest pictures are from his visit to India in 1963, where he explored ancient Indian architecture and engaged with local communities: an aspect of Henry Ginsburg’s interests that was not widely known until his photographs were made available for research. Many of the pictures that were taken over a period of more than forty years show that he continued to pursue these interests throughout his life.

Kanheri archaelogical site, India, mid 1980s, British Library, Photo 1213(387)

The photo collection includes a huge amount of detailed documentation of South and Southeast Asian temples in the 1970s, and particularly of ancient Khmer architecture. One particular benefit of these photographs is that they record the process of reconstruction of these sites over the past decades (for example, Payathonzu temple, shown below, nowadays has a different appearance after reconstruction was carried out).   

Payathonzu temple, archaeological site, Burma 1967, British Library Photo 1213(1014)

Many photographs did not contain any written information and were difficult to identify. In some cases, we made digital copies of such pictures and shared them with other scholars and researchers to find out more details. This kind of approach helped to establish the identity of a series of photographs depicting a piece of embroidery described later on in this post. However, there remain some photographs which have not been identified so far, for example the stone inscription shown below.  The inscription in this photograph has not yet been read, and the archaeological site where the photograph was taken is also not known; perhaps crowd-sourcing may provide a solution.

Unidentified stone inscription. British Library, Photo 1213(460)

A smaller number of rare photographs give insights into traditional ways of life in Thailand and India in the 1960s and early 1970s, one of the reasons why travelling to these countries was so popular at the time, including for Henry himself. He was fascinated by the cultural differences and travelled a lot in order to conduct his research. It would be a valid assumption to state that Henry’s research was influenced through direct contact with living traditions and the translation of religion in everyday life. This makes his work very special in comparison with established methods based, for example, purely on textual research.
Traditional Norah dance performer in Southern Thailand, late 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(233)

One example of this interdisciplinary approach combining anthropology, philology and art history was his research about the Norah dance, which is based on the legend of Sudhana and Manohara. In 1971 Henry wrote his Ph.D. thesis about “The Sudhana-Manohara tale in Thai” at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London. For the analysis of texts contained in two different manuscripts, he travelled to Southern Thailand, where he also attended a Norah dance performance. The photo above was shot at this time.  

The majority of pictures relate to Henry’s work as a scholar and provide a very good overview of his work at the British Library. There are various photographs of mostly illustrated manuscripts containing texts like Jatakas, Phrommachat, Phra Malai and Traiphum in all kinds of painting styles like 18th and 19th century Thai, Burmese and Khmer styles. These photos could support the comparative study of different artistic interpretations of Southeast Asian literary traditions, without spending too much time travelling, or ordering copies of manuscripts from different institutions in different countries.   

A 19th century map drawn on cotton showing the coast of Thailand. British Library, Photo 1213(1353)

The image above and the following picture remind us of the roots of Henry Ginsburg. He grew up in a family who were prominent for their knowledge of antique textiles and decorative arts, and he followed this family tradition throughout his entire life. Therefore, he researched and collected antique textiles and other works of art in his spare time.
Tibetan relic cover made from needle-looped patchwork embroidery. British Library, Photo 1213(1485)

As mentioned earlier, the most spectacular piece depicted in a series of pictures from the estate of Henry Ginsburg is this piece of needle-looped patchwork embroidery shown in the picture above. It was a hard job to find out what kind of textile it was or where it originated from. After numerous emails had been exchanged with experts and former friends of Henry’s all over the world, a solution to the mystery was found. The textile artwork shown in the photograph was a Tibetan relic cover, originally perhaps from Suzhou, now held at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The embroidery shows different influences from all over Asia like the needle-looping technique that can be traced back to 10th century Central Asia and the patches of fine silk from China.

The photo collection of Henry Ginsburg has been fully catalogued now and can be retrieved via the Search our Catalogue Archives and Manuscripts website. The original photographs can be viewed on appointment in the Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room. Thanks to Henry Ginsburg’s passion and work on Southeast Asian manuscripts, arts and cultures the Library holds one of the finest collections of Thai manuscripts. The British Library is grateful to have been given the responsibility to look after Henry Ginsburg’s photo collection as well.   


