Asian and African studies blog

54 posts categorized "China"

25 October 2021

The Georgetown-IDP Lecture Series: Following the Silk Roads to North America

In July and August 2021, the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) and Georgetown University hosted the ‘Georgetown-IDP Lecture Series: Following the Silk Roads to North America’. This virtual lecture series was generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and focused on the journey of Silk Road artefacts that are now in North American collections.

Xuanzang_returned_from_India._Dunhuang_mural _Cave_103._High_Tang_period_(712-765).
Xuanzang returned from India. Dunhuang mural, Cave 103. High Tang period (712-765). Public domain

The Georgetown-IDP Lecture Series was organised to celebrate the upcoming completion of the Georgetown-IDP project, which has worked to incorporate images of Silk Road items in North American collections into the IDP’s public database and to expand the IDP's partnership with North American institutions. Generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Dunhuang Foundation, the project began in 2016 and will virtually bring together manuscripts and various types of objects dispersed widely in North America through over 1000 images. Learn more about the project here: The Georgetown-IDP Project.

The lectures are now available to view on the International Dunhuang Project’s YouTube channel. We have also embedded them below for your convenience.

  • July 28: Dr Miki Morita and Dr Michelle Wang
    ‘The Georgetown-IDP Project: Prospects for Collaboration and Research’

  • August 4: Dr Amanda Goodman
    ‘The Many Lives of a Buddhist Devotional Print: A Dated Dunhuang Document in the Royal Ontario Museum Collection’

  • August 11: Dr Xin Wen
    ‘A Traveler’s History of the Silk Road: Revelations from Dunhuang Materials’

  • August 18: Dr Foong Ping
    ‘Dunhuang in Seattle’

  • August 25: Dr Fan Jeremy Zhang
    ‘Exploring Eastern Silk Roads: A Journey Through the Collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’


Learn more about the IDP’s ongoing work and upcoming activities by visiting our website or following us on Twitter.

 

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. 
CC Public Domain Image

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. 
CC Public Domain Image

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. 
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Lu, Sun and Dong's design celebrating the mid-point of the 5-year plan. 
CC Public Domain Image

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).
CC Public Domain Image

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. 
CC Public Domain Image

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.
CC Public Domain Image

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. 
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Lu Tianjiao at her desk. 
CC Public Domain Image

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.

 

 

15 March 2021

An early Tai-Chinese glossary in the Hua yi yi yu

The 14th century brought about remarkable changes in the northern part of Southeast Asia. Chinese records indicate that the reign of the first Ming emperor saw the encouragement of tributary relations with emerging states of Tai-speaking peoples with the aim of obtaining their symbolic acknowledgement of China’s cosmological centrality. By the end of the 14th century, the Ming court had established pacification offices in Yunnan and in Tai polities sharing a border with Yunnan, through which the emperor claimed to govern those states. Activities relating to the pacification offices, including the exchange of messages, reception of envoys, and military actions, were recorded in the “Veritable Records of the Ming” (Ming Shilu) from 1368 to 1644 CE. According to the Ming Shilu, the pacification offices involving Tai peoples were Che Li (Xishuangbanna), Babai-Dadian (Lan Na / Northern Thailand), Laowo (Laos), and Luchuan / Pingmian (both referring to Tai Mao / Shan polities).

Front cover of one rebound volume (160 x 252 mm) and title page of the Hua yi yi yu
Front cover of one rebound volume (160 x 252 mm) and title page of the Hua yi yi yu, British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

To make communication with the pacification offices possible, the Hua yi yi yu 華夷譯語, a multilingual dictionary, was compiled from 1407 onwards by the Bureau of Translators, which was the first office to occupy itself with the translation of documents from tributary polities. In 1511 the Babai Bureau officially started as the ninth office studying foreign languages, following offices for Mongol, Jurchen, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Persian, Dehong Dai, Uighur, and Burmese. The Xian Luo (Thai or Siamese) office started its work in 1579.

Six volumes of the Hua yi yi yu were acquired by the British Museum on 7 August 1885 from Joseph Edkins, a British protestant missionary and sinologist who had spent over fifty years in China. Each volume was originally bound in a traditional Chinese stitched binding which was replaced by a European hardcover binding for conservational reasons at the British Museum. With the other collections in the British Museum Library, the work was transferred to the British Library in 1973 (British Library 15344.d.10).

Volume six contains a Tai-Chinese glossary on 109 folios compiled by the Babai Bureau, which was initially catalogued as a “Pa Po-Chinese vocabulary” at the British Museum. The largest part of the original text was produced using woodblock printing technique on thin cream-coloured paper. This extremely thin paper adheres to a stronger sheet of white “recycled” paper, which has on its back a legal code from the Qing dynasty (1644 -1912). These sheets of paper are interleaved with additional sheets of “recycled” paper with text in the Manchu language. This method was used mainly when Chinese books were repaired during the 18th and 19th centuries to reinforce very thin printing paper.

