Asian and African studies blog

03 September 2015

Yongle Dadian on display in our Treasures Gallery

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry

The British Library display Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing, opening on 8th September, consists of four cases of material from China, showing different media used for Chinese writing and different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively. The descriptions below have been given in English followed by Chinese translation to make them more accessible.

Case 4: Paper

Paper was invented in China by the first century BC and largely replaced silk, wood and bamboo. Made from fibres — from the paper mulberry tree, hemp and other plants — it was light, strong and flexible.

The scroll remained the main format for books in China throughout the first millennium AD but then started to be replaced by the booklet. These developed into larger bound volumes, such as those which form the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign. These handwritten volumes, comprising 22,877 chapters, were the largest literary compilation in the world when they were imperially commissioned in 1402.

第四展柜: 纸张



Blog 7 (paper)_2000
Writing styles of the character ‘soldier’
Yongle dadian
, chapters 8628 and 8629
Ink on paper, silk on the cover
, Jiajing to Longqing period (1562-72)
Or.11273, f.1v

The content of the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign covers all aspects of traditional Confucian knowledge and contains the most prominent literature available at that time, ranging from history and drama to farming techniques. It comprises large sections of historical documents and other sources, transcribed character for character, with the name of the author or the source in red.  Here we see the character 兵 (bing), which means soldier, written in many different styles of calligraphy, ranging from seal script (which developed from characters found on oracle bones) on the right side, to cursive variants on the left.

Or.11273, f.1v


Blog 9 (paper)_2000Blog 8 (paper)_2000
Architectural Methods
Yongle dadian
Chapters 18244 and 18245.
Ink on paper, silk on the cover, Jiajing to Longqing period (1562-72)
Or.11274, ff.10v-11r

The Great Canon of the Yongle Reign is easily recognisable from its distinctive physical appearance – paper with dark red rulings, ‘wrapped-back’ binding, and a yellow silk cover.  The first edition (1408) was destroyed or dispersed and is no longer extant. Nowadays, fewer than 400 juan of the second manuscript edition remain, constituting just 3% of the original. The British Library holds 24 volumes, corresponding to 49 chapters, and is the largest collection in Europe. The volume shown contains excerpts from the Yingzao fashi, a Song dynasty technical treatise on architecture and craftsmanship.

Or.11274, ff. 10v-11r

人们可以通过其外貌轻易辨认出《永乐大典》—— 带有深红栏线的册页,‘包背装’的装帧,以及典型的黄色丝绸封面。第一版《永乐大典》(1408)已经损毁散佚。今天,不到400卷的第二版手抄本被保存下来,而这些只有原篇幅的3%。大英图书馆现藏有24卷,共49章《永乐大典》,是欧洲最大的收藏。这里展出的一卷含有《营造法式》中的摘录,这是一部宋代讲授建筑及手工技术的论著。


Related events

Michael Wood: The Story of China
Fri 23 Oct 2015, 18:30 - 20:00
British Library Conference Centre

Too big to print: the story of Yongle Dadian
Mon 23 Nov 2015, 18:45 - 20:15
British Library Conference Centre


Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, Curators, Chinese collections
in cooperation with Susan Whitfield, Director, International Dunhuang Project

With thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation



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