A guardian of Thai treasures. Henry Ginsburg (1940-2007), A display to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth – 5th November 2010. London: British Library 2010.

Berger, Patricia: A stitch in time. Speculations on the origins of needle-looping. In:  Orientations, The magazine for collectors and connoisseurs of Asian art, vol. 20 no. 8 (August 1989).

Henry Ginsburg. The Telegraph, 11 April 2007.

Ginsburg, Henry: The Sudhana-Manohara Tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok, Mat Wachimawat, Songkhla. Ph.D. Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai Art and Culture. Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library 2000.

Anne Gruneberg, M.A., Freiburg, Germany  ccownwork

Anne is a historian and anthropologist who recently graduated from the University of Freiburg. She volunteered for six weeks at the British Library in early 2015 to catalogue and research Henry Ginsburg’s photo collection. This blog article is a summary of her work.


Since the publication  of this blog post, Nicolas Revire, lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok, has kindly helped to identify the stone inscription depicted in Henry Ginsburg’s photograph mentioned above. It is a detail of an inscribed Dharmacakra originally from Si Thep, now held in the collection of the Newark Museum, which has been published by Robert L. Brown in his book The Dvaravati wheels of the law and the Indianization of Southeast Asia (Leiden/New York/Cologne: Brill, 1996; pp. 106-108) and, more recently, in John Guy's catalogue  Lost Kingdoms, Hindu-Buddhist sculpture of early Southeast Asia  (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014; cat. 122). The inscription in Pali is a phrase from the Buddha’s first sermon about the Four Truths of Buddhism.

12 May 2015

Malay manuscripts on Javanese history

From 1602 until 1684 - when they were ousted by the Dutch - the English East India Company maintained a ‘factory’ or trading settlement at Banten on the western tip of the island of Java. This lengthy sojourn of over eighty years is notable for the almost complete absence of interest from any EIC official based in Banten in the history and culture of the land on which they were encamped, and not a single Malay manuscript in the British Library can be traced to this period.  In striking contrast, around three hundred Malay, Javanese and Bugis manuscripts - indeed, the majority of Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library - derive from a brief period in the early nineteenth century centred on the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1816.  At the helm of this 'Enlightenment' group, who were inspired by the earlier studies of William Marsden in Bengkulu and the publication in 1784 of his path-breaking History of Sumatra, was Thomas Stamford Raffles, who served as Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811 to 1815. Other notable scholar-administrators of this period who accompanied Raffles to Java were John Leyden and John Crawfurd - both of whom had also spent time in Penang - and Colin Mackenzie. With the help of aristocratic local historians such as Kiai Adipati Sura Adimanggala, Regent of Semarang, and Panembahan Nata Kusuma of Sumenep as well as like-minded officials from the earlier Dutch administration including the naturalist Thomas Horsfield, great efforts were put into the collecting of source materials in the form of manuscripts in local languages on history, literature and legal institutions, drawings of archaeological remains and natural history specimens, and surveys of the surrounding countryside. Raffles was able to make swift use of these materials, in part by compiling and quoting wholesale from surveys and reports submitted to him, in his two-volume work The History of Java published in London in 1817.

The cleaning of Candi Sewu, Prambanan, Central Java, by Major H.C. Cornelius, 1807, from the collection of Colin Mackenzie. British Library, WD 957, f.1 (82)  noc

Raffles’s personal collection of manuscripts in Javanese and Malay is today held in the Royal Asiatic Society, but the British Library holds the collections of Crawfurd, Mackenzie and Leyden, as well as a few manuscripts originally owned by Raffles. The majority of the materials collected in Java were naturally in Javanese, but there are also manuscripts in Malay, including some translations from Javanese manuscripts.  Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have just been digitised are several titles on Javanese history, collected and commissioned during the British period in Java. Hikayat Tanah Jawa, ‘Chronicle of the land of Java’, written in Jawi script (MSS Malay D 9), ends following the Second Javanese War of Succession (1719-23) with the death of Pangeran Purbaya (Ricklefs 1994: 87). Two other manuscripts are both in Malay in roman script.  Hikayat Babad (MSS Malay D 8), which according to the colophon was written for Raffles in 1815, mainly concerns Mangkunegara I (r.1757-95), founding ruler of the minor princely house of Surakarta. The third manuscript, Babat Sekander (MSS Eur Mackenzie Private 43), is a Malay translation from the Javanese of the pseudo-history, Serat Baron Sakender, about the coming of the Dutch to Java.  