Example of a page in the glossary with Tai words at the top, followed by the Chinese translation (second line) and Tai pronunciation in Chinese characters (third line)
Example of a page in the glossary with Tai words at the top, followed by the Chinese translation (second line) and Tai pronunciation in Chinese characters (third line). British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

The Chinese text is vertical and reads from right to the left. To read the Tai text, one must turn the book 90 degrees to the left as shown above so that the text is horizontal and reads from left to right. Yu wei along the vertical folds of the sheets give the titles of sections in the book.

“Pa Po” is an alternative romanisation mode for Babai referring to the language spoken in Babai-Dadian. The term was coined by the sinologists Friedrich Hirth and F. W. K. Müller towards the end of the 19th century. It is mostly associated with the former kingdom of Lan Na, which is thought to have been geographically relatively equal with northern Thailand. However, according to the Ming Shilu Babai-Dadian was a larger polity. The Chinese records give several hints that Babai-Dadian extended east to Che Li (Jinghong in Xishuangbanna), south to Bo Le (possibly Phrae, bordering Sukhothai), west to Da Gu-la (possibly a pre-Ahom/Shan polity), and north to Meng-gen (Kengtung).

Contents of the glossary

On the first folio, only Hua yi yi yu is mentioned as the title for the whole work, literally meaning “Glossary of the pronunciation of foreign words”. The book title is followed by the title of the first section, and the first two entries in this chapter. There are usually four entries per page.

The book contains sixteen sections, which reflect the Chinese world view during the Ming dynasty. All volumes of the Hua yi yi yu in different languages follow this same structure, although some volumes contain a different number of entries, or sometimes the order of the sections is different, which may be due to binding and rebinding. The sections cover the following subjects:

1) Astronomy & astrology (fols. 1-8)
2) Geography (fols. 9-17)
3) Seasons and time (fols. 18-23)
4) World of plants (fols. 24-31)
5) World of animals (fols. 32-39)
6) World of men (fols. 40-47)
7) Human body (fols. 48-54)
8) Dwellings (fols. 55-57)
9) Implements & tools (fols. 58-63)
10) Garments (fols. 64-68)
11) Valuables (fols. 69-72)
12) Food (fols. 73-76)
13) Words of orientation (fols. 77-79)
14) Sounds and colours (fols. 80-82)
15) Numbers and trade (fols. 83-84)
16) Affairs of man (verbs and adjectives) (fols. 85-96)
17) Phrases of general use (97-109)


Example of Fak Kham script on a rubbing from an undated stone inscription found fifty km north of Kengtung, rubbing made in c. 2000
Example of Fak Kham script on a rubbing from an undated stone inscription found fifty km north of Kengtung, rubbing made in ca. 2000. British Library, Or. 16784  noc

The Tai script in the glossary has similarities with examples of the Fak Kham script (above) dating from between 1411-1827. The earliest known evidence of Fak Kham script is from a stone inscription at the Lamphun Museum (Ho Phiphitthaphan Lamphun) dated 1411 (Kannika Wimonkasem 1983). Fak Kham script was not only used in northern Thailand, but also in the areas of Kengtung and Laos. Similarities can also be found with the alphabet used in stone inscriptions that were discovered c. 50 km north of Kengtung and in Northern Laos in the areas of Luang Prabang and Muang Sing.

The glossary contains 800 words in the native language, with translations into Chinese language, and Chinese characters for pronunciation. The Chinese translation provides a word that would be understood by the Chinese user of the glossary, and therefore the original meaning of the corresponding word in the native language sometimes gets lost in translation. Misinterpretations occur with regard to titles and names. For example, the name “Maenam Khong” (Tai for Mekong River) was translated with the Chinese character for “lake”. Words of Pali and Sanskrit origin appear occasionally, as for example thevada (from Pali: devata). Paraphrases are very rare, which means that for each Chinese term there is mostly a plain Tai word without further explanation.

Particularly interesting is section two of the book which deals with geography. On folios 15/16 the following place names are mentioned: Pekking (Tai for Beijing, also used for China), Muang Chae (for Yunnan), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai, also for Lan Na), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang, also for Laos), Muang Lue, Muang Khoen, the latter two referring to polities of the Tai Lue and Tai Khoen ethnic groups.

Folio 15 showing the names Pekking (Beijing), Muang Chae (Che Li), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang)
Folio 15 showing the names Pekking (Beijing), Muang Chae (for Yunnan), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang). British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

Because the pronunciation of each word in the native language is represented by Chinese characters in the glossary, it is possible to get an idea of how the spoken language would have sounded. However, it is not always possible to render the correct pronunciation of foreign words with Chinese characters. For example, the pronunciation of the letter r (ຣ) is usually given as l in the glossary, but there is no certainty as to whether the letter was indeed pronounced as l, or indeed as r, or left silent.

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

This post is a revised summary of an article “The 'Pa-Po'-Chinese glossary in the Hua Yi Yi Yu” published in the SEALG Newsletter, vol. 42 (December 2010), pp. 9-21.  I would like to thank my colleague Sara Chiesura, Lead Curator for Chinese, for her invaluable advice with this blog post.

Further reading

Douglas, Robert Kennaway, Supplementary catalogue of Chinese books and manuscripts in the British Museum. London: The British Museum, 1903
Franke, Wolfgang, Annotated sources of Ming history: including Southern Ming and works on neighbouring lands, 1368-1661. Revised and enlarged by Foon Ming Liew-Herres. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2011
Hirth, Friedrich, 'The Chinese Oriental College'. Journal of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. XXII, London: 1887
Liew-Herres, Foon Ming and Volker Grabowsky (with Aroonrut Wichienkeeo), Lan Na in Chinese historiography: Sino-Tai relations as reflected in the Yuan and Ming sources (13th to 17th centuries). Bangkok: 2008
Müller, F.W.K., Vocabularien der Pa-Yi- und Pah-Poh-Sprachen, aus dem "hua-i-yi-yü"T’oung Pao Vol. 3 No. 1, 1892, pp. 1-38
Ross, Denison, New Light on the History of the Chinese Oriental College, and a 16th Century Vocabulary of the Luchuan Language. T’oung Pao Second Series, Vol. 9, No. 5 (1908), pp. 689-695
Wade, Geoffrey (ed.), Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu, an open access resource.  (accessed on 12.1.2011)
Wild, Norman, Materials for the Study of the Ssŭ i Kuan 四 夷 譯 館 (Bureau of Translators). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies , University of London Vol. 11, No. 3 (1945), pp. 617-640
Wimonkasem, Kannika, ‘Akson Fak Kham thi phop nai silacharuk phak nua. Bangkok: 1983

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.

Lanterns

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.

Bibliography:

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

 

07 December 2020

Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage: Conference at the British Library 7-8 February 2020

In February 2020, to coincide with its major exhibition ‘Buddhism’, the British Library hosted a public conference entitled Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage organised in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies and supported by the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation. Over two days, speakers explored the idea of ‘collections’ – be they of manuscripts, texts, art works, or practices – and how they have shaped our understanding of, and indeed the very practice of, Buddhism across the world. In this blogpost, summaries of the event’s papers are given together with links to recordings and slideshows of the papers themselves. The conference provided a wide and rich array of reflections upon Buddhism and what we mean by the very nature of ‘collections’ – and the papers are articulate and entertaining scholarship well worth exploring for all audiences.

Conference participants
Conference participants (left to right from the back): Charles Manson; Stefano Zacchetti; Andrew Skilton; Matt Kimberley; Tim Barrett; Sam van Schaik; Melodié Doumy; Luisa Elena Mengoni; Marie Kaladgew; Camillo Formigatti; Lucia Dolce; Birgit Kellner; Mahinda Deegalle; Christian Luczanits; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim; Jana Igunma; Jann Ronis. Photo: Serena Biondo

Following an introduction by Head of Asian and African Collections Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, a keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Dr Birgit Kellner of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She began by outlining how Indian manuscripts first came into circulation in Tibet during the 8th to 14th centuries in large numbers. The nature of the texts contained in these manuscripts was highly heterogenous: doctrine, philosophy, ritual, narrative and devotional poetry, non-Buddhist Indian epic, grammar. However, unlike in other regions to which Buddhism spread, Sanskrit did not take on the status of a liturgical language, with effort instead poured into using these manuscripts for teaching and translation by a network of translators moving around between and within India and Tibet. Several thousand Indian Buddhist works came to be translated and form the Tibetan canon in this way, and after the 14th century a knowledge of Sanskrit became restricted to those who specialised in the grammatical tradition.


Birgit Kellner Indian manuscripts in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Kellner went on to look at two case studies in order to better understand how Indian manuscripts were perceived, collected and categorized. She did this by examining accounts of their use in a number of contexts, including the trading of manuscripts as a kind of currency in exchange for teaching; the acquisition and preservation of manuscripts as part of the material legacy of significant personages of a particular lineage within Tibetan Buddhist culture; and, by the 19th and 20th centuries, no longer circulating but treated as sacred objects within monastic collections to be treated as sacred objects and specially stored in libraries and stupas. Through this, Kellner addressed some of the core themes that ran throughout the rest of the conference.

The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti
The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti Remnants of a textual shipwreck: manuscript fragments of Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature. Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

In the first panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Texts and Translation” –  our speakers considered how particular textual collections and their translations shaped the understanding of Buddhism by its practitioners in the past, and how what survives of such collections colours our interpretation of Buddhist history today. In his paper on Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature, the late Prof. Stefano Zacchetti, University of Oxford, explored how the early Chinese Buddhist canon was conceived of and transmitted as a collection of translated texts, creating complexities in the production of commentaries so vital to interpreting these Indian doctrines upon their reception in China. Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of Goldsmiths College London gave a paper on the fascinating subject of Tibetan medicine and in particular the translation of the term rlung or ‘breath’. She looked at the history of translations of the term, and how intersection of different cultural influences from Greek to Indian have shaped interpretations of the concept and Tibetan medicine. Dr Camillo Formigatti, Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries Oxford, examined the translations of Sanskrit texts by the Tibetan lo tsā ba Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan and Nepalese pandit Laksmīkara, and how their processes played a pivotal role in the formation of a new Tibetan literary language. The panel concluded with a Q&A session chaired by the conference organiser, Matt Kimberley Research Curator at the British Library.


Andrew Skilton Endangered texts in Thai Buddhism

The second panel – “Collections in Monastic Contexts” – explored how manuscript collections in Buddhist monasteries, temples and courts have influenced the development and interpretation of Buddhist practice. Ven. Prof. Mahinda Deegalle of Bath Spa University,  spoke about his research on Sri Lanka’s largest temple library palm-leaf manuscript collection at Hanguranketa Potgul Rajamahā Vihāra. This collection has never been the subject of published work nor its role in shaping the Theravāda tradition considered, so Deegalle presented some initial results of his survey. Following this, Dr Andrew Skilton, University of Oxford, gave a paper on recent efforts to catalogue and digitise Thai temple manuscript collections, and how conditions of preservation, textual canonical status and changes in Buddhist practice itself have pushed once significant texts to the margins where they now risk being lost forever. The final paper of the panel came from Prof. Kate Crosby, and Dr Amal Gunasena, both of of King's College London, which examined a particular group of related meditation practice texts originally composed for Sri Lankan royalty by high ranking members of the monastic community in nineteenth century, now kept in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British Library. She showed how this particular set of practices ceased to be recognised in the modern period, and how as a result this important tradition has been left absent in both Asian and Western scholarship on the subject. The panel ended with a Q&A session chaired by curator Jana Igunma.


Jana Igunma The Buddha and his natural environment in SE Asian manuscript art

The third panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Art and Performance” – considered the way that visual arts and ritual performances in collections provide insight into Buddhist practice. Dr Christian Luczanits, SOAS, gave a talk on monastic collections of manuscripts and artworks in the Mustang region of Nepal. He highlighted the challenges that come with inventorising and documenting these collections and what doing so can do for understanding Buddhism’s development in Nepal. The British Library’s curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Jana Igunma, presented a paper on her work investigating the relationship between the historical Buddha and the natural environment. She looked at a range of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrated manuscripts from South East Asia and how their realistic imagery of the natural world has its roots in much older Pali texts from Sri Lanka. Dr Lucia Dulce, SOAS, presented Tantric ritual practice in medieval Japanese Buddhism through an examination of writings from Japanese temple libraries. In particular, she focused on yugi kanjō, a type of ritual consecration that developed in the medieval period, drawing on unpublished material incorporating liturgy, certificates and visual representations of practitioners and performance spaces. The panel concluded with a Q&A chaired by Sam van Schaik.


Melodie Doumy and Marie Kaledgew Preservation and conservation of Buddhist scrolls

In the fourth and final panel – “Collections in the Heritage Context: Conservation, Preservation, Dissemination” – the speakers looked at different aspects of the lives of collections in cultural heritage institutions and how these contemporary settings influence the study and practice of Buddhism today. Dr Jann Ronis of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center presented the work of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center in building the world’s largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages. Ronis talked about the BDRC’s workflows, data structure and the ambitions for establishing shared standards for Linked Open Data in the field of Buddhist Studies. The British Library’s curator of Chinese collections, Melodié Doumy, and Scroll and Digitisation Conservator for the International Dunhuang Project, Marie Kaladgew, jointly presented on their work for the Lotus Sutra Digitisation Project. By focussing on one particular scroll from this collection, they demonstrated the collaborative decision-making processes that inform conservation practices and the implications these have for the longevity and interpretation of material held in the library. Finally, Dr Sam van Schaik, head of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), shared his research on the oft overlooked area of Buddhist ‘magic’ using material from both the Stein collections and more contemporary materials preserved by the EAP. Through endeavours like EAP, heritage institutions helped preserve and disseminate at-risk collections the world over by combining local knowledge and understanding of collections with the resources that are typically only available through large public bodies. The panel finished with a Q&A session chaired by Matt Kimberley.

Roundtable discussion
Roundtable discussion with (left to right) Lucia Dolce, Sam van Schaik, Mahinda Deegalle, Birgit Kellner and Tim Barrett (chair). Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

The conference drew to a close with a roundtable discussion on the issues explored throughout the two days, chaired by Prof. Tim Barrett of SOAS with the participation of Prof. Dr. Kellner, Prof. Deegalle, Dr Dolce and Dr van Schaik. This wide-ranging conversation looked at everything from what we mean by the very idea of collections through the challenges that come with the responsibilities of holding collections for the use of current and future generations. In all, Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage was an important and very successful event for bringing together Buddhism scholars and professionals, Buddhist practitioners and the public to reflect upon the history of this major religious tradition, and for considering the role that institutions like the British Library play in preserving and providing access to its wealth of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Matt Kimberley, Research Curator, Asian and African Collections
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24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

In this blogpost, we return to an item discussed last year on the British Library Conservation Care blog in Consider the Cover: Conserving a Chinese Book, when it was being prepared for the exhibition ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (26 April – 27 August 2019). We then learned about the story told by the book’s binding, and now we look closer at its contents and context within the dramatic events of 19th-century China.

A book of Chinese characters open inside a display case
Zi bu ji jie on display in ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (2019). (15344.c.24) (Image credit: © Tony Antoniou)

Aside from being the second American Baptist missionary to set up in China and the first to establish a Protestant mission outside the foreign 'factory' corner  of Canton (Guangzhou), Issachar Roberts was also the religious teacher of Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全. Hong was the man who, in 1851, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and led a 13-year rebellion against the Qing dynasty as ruler of the Taiping tianguo (太平天囯 ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’).

‘An Explanation of Radical Characters’

Zi bu ji jie is a short text which acts as a guide to the pronunciation and general category of meaning associated with each of the 214 Kangxi radicals (the classifiers used most famously in the dictionary completed in 1716, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor). These descriptions seem to be taken, either wholly or in part, from entries in the Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典 Kangxi zidian), which in turn draws upon earlier sources such as the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 and the Guangyun 廣韻.

Each entry gives the pronunciation first in the form of a homophone character, with variations in tone denoted by the position of a small circle, followed by a short definition in classical Chinese. The character 口 ‘mouth’, for example, is described as人所以言食也 “the means by which people speak and eat.”

The text may be classical in origin and formulaic in structure but it still reveals some of the context of its creation. For instance, it would appear that Roberts was unable to source a satisfactory definition of the eighth Kangxi radical 亠 ‘head’ and instead wrote: 亠字冇乜解法 “The character亠 has no explanation”, using local the Cantonese characters 冇乜 (= 沒有什麽 = ‘without any’).

A page of a printed Chinese book with ruled columns containing bold characters
A page from Zi bu ji jie (15344.c.24) containing local character variants.
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The copy of this work held in the British Library is stamped with “I. J. Roberts” and also includes a handwritten dedication to another prominent missionary, Walter Medhurst, and the date “October 13th, 1840”.

Little did the Reverend Roberts know when he published this ‘Explanation of Radical Characters’ that seven years later he would meet a ‘radical character’ of a very different kind.

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

A printed Chinese book with yellowing pages and text arranged in vertical columns, beginning with the title on the right
The first page of another of Roberts’ publications, Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
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Wen da su hua is translated as ‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’ and serves as an introduction to Christian doctrine presented in the form of a series of questions and answers. Given its title and more vernacular style, it is not surprising that local characters feature once again. In addition to the frequent use of the character 乜 (= 什麽 = ‘what/any’) in the phrasing of the questions, you can also find the third person pronoun 佢 and the verb 係 ‘to be’, such as:

問,個仔呌乜名呢。答,呌耶穌。
“Question: What is the name of his [God’s] son? Answer: [He] is called Jesus.”

This publication also includes a map of Asia and other geographical descriptions, which has been said to reflect Roberts’s “interest in spreading knowledge about the world”, and may well have formed part of Hong Xiuquan’s educational syllabus when he studied under the missionary in 1847.

This volume is signed by the author with the character 孝 ‘The Filial’, which is part of Roberts’s Chinese name, Luo Xiaoquan (羅孝全). It also appears to have been gifted to someone, although the ink has bled and the name is obscured.

A map of Asia in Chinese that unfolds from inside the book and has areas shaded in different colours
The hand-coloured map of Asia from inside Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
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‘The Chinese Revolutionist’

It is not clear whether these works were shown to Hong Xiuquan when he studied under Roberts in 1847. It seems likely that the catechism in particular may have been used, especially as Roberts himself refers to employing his own materials as well those prepared by other prominent missionaries. One thing we do know is that, despite his formal Christian education being cut short when his baptism was “postponed indefinitely”, the two months Hong spent with Roberts at his chapel in Canton (Guangzhou) had a profound and enduring effect on the soon-to-be Taiping leader and his ideology.

The meeting of Hong and Roberts was a turning point in Chinese history, falling halfway between two other crucial moments in the story of the Taiping rebellion. The first was in 1843, when Hong used certain Christian tracts as the basis for interpreting visions he had had following his fourth failure in the civil service examinations. Through this he perceived his divine purpose – to purge the earth of demons and idolatry – and lineage – as the second son of God and younger brother of Jesus Christ. The second crucial moment was on 11 January 1851, when he stood before thousands of his followers established himself as the leader, or Taiping Wang (太平王‘King of Great Peace’), of a rival Chinese dynasty.

In an article published in Putnam’s Monthly in October 1856, Roberts referred to both Hong’s examination failures and his postponed baptism as formative moments, or instances in which “all-wise Providence overruled”. He writes:

“Had he gained his literary degree, to become a mandarin under the Tartar rule would have been his highest aim; had he been baptized, to become an assistant preacher under his foreign teacher was the object in view; but now how widely different his present position!”

Roberts had been unaware of what had become of his one-time student until 1852 but spent much of the next eight years gathering support for the Taiping movement and trying to reach their capital at Nanjing (or Taijing 太京 ‘Heavenly Capital’, as it was known by the Taipings). Once there, he hoped to make use of his unique personal connection and the Christian fervour behind the rebellion in order to further his religious mission in China.

Detail of printed article from magazine
Detail from “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase” by I. J. Roberts, as published in the Primitive Church Magazine in January 1855. (P.P. 429)
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Roberts expressed his support of the Taiping regime in a circular dated June 1854 entitled “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase in China”, which was published the following January in The Primitive Church Magazine. A bit of a rebel himself, he went as far as to challenge what he saw as the “unequal and oppressive” actions of the Mission Board (which had dismissed him in 1852) and propose an alternative “committee of co-operation” to be based among the Taipings at Nanjing. Although aware of the disparities between his own beliefs and those of the Taipings, he was convinced that he could convert them to “true Christianity” and claimed that: “the Tartar dynasty will become defunct and the Tae-ping dynasty will be established in its stead… the Christian religion will not only be tolerated but promoted throughout China”.

It was not until 1862 that, having reached Nanjing and spent more than a year among the Taipings, Roberts finally gave up on his “grand plan”. Hong continued to express deep respect for his former teacher, granting him the exclusive honour of a personal audience and issuing orders for his protection, but Roberts came to realise that their religious differences were both substantial and irreconcilable. He left Nanjing in January 1862, “thoroughly disgusted with their proceedings”.

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

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Historical sources

Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese: Giving a list of their publications, and obituary notices of the deceased. With copious indexes. (American Presbyterian Mission Press: Shanghae [sic], 1867): pp. 94-97. (4766.dd.).

Issachar Jacox Roberts, “Tae Ping Wang” in Putnam's Monthly, v.8 (Jul-Dec 1856).

The Primitive Church Magazine , Volumes XI-XII. (Arthur Hall & Co.: London, 1854-55). (P.P.429)

 

Further reading

Yuan Chung Teng, “Reverend Issachar Jacox Roberts and the Taiping Rebellion”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (November 1963): pp.55-67.

George Blackburn Pruden, Jr., Issachar Jacox Roberts and American Diplomacy in China during the Taiping Rebellion. PhD dissertation in modern history. (The American University, 1977).

Prescott Clarke and JS Gregory, Western reports on the Taiping: A Selection of Documents. (Australian National University Press: Canberra, 1982). (X.809/54928)

Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. (W. W. Norton: New York, 1996). (YC.1996.b.6425)

19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

A recent post on the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, a seventeenth century Torah scroll from Kaifeng, Henan province, featured the British Library’s Judaeo-Persian letter Or.8212/166 dating from the end of the eighth century as one of the earliest records of the Jewish community in China. Our post today coincides with Silk Road Week 2020 to celebrate the anniversary of the Silk Road - from Chang'an to the Tianshan Corridor - becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site on June 22, 2014. It highlights the long-term collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of China as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) by focussing on our Judaeo-Persian document and a comparatively recent acquisition of the National Library of China BH1-19.

Judaeo-Persian letter discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
The Judaeo-Persian document discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
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The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (National Library of China BH1-19)
The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (BH1-19, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of China)

The earliest of these two to be widely-known is the British Library document which was discovered early in 1901 during M.A. Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia. A group of his workmen were indulging in some independent ‘treasure-seeking’ after the completion of formal excavations at Dandan-Uiliq, the site of a former Buddhist monastery and Imperial garrison located to the northeast of Khotan between the Khotan and Keriya rivers in what is now the autonomous region of Xinjiang. While searching the debris left in the sand outside the broken east wall of an ancient dwelling-house (Stein’s D.XIII), they came across a document which Stein described (Margoliouth, p. 737):

as it then presented itself, was a lump of thin brownish paper, so closely crumpled up that in the absence of proper appliances I found it quite impossible to attempt its opening and unfolding. Only where one edge of the paper could be partially loosened was I able to make out some characters which manifestly looked like cursive Hebrew.

Map of Dandan-Uiliq, after Stein Sand-buried ruins of Khotan
Map of Dandan-Uiliq based on M. A. Stein's Map showing portions of Chinese Turkestan, Survey of India 1900-1901, scale 1 : 760,000 (Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, London, 1904)
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The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters[1]” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play (see Yoshida, pp. 389-90 for a possible explanation of this).

In 2004, however, an almost intact leaf (BH1-19) of a similar document was acquired by the National Library of China. Published in 2008 (Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang), it appears to be the initial page of possibly the same letter and gives a more detailed historical context by referring to the defeat of the Tibetans at Kashgar which happened around 790.

The letter (translated by Zhang Zhan in Hansen, pp. 381-2) is from a Persian speaking Jew of Khotan to the ‘lord master’ Nisi Chilag, Abu Sahak and others on the subject of sheep trading. It lists bribes to officials, arranged no doubt in order of sociological importance and headed by a local ruler (dihgān) who can perhaps be identified with the King of Khotan or someone of equal status (Yoshida, p. 392). The gifts include a vase, scent, silk cloth, raw silk, sugar and other items which are not yet fully understood. Perhaps the most important information was the news from Kashgar that “They killed and captured all the Tibetans”. The writer himself contributed “a sum worth 100 strings of coins, or 100,000 coins” for the war effort.

Montage showing the two letters Or.8212/166 and BH1-19 superimposed for comparison
Montage showing the two letters BH1-19 and Or.8212/166 superimposed for comparison

As demonstrated by the montage above, the two documents are almost certainly part of the same letter with the National Library fragment forming the opening page and the British Library fragment a subsequent folio. From a morphological, palaeographical, and content-wise point of view we can be fairly certain that both were written by the same Judaeo-Persian trader. The author is identified in the second letter as ‘Sogdian,’ and despite being written in Persian, Yutaka Yoshida has convincingly argued on the basis of various sogdianisms in the letter itself that he was most likely a Persian speaking Sogdian Jew (Yoshida, pp. 390-92).

Taking both parts together the Dandan-Uiliq letter is probably the oldest surviving document of substance to be written in early New Persian, marking the first phase of the Persian language after the Islamic conquest. As such it provides important evidence for the development of the Persian language in addition to documenting the history of eighth-century Khotan.

Ursula Sims-Williams
Lead Curator, Persian, Asian and African Collections

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Further reading

Margoliouth, D.S., “An early Judæo-Persian document from Khotan, in the Stein Collection, with other early Persian documents; with an introductory note by M.A. Stein and communications from W. Bacher, A.E. Cowley and J. Wiesner”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1903), pp. 735-60.
Utas, Bo, “The Jewish-Persian fragment from Dandān-Uiliq”, Orientalia suecana 17 (1968) pp. 123-136 (republished in From Old to New Persian: Collected essays, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 25-38).
Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang, “Yijian xinfaxian Youtai-Bosiyu xinzha de duandai yu shidu [A newly-discovered Judeo-Persian letter]”, Dunhuang Tulufan Yanjiu 11 (2008), pp. 71-99.
Hansen, V. The Silk Road: a new history with documents. Oxford: OUP, 2017, pp. 357-9, with Zhang Zhan’s translation of BH1-19, pp. 381-2.
Yutaka Yoshida, “Some new interpretations of the two Judeo-Persian letters from Khotan”. In A thousand judgements: Festschrift for Maria Macuch, eds. A. Hintze, D. Durkin-Meisterernst and C. Neumann, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019, pp. 385-94.

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[1] Literally “more than twenty and …[word missing]”

18 May 2020

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll: A British Library Treasure

Theories abound on the date that Jews arrived in China. Some point to the period following Moses’ birth, others to the dispersion of the Ten Lost Tribes by the Assyrians in 720 BCE, and others to the Diaspora following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Although evidence to support any of these theories is lacking, there is also the likelihood that Jews reached China in the centuries following the Babylonian exile (6 th century BCE). It is known that descendants of the exiles from the Land of Israel moved progressively eastward as they engaged in a thriving commerce by sea and along the trade routes of the Silk Road. Some who had lived in Persia, India and Bukhara may have settled in China. Research work on the Chinese Jewry undertaken particularly in the second half of the 20th century by scholars such as William Charles White, Donald Daniel Leslie, and Michael Pollak, have weighed heavily in favour of Persian roots; however, the exact origin of the Chinese Jews is still shrouded in mystery.


A map of Kaifeng, China. (Source: GoogleMaps; CC-4.0)

The earliest tangible proof of Jewish presence on Chinese soil comes from a fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter dating from the end of the 8th century (British Library Or. 8212/166), which was found by the Hungarian born British explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1901 near Dandan-Uiliq, an important Buddhist trading centre on the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan. This letter (which was obviously en route, being a surface find) was written in Judeo-Persian (Persian in Hebrew script) by a Jewish merchant to a coreligionist in Persia with whom he was engaged in business, and discusses the sale of an inferior flock of sheep. It was written on locally-manufactured paper. 

