Asian and African studies blog

2 posts from January 2021

11 January 2021

Inspiring women writers of Laos: (1) Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong

The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until at least 21 February 2021) explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. This two-part blog post presents four female writers from Laos, all of whom have had to overcome traditional societal barriers to achieve recognition.

Although women have always played a major role as supporters of Buddhism, the main faith in Laos, and as musical performers and storytellers (mor lam) in traditional Lao society, they were not encouraged to actively write literary or Buddhist texts. While exceptions may have existed, female writers in Laos only began to emerge and to be respected for their work in the second half of the twentieth century. Their works have helped to shape contemporary Lao literature, and they have contributed significantly to women's rights and gender equality in Laos. This two-part blog post introduces the lives and works of four contemporary female Lao authors who are now celebrated nationally and internationally, starting with the sisters Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong.

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Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)

Douangchampa (Lao for "Plumeria flower", the national flower of Laos) is the pseudonym of Dara Viravong Kanlagna, a Lao National Artist who has authored some sixty short stories, ninety poems, seven novels, and a screenplay for a popular feature film entitled Boua Deng which was screened at the International Festival of Cinemas of Asia in 1988. A selection of her works is held in the British Library.

Born in 1940 in Ban Oupmoung, Vientiane, as the daughter of the well-known Lao historian and philologist Maha Sila Viravong, Dara Kanlagna has been interested in literature since early childhood. She started her career as a schoolteacher in 1958 and began to write around the same time. Few years later she became an editor at Phainam Magazine, and she also began to translate literature books. After the revolution in 1975, Dara Kanlagna worked at the Ministry of Culture as a translator, editor and writer. In 1979 she established Vannasin (British Library ORB.30/6666), a literary magazine, together with other leading Lao writers. Much of her time was dedicated to working with the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme that ran from 1988 to 1994 with support from the Toyota Foundation, and from 1992 to 2004 with support from the German government. Subsequently this programme led to the establishment of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts which today makes images of over 12,000 manuscript texts from across Laos accessible online. In 1996 Dara Kanlagna was awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture and Community for her passionate work with the manuscripts project.

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Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.

After her retirement in 2001 she continued to write, focusing on issues which occur in society. Her themes include the role of women in society and education, the struggles and obstacles that Lao women face, and inequalities which are often a result of ancient traditions and poverty. To raise awareness about the tradition of weaving and the fact that textile production is an important industry run and led by women in Laos, Dara Kanlagna teamed up with members of the Group for Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles, all experienced female weavers, to record their personal stories and research into practices and techniques of weaving and dyeing not only of the Lao, but also of ethnic minority groups. The project resulted in the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving, published with the support of the Japan Foundation Asia Center (Vientiane, 2001).

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Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

For her collection of poems with the title Hak dok... chung bok ma (Vientiane, 2005) Dara Kanlagna received the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2010. She explained that she wrote the poems in honour of her mother, who raised her and her thirteen siblings with great patience and determination amid hardship and poverty and provided them with a good education despite being illiterate herself.

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Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)

Douangdeuane Bounyavong, born in 1947 in Vientiane, is also known under her penname Dokked. Like Dara Kanlagna she grew up with a love of books and literature: she is another daughter of the historian Maha Sila Viravong and his wife Maly. After attending Dong Dok Teachers’ Training College in Vientiane from 1964 to 1968, she went on to study Physics and Chemistry at the University of Amiens and the University of Poitiers, France, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 1974. She began to write while she was still a student in 1966. Her late husband, Outhine Bounyavong, was one of Laos' leading writers, and together they worked on various publications like Lao language textbooks, dictionaries, juvenile books and literary epics of national significance like Thao Hung Thao Chueang (British Library YP.2006.b.575) and Sang Sinxay.

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Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.

While running a small publishing company named Dokked that specialized in juvenile and women's literature, Douangdeuane Bounyavong wrote eight novels, about forty short stories and over sixty poems, some of which are held in the British Library collections. Following in the footsteps of her father, she transcribed numerous folk tales and works of classical literature from old into modern Lao to make them accessible to younger generations. Her groundbreaking research on the national epic Thao Hung Thao Chuang (Vientiane, 1991, British Library YP.2013.a.2225) was re-published in Thailand in 1997 (British Library YP.2016.a.9036).