Opening pages of Hikayat Tanah Jawa. British Library, MSS Malay D 9, ff. 1v-2r   noc

Final lines of Hikayat Tanah Jawa, which ends with the death of Pangeran Purbaya in Batavia (maka Pangeran Purbaya pun kembalilah ke rahmat Allah taala, maka disuruh bawa oleh kompeni akan mayat Pangeran Purbaya itu ka Kartasura, kemudian maka ditanamkan oleh Susunan akan mayat Pangeran Purbaya itu di Kartasura. Demikianlah halnya sampai sekarang ini adanya, tamat, tam.) British Library, MSS Malay D 9, f. 48r (detail)    noc

Closing lines of Hikayat Babat, naming Raffles as the owner (adapoon Ienie hiekaijat Babat die sambarken kapada njang mempoenja hie yaitoe njang die pertoean Besjaar Tomas Stamfort Raffles, Lieuttenant Gouvernoor njang batama darie Goovermijeent England die Noesa Jawa adanja). British Library, MSS Malay D 8, f. 107v (detail)  noc

Opening lines of Babat Sekander, a Malay translation in roman script of a Javanese manuscript of Serat Sakondar (Add. 12289, shown below), this manuscript copied in Surabaya in 1814. British Library, MSS Eur Mackenzie Private 43, f.2r (detail)  noc

Add.12289, ff.2v-3r
Serat Sakondar, the original Javanese version from which the Malay manuscript above of Babat Sekander was translated. British Library, Add. 12289, ff. 2v-3r  noc

Further reading

Theodore G. Th.Pigeaud, Literature of Java.  Catalogue raisonné of Javanese manuscripts in the Library of the University of Leiden and other public collections in the Netherlands.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968.
Thomas Stamford Raffles,  The history of Java. London, 1817. [Facsimile reprint, with an introduction by John Bastin. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1965].
M.C. Ricklefs, A history of modern Indonesia since c.1300. (2nd ed.)  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

07 May 2015

Propaganda and ideology in everyday life: Chinese comic books

The Chinese collection at the British Library includes an interesting series of around 100 comic books published during the 1960s in the People’s Republic of China. They are an excellent historical and linguistic resource and represent an extraordinary example of how official sources can promote selected values and visions among citizens using material which is visually enjoyable or mainly intended for children’s education and entertainment.

Comics 1_1200
Some of the comic books and books for children in the British Library Chinese collections (British Library ORB. 30/235)

The collection of Chinese comics at the British Library can be divided into two main types: the so-called Lian huan hua 连环画, which are meant for individual reading by both children and adults, and comics intended for children’s education and language learning.

The lian huan hua (literally: linked images) started to circulate in Shanghai in the 1920s, when publishers began to use new printing techniques and lithography for illustrated periodicals and books. The stories were exemplified through black and white images where the accompanying text was inserted at the bottom or in speech bubbles. The lian huan hua became extremely popular in China, and were widely spread across the country. They reached a peak in their distribution and use during the 1970s and 1980s, but rapidly lost their appeal for readers in the 1990s.