Fragment of letter in Persian in Hebrew script
Fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter. [1] (Probably Khotan, China, 8th century. Or 8212/166 )
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Historians concur that one of the oldest Jewish communities in China is K’ae-fung-foo (Kaifeng, formerly known as P'ien-Liang), on the banks of the Yellow River, in the province of Henan, which was founded by Jewish traders who settled there by the mid-tenth century. Kaifeng had been the thriving capital of the emperors of the Song Dynasty, who ruled China for 166 years beginning in 960 CE.

The Jewish community flourished until the 18th century, but by the mid-19th century, it was already in a state of decline (and barely survived into the 20th century). In 1850, some 200 Jewish souls lived in Kaifeng. Not having had a rabbi for almost fifty years, the Kaifeng Jews lacked but the most basic knowledge of Judaism, and could no longer read and write Hebrew. Their magnificent synagogue, first built in 1163 and rebuilt on at least two occasions since, stood neglected and dilapidated. It nonetheless provided a safe shelter to hapless and impoverished members of the community who, in order to earn a meagre living, sold bricks and wood from its ruins to their non-Jewish neighbours.

Kaifeng Synagogue
A model of the Kaifeng Synagogue, built around 1163 CE and destroyed in the 1860's. (Source: Asian History; not CC-0)

These observations come from the diaries kept by two Chinese Christians, K'hew T'hëen-sang and Tsëang Yung-che, who in November 1850 were despatched to Kaifeng on a mission of enquiry by the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among Jews. The diaries were subsequently edited by Bishop George Smith and published in Shanghai in 1851 under the title The Jews of K'ae-fung-foo: being a narrative of the mission of inquiry to the Jewish Synagogue of K'ae- fung-foo…

The main purpose of the expedition was to establish contact with the isolated Kaifeng Jews, to learn about their community and way of life, and to retrieve Holy Books from their ancient synagogue. It was on their second visit to Kaifeng in spring 1851 that the two Chinese missionaries obtained forty small biblical manuscripts and purchased six Torah Scrolls (out of twelve Torah scrolls seen on their previous trip) paying the Jewish community 400 taels of silver, the equivalent of about £130.

On December 11th, 1852, the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews presented one of the six retrieved Torah scrolls to the British Museum.

Torah Scroll of Kaifeng when rolled
The rolled Kaifeng Torah Scroll showing the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews' inscription. (Kaifeng Torah Scroll. Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250, front)
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The scroll, which has been part of the British Library’s Hebrew collection since 1973, is composed of ninety-five strips of thick sheepskin sewn together with silk thread, rather than with the customary animal sinew. Its 239 columns of unpunctuated Hebrew text are written in black ink in a script that is similar to the square Hebrew script used by the Jews of Persia.

Detail of the text of the Kaifeng Torah Scroll
Kaifeng Torah Scroll. (Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250 (detail))
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According to scholars, the Torah scrolls originating in Kaifeng were most probably created between 1643 and 1663. Each is marked with an identifying number placed on the reverse of the last skin. The numbers were written in Hebrew and each individual scroll was dedicated to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. For example, the British Library scroll bears the letter ב (bet, i.e. number 2) and was dedicated to the Tribe of Shim‘on.

Detail of the text of the Kaifeng Torah Scroll
Kaifeng Torah Scroll. (Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250 (detail))
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Only seven have survived and are currently preserved in various European and American libraries. Research on the extant Kaifeng Torah scrolls indicates that they were copied from several models of yet undetermined provenance. The considerable number of errors and inaccuracies found in the texts shows that the scribes who wrote them were amateurs whose knowledge of Hebrew was rather poor.

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll is one of the star objects in the Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition. Due to the current global pandemic, the opening of the exhibition scheduled for March 2020 has been deferred until further notice.

Our readers and followers would be pleased to know, however, that the scroll has been fully digitised and catalogued, as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project undertaken by the British Library, 2013-2020. The Kaifeng Torah scroll digital surrogate is freely accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings on the Kaifeng Jews:

Anson H. Laytner & Jordan Paper, eds. The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: a millennium of adaptation and endurance. Lexington Books, 2017.

Charles William White. Chinese Jews, a Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of K'aifeng Fu. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942). 

Donald Daniel Leslie. The survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish community of Kaifeng. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Michael Pollak, The Torah Scrolls of the Chinese Jews. Dallas: Wayside Press, Inc., 1975, 34 and passim.

Sidney Shapiro. Jews in Old China, Studies by Chinese Scholars. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984), 2001.

Ursula Sims-Williams. "Jewish merchants in the desert," in Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, edited by Susan Whitfield (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019), p. 252. [Document supply m19/.11888

 



[1] Please bear in mind that the metadata of the digital surrogate is in the process of being revised. The article link included in the Further readings list provides clear evidence that this letter was written by a Jewish Persian merchant operating in Khotan, to his employer in Persia.

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