In addition to writing poetry and prose she also carried out research on Lao weaving traditions, which resulted in three books on textiles including a comprehensive study of the textile collection at Ho Moune Thaentaeng Heritage Preservation Center in Vientiane with the title Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles (Vientiane, 2015). As co-founder of the Group for the Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles (1990) Douangdeuane Bounyavong was actively involved in projects for the preservation of traditional Lao textile techniques, and initiatives to raise awareness and to improve the social status of weavers and women in general, and to promote handwoven Lao textiles abroad. Currently she is Managing Director of the "Land of Bamboo Textile Museum and Medicinal Herbs and Plants Garden" as well as editor-in-chief at Dokked Publishing House. She was awarded the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes in 2005 and was also a recipient of the prestigious Southeast Asia Write Award in 2006 for her novel The Charm of the Forest (Vientiane, 2005).

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Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Among Douangdeuane Bounyavong's best-known books is her mother's narrative biography with the title When Mother was in Prison, published in 2004. The story of the girl Maly, who never had the chance to attend school and was bullied because of her mixed Lao-French heritage, is truly touching as she becomes a confident and intelligent young woman who, aged seventeen, divorces an obsessively controlling husband - something unthinkable in traditional Lao society. In 1939 she married Maha Sila Viravong, with whom she had fourteen children (in addition to a son from her first marriage). When her husband, a member of the anti-colonial liberation movement Lao Issara, had to flee to Thailand in 1940, her utmost priority was to protect her children through the precarious and violent time of WWII and later the Vietnam War, and to give them the best educational opportunities possible. The book encourages women to stand up for their personal rights and to not give in to coercive control, authoritarian behaviour and male violence.

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Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

In the next installment of this blog post, I will introduce two more inspiring Lao writers: Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna.

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

Further reading
ASEAN 20th Century Literatures, Selected Poems and Short Stories from Lao PDR (accessed 15/11/2020)
Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize 2005 [16th] Douangdeuane Bounyavong (accessed 20/11/2020) 
Lao Literature, Dara Kanlaya (aka Douang Champa) (accessed 12/11/2020)
Peace Women Across the Globe, Douangdeuane Bounyavong (Lao Peoples Dem. Republic) (accessed 20/11/2020)
Red Lotus (Bao Deng) by Som Ock Southiponh, Laos (accessed 29/11/2020)

04 January 2021

Export paintings of Ming and Qing Chinese Interiors and Furnishings

In 2019, Rita dal Martello undertook a PhD placement at the British Library to research a series of paintings created by Chinese artists held in the Visual Art collections. Whilst the primary focus of her placement was a collection of over 300 botanical paintings, Rita also worked on cataloguing a number of artworks that depicted Chinese interiors and furnishings from the Ming and Qing periods. This blog will explore these art works in more detail.

Consisting of 136 paintings (Add Or 2197-2332), this collection contains paintings depicting the interiors of houses and temples, furnishings, including lanterns and displays, and a variety of processional floats used in Buddhist and Taoist religious ceremonies. The objects and interior scenes depicted in these paintings represent the decorative tastes of the educated and wealthy sections of Chinese society during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The paintings are opaque watercolours on European paper, including sheets watermarked 1794 and 1805 which have subsequently been bound into a single volume. Whilst the names of the artists remain unknown, it is likely they were the work of painters working in and around Canton (Guangzhou) who were producing works for the export market during the late 18th and early 19th century. The majority of the collection (Add Or 2197-2313 & 2317-2332) were acquired circa 1806 when they are believed to entered the collections of the East India Company Library and Museum, whilst the remaining three paintings (Add Or 2314-2316) were deposited in 1813. Thematically, the paintings can be divided into three groups: Lanterns, Furniture and decorative displays, and ritual furnishings of official residences and temples.


A total of 35 paintings in the collection depict a variety of lantern designs including palace lanterns of square, hexagonal, or octagonal shape; “flower basket” palace lanterns; beaded lanterns and horse lanterns. Most of the paintings show individual lanterns constructed of elaborate wooden frames and panels decorated with landscape or bird and flower paintings, framed by coloured silk, with some having lavish strings of beads or tassels attached. The majority are depicted hanging from a string in the middle of the page.