The themes contained in the lian huan hua differ from year to year. Traditionally, and especially at the beginning of their circulation, the main subjects were adaptations of Chinese classical stories, folk tales or novels. 
Comics 2_1200
Selection of lian huan hua published during the 1960s in the British Library Chinese collections (British Library ORB. 30/235)

During and after the 1960s (with the exception of the years of the Cultural Revolution), the Chinese Communist Party adopted the lian huan hua as a form of propaganda and mass education. These comics were in fact believed to be much more direct and easier to understand than books and treatises on Communism and they were considered more attractive by the masses. The stories of the lian huan hua published in this period therefore focus on political themes, such as the Sino-Japanese War, social realism and selected and approved biographies of Chinese heroes, both of the imperial and the republican periods, who stood for bravery, loyalty or strength, and were usually opposed to foreign enemies.

Comics 3_1200  Comics 4 _1200
Cover and excerpt from the lian huan hua “Lin Zexu” (林則徐), published by the Ren min mei shu chu ban she (人民美术出版社), 1963. Lin Zexu was an imperial official who lived during the Qing dynasty. He was a central figure in the Opium War and had a key role in the Chinese campaign against the trading of opium (British Library ORB. 30/235)

Comics 5_1200
Page from the lian huan hua “Zhan Shanghai” (战上海), published by the Shanghai ren min mei shu chu ban she (上海人民美术出版社) in November 1962. A movie with the same title had been produced in 1959 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

Among the Chinese comic books collection, apart from the lian huan hua, we find some interesting illustrated titles which were mass-produced in the 1960s and were created especially for children’s education and entertainment. They use simplified Chinese characters along with the corresponding pinyin transliteration system which was officially adopted by the People’s Republic of China in the Fifth Session of the first People's Congress in 1958. Pinyin transliteration was introduced in all primary schools as a way of teaching Standard Chinese (普通话 putong hua). Then, as also today, linguistic unity in China played a fundamental role in helping developing a sense of national identity.

Comics 6_1200
Page from Chang yi chang Beijing, 唱一唱北京, “Sing sing Beijing”, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1962 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

The sense of a shared culture and the aim to work together for the benefit of the nation can be seen in the image below, where a trio composed of industrial worker, farmer, and soldier archetypes are pictured overhead while below, two children run to get a copy of the Ren min ri bao (人民日报, People’s Daily).

Comics 7_1200
Page from Chang yi chang Beijing, 唱一唱北京, “Sing sing Beijing”, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1962 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

Comics 8_1200 Comics 9_1200
Cover and page from Shao nian er tong tu hua, 少年儿童图画 “Children’s drawings”, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1964. The British Library copy includes a previous child owner's drawings (lower right)! (British Library ORB. 30/235)

All the comics share a pattern of symbols, colours and recognizable places used to reinforce a sense of a shared community: the Chinese flag, Tian’an men square, the hua biao (obelisk) with dragons patterns and so on. The children themselves are almost always represented with the iconic red scarves worn by the members of the Chinese Communist Youth League. In each title we find optimistic descriptions of China, with a focus on technological achievements (with depictions of dams, railways and so on), and a continuous link between traditional symbols and contemporary scenes. These representations can be seen as attempts to create and re-create narratives about recent history in the context of the nation's conception, its future wellbeing, and sources of national pride.
Comics 10_1200
Page from Fei dao Tian’an men qu, 飞到天安门去 “Flying to Tian’an men”, by Zhong Zimang and Le Xiaoying, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1966 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

A selection of comic books from the British Library Chinese collection will be featured, together with a choice of posters, in the new free online course “Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life”, a ground-breaking project which allows students to interact with the British Library’s original collection items. The course is developed in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Ideologies at the University of Nottingham and will start in May 2015, on the FutureLearn platform.

You can find a video trailer here and access the course registration at this page.


阿英 (A Ying), 中国连环图画史话 (History of Lian huan hua in China), 山东画报出版社 (Shandong hua bao chu ban she), 2008
Farquhar, Mary Ann, Children’s Literature in China: From Lu Xun to Mao Zedong, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
Farquhar, Mary Ann, “Through the Looking Glass: Children’s Stories and Social Change in China, 1918-1976”, in Gungwu Wang, ed., Society and the Writer: Essays on Literature in Modern Asia, Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, 1981, 173-198.


Sara Chiesura, Curator, Chinese collection

With thanks to Ian Cooke, Curator, Social Sciences