A Chinese hexagonal palace lantern
A hexagonal palace lantern decorated with blue beads dangling on strings and calligraphic panels on red silk backgrounds, alternating to paintings of bamboo and prunus flowers. The central panel shows Gao Qi (1336-1374) poem "Dweller in the Clouds". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2322.

Three paintings bound in this volume are stylistically quite different from the remaining images however (Add Or 2314-2316). In these works the lantern takes up the whole page, and bear front and reverse inscriptions indicating that they were part of a set, possibly coming from the same artist or workshop. This set of paintings were deposited with the East India Company separately from the remainder of the collection and were received as a result of a letter from the East India Company written in March 1812 requesting samples of Chinese lanterns. On 22 February 1813 the Canton Factory replied saying that ‘The Lanterns indented for by the Honourable Court having been reported ready, were this day shipped on the ‘Royal George.’ A description of these Lamps with directions for putting them together drawn up by Mr Bosanquet under whose immediate inspection they were executed will be transmitted, a number in the Packet of that Ships Packet and Captain Gribble has promised that every possible care should be taken of them’ (BL Mss Eur D562/16).


Furniture and decorative displays

Furniture and decorative displays are the second most numerous group within the album. 33 paintings depict elaborate wooden furniture of various sizes and shapes elegantly displaying objects typically found in the homes of wealthy and educated Chinese. These objects include archaeological bronze objects, musical instruments, dishes decorated with auspicious symbols such as dragons and phoenix, vessels containing auspicious fruits, such as the Buddha’s hand citron for good fortune, or peaches for longevity, as well as vases with flowers such as lotus for purity or roses to symbolise the seasons.

A further 12 paintings depict speckled bamboo tables, chairs, and stools. These are possibly made of Xiangfei bamboo, which grows in Hunan and Guangxi provinces. According to the legend, the speckled aspect of this bamboo is derived from the tears concubines shed the death of the mythological emperor Shun.

Speckled bamboo Chinese furniture
Depiction of a speckled bamboo table and meiguiyi chair, possibly made of the so-called "Hunanese concubine bamboo". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2201.

Whilst a small number of paintings in this group also include decorative screens with landscape paintings or calligraphy scrolls, all of the pieces of furniture are painted in the centre of the page with no surrounding background or further details of the surrounding décor or architecture in which they would have been placed.


Ritual furnishings of official residences and temples

A final group of paintings in the album and by far the most numerous, depict a range of ritual furnishings including 3 paintings of government offices furnishings, 35 paintings of processional equipment (Add Or 2236) for both government officials and religious ceremonies, including depiction of processional sedan chairs; 17 paintings illustrating Buddhist and Taoist shrines and sacrificial arrangements and 1 of a liturgical archway celebrating filial piety.

Add Or 2236
Processional model of the Daoist temples of Wudang Mountain, in Hebei province, showing various buildings (pavilions, pagodas, etc) on a miniature mountain. At either side, a pair of matching wooden stands with a lantern and a plaque saying "Spectacular Scenery of Wudang Mountain" (武當勝景). Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2236.

These paintings once again show the furnishings, shrines and ceremonial emblems in the centre of the page with no background or contextual details. The paintings are not accompanied by descriptive inscriptions or titles and one of the key areas of my work on this collection was to create catalogue records for the individual paintings, researching and describing the subjects of each painting and transcribing any inscriptions found on the objects depicted.

The individual records of these paintings can be found on the British Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (Add Or 2187-2332).


Reproduction of these paintings and further information can be found in:

Lo, A., & Wood, Frances. (2011). Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library. Volumes III & IV. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.


Wood F (2011) 'One appreciates the pearls and jade on their stands; fine smoke rises from the tripod and sacrificial vessels in the hall'- Paintings of furnishings. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume IV. pp 6-7. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Wang T-C (2011) 'Moral integrity is demonstrated in incorruptibility; the people hope for just officials'- Paintings of Canton governments offices, furnishing, and official processional equipment. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 4-6. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Lo A, Wang T-C (2001) 'Serene and solemn mountains surround the precious halls; fragrant sacrificial vessels gather on the altars'- Paintings of religious buildings and sacrificial arrangements. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 140-142. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

By Dr. Rita dal Martello, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute