Asian and African studies blog

44 posts categorized "China"

17 August 2017

Illumination and decoration in Chinese Qur'ans

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A seventeenth-century Qur’an from China in the British Library recently attracted much interest in a belated Eid show-and-tell arranged for the local community. This provides an ideal opportunity to go into more detail about the British Library’s collection of Chinese Qur’ans.

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The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in ṣīnī (‘Chinese’) script, part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r)

Visitors are always surprised when we show them a Chinese Qur’an, as they don’t automatically associate Islam with China. But in the eighth century, Muslim merchants were already trading in China and a community is known to have been established in Xi'an, where a mosque was built in 742. The impact of Islam in China was, however, not strongly felt until several centuries later during the Song and Yuan dynasties: the network of routes, known as the Silk Road, became the conduit for the spread of religious and cultural influences as well as for goods and merchandise.

Chinese Qur’ans were often produced in thirty-volume sets rather than in a single-volume codex, and many of our Chinese Qur’ans are sections (juz’) from a number of different thirty-volume sets. The script used was a variation of muḥaqqaq and penned in a way which suggests that the pen strokes were influenced by Chinese calligraphy. This is often referred to as ṣīnī (‘Chinese’) Arabic. A central panel is a prominent feature of Chinese Qur’ans on their decorated pages, which usually contain as few as three lines of text, with only a few words on each.
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The beginning of a late seventeenth-century Qur'an written in ṣīnī script. This volume is the third of an original thirty-volume set (BL Or.15571, f. 1v)

The assimilation of local traditions in Islamic manuscripts produced in areas not normally associated with the art of Islamic calligraphy and illumination is evident in Chinese Qur’ans. While the illumination and decoration have the same function in all Qur’ans, the influence of local style and culture is manifest, without infringing Islamic practice in sacred art. The adaptation of symbols common to Chinese art and culture is therefore felt very strongly. In the final opening of a seventeen-century Qur’an, a lantern motif has become the visual vehicle for the text in the diamond design in the centre of the lantern. The impression of a Chinese lantern is further reinforced by pendulous tassels attached to the hooks on the outer side of the structure.

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The decorated final text opening with lantern motif from a seventeenth-century Qur'an (BL Or.15256/1, ff. 55v-56r)

In the same Qur’an a decorative leaf, exemplifying the use of local flora, functions as a section marker indicating the halfway point in part six of a thirty-volume set.

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A decorative leaf serving as a section marker (BL Or.15256/1, f. 30v)

Chinese Qur’ans often incorporate vibrant colours and gold for typical motifs such as crescents and banners. The impression of petals in the shamsah (sunburst) illumination below is produced by the intricate design of overlapping circles.

A shamsah medallion placed before the beginning of the text (BL Or.15604, f. 1r)

Chinese influence is also visible in the swirling lettering of the basmalah inscription in this shamsah medallion occurring in an eighteenth-century Qur'an, Or.14758, part ten of a thirty-volume set.

Or14758_2r copy Or14758_binding copy
Left: The shamsah containing the basmalah, and right: the same design used as part of the design of the binding (BL Or.14758, f. 2r and front binding)

An  unusual Qur’an is a nineteenth-century volume of selections accompanied by a Chinese translation (IO Islamic 3440). The Chinese translations are placed sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle of the lines and occasionally between them.

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The beginning of Sūrah 36, Yasin from a nineteenth-century Qur'an with Chinese translation, formerly belonging to the presumably Muslim Admiral at Amoy (BL IO Islamic 3440, f. 13v-14r)

This Qur’an has an interesting history. It was presented to the India Office Library in 1883 by Hugh W. Gabbett, whose father Lt. (later Major General) William. M. Gabbett of the Madras Horse Artillery was Lord Gough’s aidedecamp when Amoy (Xiamen) was taken in 1841 during the First Opium War. A faded note in pencil on folio 1r by William Gabbett describes it as “A Koran found by me at Amoy found in the Admiral’s House. W. M. Gabbett” and “The most valuable Book yet found in China. W. M. G.”

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007.
Annabel Teh Gallop, “Was the mousedeer Peranakan?: In search of Chinese Islamic influences in Malay manuscript art”, in Jan van der Putten and Mary Kilcline Cody, Lost Times and Untold Tales of the Malay World. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009: pp. 319-339.

Colin F. Baker and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections

21 July 2017

Chinese shuttlecock: a game for all

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Ching Yuet Tang is a cataloguer on secondment from the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She is currently assisting with the retro-conversion of catalogue records relating to Chinese collections at the British Library.

When I started work on the cataloguing project on early printed Chinese materials in September 2016, little did I know that it would include an early twentieth century guide to a game that I used to play at school in my small village in Hong Kong.

‘Shuttlecock’, or, jianzi 毽子, is a favourite pastime in China, enjoyed for centuries by adults and children, both rich and poor. It can be played just about anywhere, at any time, and whether you are on your own, in a pair or part of a group. The aim of the game is to try to keep the shuttlecock in the air using only the feet, and to get as many kicks in as possible without dropping it. The item I encountered – Le Volant Chinois, written by Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy in 1910 – is a helpful illustrated manual providing detailed instructions for a total of 38 techniques, ranging from simple tricks to spectacular acrobatic displays!

The book starts with simple techniques, such as kicking using the left or right foot. British Library, 15235.b.1

It continues with the sideways kick. British Library, 15235.b.1

And then moves on to more advanced techniques, such as the crab-style kick. British Library, 15235.b.1

And even demonstrates jumping with both feet! British Library, 15235.b.1

Although jianzi can be bought from shops, they are incredibly easy to assemble at home too. It requires no more than a few feathers, some rubber bands, an old exercise book (preferably with a hardback cover for strength) and a pair of scissors. A jianzi is light-weight and pocket-sized, making it a perfect form of instant mobile entertainment in pre-digital times. It is easy to make, simple to play and, most of all, it is fun!

Cheap and cheerful: examples of shop-bought jianzi

Jianzi has a long history of over two thousand years. According to the International Shuttlecock Association (ISF) website, jianzi (or a version of it), can be traced to at least the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) if not earlier. It is believed to have evolved from an activity called cuju 蹴鞠 undertaken by military troops for relaxation and exercise. Over the years, its popularity grew and extended to people from all walks of life. This can be seen clearly in a nineteenth-century Chinese export album, in which two men can be seen having a go at kicking a jianzi made of chicken feathers. According to the description, they managed to score over 1000 points in a row.

A common street scene. The caption describes the basic components for making a jianzi, namely a small coin about the size of a halfpenny, some feathers and a piece of string. British Library, Or 11539

Another historical reference to jianzi is given at the beginning of Le Volant Chinois, which reads:

楊柳兒青放空鐘 « Quand le saule verdit, on lâche le diabolo :
楊柳兒死踢毽子 Quand le saule se flétrit, on lance le Volant. »

This is a quote from another early printed book also held in the British Library, Di jing jing wu lüe 帝京景物略 by Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng, an account of Beijing in the early seventeenth century. It discusses seasonal leisure activities pursued by ordinary people, and mentions jianzi as a typical winter pastime enjoyed by many.

In recent years, jianzi has been transformed from a folk leisure activity to a formal competitive sport on a national and international scale. It not only has well-established official rules but also strict specifications about the components of a standard jianzi, from its weight and dimensions down to the number of feathers and the texture of its plastic base. It is now played over a net and deploys some of the goal-shooting techniques of football. The shuttlecock is kicked towards the other side and points are scored when the opposing team is unable to return it, as in the case of volleyball or badminton. The game has singles and doubles tournaments for men, women and mixed teams.

According to the ISF, jianzi entered the international spotlight when a Chinese athlete from Jiangxu demonstrated it at the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936. The sport has since gained great recognition and has spread to many countries around the world. Since the foundation of the ISF in 1999, the list of official members has expanded to include England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Laos, Vietnam, Greece, France, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. Members take turns to organise their own championships and I am thrilled to hear that the 9th World Shuttlecock Championships 2017 will be coming home to Hong Kong.

Do not despair if you are not yet at competitive or championship level, as you can still enjoy a simple game of jianzi as a much-needed break from a busy modern lifestyle, while also keeping fit and active. So if you are looking for a new hobby, why not get inspired by the manual of Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy? You might just find yourself tapping into a hidden talent, and may soon be showing off your dexterity and endurance.

Further reading:
Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy, “Le Volant Chinois”, Bulletin de L’Association Amicale Franco-Chinoise. Vol. 2, no. 4 (October 1910): 319-35.
International Shuttlecock Association (ISF), “History of shuttlecock sport”.
Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng, Di jing jing wu lüe. (Published in China by an unknown publisher, between 1766 and 1795.)

Ching Yuet Tang, Cataloguer, Chinese Collections

21 February 2017

Knowledge Exchange visit to the National Library of China

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As part of “The British Library in China Project, the Library recently set up a series of Knowledge Exchange programmes with partners across mainland China and Hong Kong. Gemma Renshaw, Loans Coordinator at the Library, and Robert Davies, Editorial and Rights Manager of the Library’s Publishing team, were the two colleagues selected to visit the National Library of China (NLC) in Beijing in December. The aim of the trip was to learn from the host institution and to explore new terrain for future skills-sharing activities and collaboration.

01 Rob D and Gemma R in front of NLC_2000
Robert Davies and Gemma Renshaw on the first day of their visit to the National Museum of Classical Books at the National Library of China. © British Library in China

The British Library in China Project is a UK government-funded, three-year project designed to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. The first of a series of exhibitions will be held at the NLC from April 2017 and will feature 11 iconic items from the British Library collections, including an early edition of the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscripts. As part of this project, the Library is also developing a Chinese-language website based on the successful “Discovering Literature” platform, to introduce English literature authors and themes to the Chinese public.

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Ms Guo Ni from the NLC International Office welcomed the Library colleagues. From left to right: Robert Davies, Gemma Renshaw, Guo Ni and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

While working closely together to develop a large-scale, joint exhibition, the Library and the NLC are now collaborating in new and exciting ways. The preparation of the joint exhibition has involved several months of fruitful interactions, including video conference calls between teams in London and Beijing. These regular conversations have increased mutual understanding, which helps tremendously when two organisations have different working methods and operating languages.

For Gemma, one of the important objectives of this trip was directly related to the upcoming exhibition. She hoped to find out more details about the exhibition hall facilities and conditions, as well as to finally meet the colleagues in Beijing with whom she had remotely worked for so many months! Gemma writes:

(On the first day of visit) we arrived early at the NLC and were introduced to the Exhibitions and Property Management teams. They showed us around the gallery that we’ll be displaying our objects in and we talked about the display cases, the types of objects they usually show, how the exhibition hall can be laid out for our joint exhibition and how practical work is divided between the two teams. It was really helpful for me to talk to both teams because they split the work that is done by my department at the Library between them. Also, seeing for myself what the gallery and the store room were like allowed me to get answers to important questions regarding security and exhibition hall environment, which otherwise would require a lot of email exchanges and translation help from my Chinese-speaking colleagues at the Library.

Robert paid a visit to the National Library of China Press. This trip provided a valuable opportunity for Robert to build direct contact with the NLC Press. As Robert says:

The visit to the National Library of China Press was a fascinating glimpse into the very different context of museum and library publishing in China. Our counterparts at the NLC Press have a large staff (over 100!) and publish many deeply scholarly books, curating and preserving China’s traditional literary culture for a highly specialist audience. Compared to the BL press, the NLC press focuses much more strictly on its own collection and on Chinese books.

The British Library has longstanding relationships with NLC Press for key projects – works about the Diamond Sutra, for example – but we have never had direct publisher-to-publisher contact in the past. There are clear opportunities for strengthening our partnership in future years – for example, facsimiles of ancient Chinese books and manuscripts as well as the on-going project on the retro-conversion in electronic format of the catalogues of our exceptional holdings of Chinese material from the early republican period.

This visit gave me a unique chance to see these projects from the other side and to build direct contact with editors and publishers – who were generous with their time in showing me their neighbourhood near the beautiful lakes of Beihai Park in central Beijing and provided an extremely delicious Peking duck lunch….

In addition to the NLC press, Robert also visited one of the most popular local bookstores – San Lian Bookstore, which is open 24/7 and is so vast that it spreads over three floors in the central area of Beijing:

Visiting a flagship Chinese bookshop was a great opportunity to find out more about the market for books in China – how they are priced, what cover designs and binding styles are used, and how translated Western books are categorised and sold among Chinese original works. It was also surprising (and inspiring) to see a very traditional bookshop – no café, and no gift products – busy with customers, late into the evening.

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Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies with Mr Lei Qiang from the Exhibition Department of the NLC. © British Library in China

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A corner for audience participation at an NLC exhibition dedicated to the guqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument that was often associated with scholarly life. © British Library in China

The exhibitions on display at the National Museum of Classical Books of the NLC were particularly interesting and informative: new media and interactive technologies have found their way into the NLC exhibition displays and narratives. For Robert, the highlight of visiting the exhibitions was a guided tour of the oracle bones gallery, which has an immersive set-up supported by multi-media projection and ambient sound effect. The way that the exhibition curator had made a complex and specialist subject into an accessible, interesting and hands-on gallery was very impressive.

Other activities of the Knowledge Exchange visit to the NLC included a tour of the book conservation studio and of the Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy department. In the conservation studio, the traditional Chinese way of master-apprentice knowledge transmission is still very prominent, demonstrated by the way the room is arranged: the master conservators’ desks are positioned in the central area of the room while apprentices’ desks are on the right side of the room by the windows.

While we were there a conservator was working on her research on paper colouration. She was using Chinese brush and mineral paints and experimented combining the paint with a wide range of materials to see which combination would better match with that of an aged page from an old book. This type of approach to paper is rooted in the long history of bookbinding and book conservation in China.

The NLC conservation studio is equipped with very advanced technology machinery, including two labs for paper testing and analysis and a newly established Western Books conservation lab, which the studio manager very kindly introduced to us. This new lab is led by Xiao Yu, a young conservator who studied at the Camberwell College of Arts and has a remarkable knowledge base of both Chinese and Western book bindings and materials.

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Visit to the conservation studio at the NLC. © British Library in China

At the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy we were given a fascinating insight into the large collection of Chinese rubbings. Chinese rubbings are paper copies of the surface of engraved items or reliefs. As a technique, rubbings enjoy a long history of more than 1,500 years in China and East Asian countries. As objects, rubbings represent an invaluable medium for preserving the history and culture contained within important stone stele, bronze vessels and objects in other material such as brick and jade. We were shown how to make rubbings out of a beautiful ink-stone engraved with plum blossoms: a piece of traditional Chinese rice paper was laid flat on the ink-stone and carefully moistened with sprayed water. After the paper dried but remained stuck to the ink-stone, an inkpad with some ink was carefully and lightly pressed on the paper, leaving an ink impression of the plum blossoms image as the carved parts of the engravings were left white on the paper.

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An expert at the NLC showing how to make a rubbing out of the ink-stone engraved with a plum blossom pattern. © British Library in China

Creating a Chinese rubbing is a delicate task: it requires extensive experience to balance the level of the moisture in the paper, the quantity of ink and the correct pressure. The British Library’s Chinese collection hosts a collection of Chinese rubbings, and the Curators of the Chinese section hope to work together with the NLC in future to gain specialist knowledge on how to better conserve, catalogue, store and digitise them.

07 group photo at rubbings department
Experts of the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy at the NLC welcomed Library staff Gemma Renshaw and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

The Knowledge Exchange programme will continue alongside the three-year exhibitions project in China and will consist of a series of reciprocal visits between staff members of different areas and departments of the British Library and the Chinese partner institutions, including Shanghai Library and Mu Xin Art Museum in Wuzhen.

Tan Wang-Ward, Project Assistant to “British Library in China” Project, with thanks to Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies for their contributions.

25 January 2016

The British Library’s Collection of Chinese Propaganda Posters: An Overview

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And so my three months are up and I have completed the project: to compile and research a catalogue of the British Library’s Chinese propaganda posters. So what have I found out? Well, in the collection there are 90 individual items, considerably more than we believed there would be at the outset. The posters date from between 1950 and 1982, with the vast majority having been published in the mid-1960s, just before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), largely thanks to a couple of sets of what I have loosely described as ‘public information’ posters, dating from 1965. One set deals with what to do in the event of an enemy air raid, and the other with meteorological and agricultural observations.

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A detail from Qiang jiu shou shang ren yuan (抢救受伤人员), ‘Rescuing injured personnel’, from a set of wall charts (Ren min fang kong chang shi gua tu, 人民防空常识挂图, ‘People's Air Defence General Knowledge Wall Charts’), compiled by Tianjin shi ren min fang kong wei yuan hui (天津市人民防空委员会), the Tianjin People's Air Defence Committee, and published by Tianjin mei shu chu ban she (天津美术出版社), the Tianjin Fine Art Publishing House, in July 1965. British Library, ORB.99/79 (14).

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A detail from Qi xiang zhi shi (si). Yu qing he shang qing (气象知识 (四). 雨情和商情), ‘Meteorological knowledge 4. Rainfall and soil moisture content’, from a set of wall charts (Qi xiang zhi shi gua tu (gong xiao xing zhan lan), 氣象知識挂图 (供小型展览), Wall chart of meteorological knowledge (for small scale exhibitions)’, compiled and published by Tianjin shi ke xue pu ji xing xiang zi liao she (天津市科学普及形象资料社), ‘Tianjin popular science image resource group’, in February 1965. British Library, ORB.99/87 (4).

Overall the poster collection covers a range of genres, from new nian hua and revolutionary romanticism – a fusion of socialist realism and guo hua brush and ink painting – to photographic portraits. I have categorised them according to a number of different themes:

•    Posters related to the Mao cult, including colourised and heavily airbrushed photographic portraits of Mao Zedong dating from the late 1960s, and several examples of his calligraphy (and poetry).
•    A series of posters featuring chubby babies and children, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s, several of which promote the one child policy.
•    Revolutionary nian hua prints, dating from the early years of the People’s Republic, and which I looked at in depth in my last blogpost.
•    A set of posters featuring the ubiquitous and (probably) semi-mythical soldier-hero Lei Feng (雷锋) and which eulogise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
•    A fairly rare set of posters featuring satirical caricatures of the ‘Gang of Four’ (si ren bang, 四人邦), the group headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and which was blamed for the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976.
•    The aforementioned sets of public information posters dating from 1965.
•    Documentary and feature film posters - the Library’s collection seems fairly unique in this respect; these are not something I’ve seen in large quantities in other collections.
•    Posters featuring scenes taken from the revolutionary model works (yang ban xi, 样板戏), including ‘The White Haired Girl’ (Bai mao nü, 白毛女), ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’ (Hong deng ji, 红灯记) and ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (Hong se niang zi jun, 红色娘子军).

While copyright implications have stymied the original plan to digitise the collection and make it publically accessible online, the catalogue – minus images – will shortly be available to download as a PDF from the new Chinese collection webpages.

Over the last three months I have had an absolutely fantastic time. It’s been a great experience to work at the Library and I was made to feel very welcome. The project has provided me with plenty of research material for the future, and what a privilege it was to get hands-on with the collection!
All that remains is for me to thank Professor Robert Bickers and BICC for funding the project and Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, curators of the Chinese collection at the British Library for hosting me.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral researcher  Ccownwork

11 January 2016

Last Chance to See: Records of a lunar eclipse from over 3,000 years ago

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FINAL WEEK: The exhibition ‘Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing’, which features the oracle bone described here, is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library until 17 January 2016.

Today’s post was written with the help of Dr Roberto Soria, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Curtin University in Western Australia. We are grateful to him for his expertise and valuable contributions.

The significance of the inscribed oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BC) for the study of Chinese civilization cannot be overestimated. Not only do they bear the earliest known examples of the Chinese written language and are therefore of great significance to linguists, but they are also the earliest primary source of documentary evidence for a much-disputed period of Chinese history. Through deciphering these texts scholars gained unprecedented insight into the concerns of the time, sometimes with astonishing historical detail. An excellent example of this is Or.7694/1595 (Yingcang 886)[1], a bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection at the British Library, which records a lunar eclipse that can be precisely dated to the night of the 27 December 1192 BC.

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Shang dynasty oracle bone containing a reference to a lunar eclipse (British Library Or.7694/1595)
Oracle bones – primarily the shoulder bones (scapulae) of sheep or cattle and the flat under-shells (plastrons) of tortoises – were central to an ancient divination ritual during which questions were posed to the ancestors of the Shang royal house and the answers interpreted from the distinctive Ⱶ-shaped cracks that formed in the bones when heat was applied to pre-prepared hollows on the underside. Although this practice, known as ‘pyromancy’, can be traced back to Neolithic times, its heyday seems to have been during the last two centuries of the second millennium BC (i.e. the late Shang) when the Shang cult centre was at Yin 殷, near modern-day Anyang. Over 150,000 oracle bones are thought to have originated from there, approximately 50,000 of which bear inscribed records of the questions, answers and outcomes of the divination process.

Central to this divination ritual is the belief that the ancestors of the Shang ruling house had the power to predict and influence events on earth. The extent of their perceived influence is evident from the range of topics touched upon in the oracle bone inscriptions, including warfare, agriculture, hunting, dreams, illness, natural disasters and astronomy. The darkness caused by a solar or lunar eclipse was deemed a negative omen, indicating an ancestor spirit in need of mollification.

The text inscribed on Or.7694/1595 records one such lunar eclipse and even includes evidence of the date on which it occurred. In the introduction to Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Allan, Li & Qi 1985) it is described as ‘a series of inscriptions proposing that there will be no misfortune during the coming ten-day week. Following the inscription made on the gui-chou day (50th of 60-day cycle), a verification inscription on verso confirms a lunar eclipse on the geng-shen (57th) day.’ This ‘verification inscription’ reads as follows: 

已未Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 20.04.32庚申月㞢[食]           
“[In the night between] jiwei (day 56) and gengshen (day 57) the moon was eclipsed”

Over the years, a number of studies have been carried out by astronomers and sinologists alike in order to calculate the precise date of this and other eclipses recorded on oracle bones according to Western dating conventions. The date for this particular lunar eclipse has been verified as having taken place between the 27th and 28th December 1192 BC. Dr Roberto Soria has confirmed that the total phase of the eclipse, viewed from Anyang, would have lasted from 21:48 to 23:30 (±17 minutes) local time.

This is shown in a diagram generated by NASA:

A diagram of this eclipse from NASA’s Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses (Espenak & Meeus 2009)

In case you were wondering (as we did) why this diagram has the date -1191 rather than -1192, Dr Soria explains: ‘the astronomical negative years in the “Canon” must be increased by one to secure historical years BC. The reason is that the Julian calendar[2] does not have a year 0, it went straight from 1 BC to AD 1. However, any automatic computer program that calculates the position of the earth and moon cannot handle this jump… So, NASA’s dates plotted in those tables are “fictitious” years that go…, -2, -1, 0, 1, …, but keeping in mind that 2=AD2, 1=AD1, 0=1BC, -1=2BC…-1191=1192BC…’.

According to Dr Soria, the historical dates and times of lunar eclipses are also important to geologists and astronomers because they allow them to measure how the earth rotation has been slowing down over the centuries. The average day has got longer by about five hundredths of a second since the Shang dynasty. This may seem like a small quantity, but a difference of a few 1/100 seconds each day, 365 days a year, over 3000 years, means a total delay of several hours accumulated from the Shang dynasty to today.

Interestingly, there is another bone which refers to the same lunar eclipse held in the Hopkins collection at Cambridge University Library (CUL 1, Yingcang 885), one of the nearly 900 oracle bones purchased by Lionel C. Hopkins (1854-1952) from the American Presbyterian missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862-1914) who also helped to form the collection here at the British Library.

Emma Goodliffe, Curator, Chinese Collections

Further reading:

Sarah Allan (Ai Lan 艾蘭), Li Xueqin 李學勤, and Qi Wenxin齊文心, Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Chinese title: Yingguo suocang jiagu ji 英國所藏甲骨集), Zhonghua shuju, Beijing, 1985 (Part I, 2 volumes) and 1991 (Part II, 2 volumes)
Chou Fa-kao, “On the dating of a lunar eclipse in the Shang period”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25 (1964-5): 243-247
Homer H. Dubs, “The date of the Shang period” T’oung Pao. 40 (1951): 322-335
Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus, Five millennium canon of lunar eclipses, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2009
Han Yanben and Qiao Qiyuan, “Records of solar eclipse observations in ancient China”, Science in China Series G: Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, 52, 11 (2009): 1639-1645
David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978


[1] ‘Yingcang’ numbers are the reference numbers used in Yingguo suo cang jia gu ji (Allan, Li and Qi 1985-92).

[2] The Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar that was later superseded by the Gregorian calendar.

31 December 2015

Revolutionary nian hua in the British Library

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Nian hua or New Year prints are bold and colourful Chinese woodblock prints, which date back at least to the seventeenth century (Lust 1996: 1). Mass-produced, affordable and designed to celebrate most notably the Spring Festival (also known as ‘Chinese New Year’), they are typically full of auspicious symbols for conferring wealth, longevity, happiness and good fortune on the family. Deities such as stove and door gods, flora and fauna, including the animals of the Chinese zodiac, and well-fed male babies are all common subjects of these posters.

Barnes nian hua
The nian hua prints shown below are housed in a blue silk-covered folio case, decorated with a paper-cut style design. The title reads  Xin nian hua xuan ji (新年畫選集), ‘Selected New Year Prints’. British Library, ORB.40/644 (15)

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted new or ‘revolutionary’ nian hua as early as the second half of the 1920s, because the woodblock print was an attractive, familiar and accessible format, it appealed to the target rural audience, and was easily and widely distributable. Crucially, it was a uniquely ‘national’ form (see Hung 2000: 775; Flath 2004: 146); something ‘past’ which could, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, ‘serve the present’. But the communist authorities did away with subjects associated with religious and so-called ‘feudal’ beliefs, replacing them with revolutionary themes, and shifted production from local workshops to state supervision. In his important study of nian hua, James Flath (2004: 139) recounts a discussion between Mao Zedong and Gu Yuan, a famous print artist, about new nian hua: Mao ‘suggested that Gu Yuan design new “Door Gods” to replace the traditional styles. “How shall I draw them,” Gu Yuan asked; “You know, I don’t believe there really are any gods.” Mao answered, “Make them look like peasants.”’. Hung (2000: 779-780) notes that the door gods ultimately transmogrified into peasants, workers and soldiers: the Maoist trinity.

After the establishment of the PRC, while woodcut-style prints remained popular (as we will see below), new nian hua started to incorporate the work of artists working in different types of media and genres (Shen 2009: 10). From the 1950s on, we begin to see reproductions of oil and brush-and-ink paintings, for example, reproduced as nian hua. Unlike other types of propaganda poster, which were produced all year round, revolutionary nian hua, much like their pre-revolutionary antecedents, were designed and published with a view to getting them in book shops and other outlets in time for the New Year festivities.

I would like to focus here on the set of bold and colourful woodblock-style nian hua in the British Library collection briefly mentioned in my last post. Each print is by a different artist based in provinces and cities across the nation. While they make use of a woodblock-style aesthetic, it is likely that they were actually printed using offset lithography, which allowed for ‘flexibility’ and ‘freedom’ in the design and manufacturing process and, presumably, sped up and facilitated mass production (Hung 2000: 776).

The set was published in 1950, around the time of a major CCP directive calling for the production of new nian hua and the genre’s heavy promotion via exhibitions and special publications (Hung 2000: 776; Flath 2004: 146). The fourteen nian hua, presented in a blue silk-covered folio, reflect the early concerns of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), just a year after its foundation, particularly land reform (which saw the redistribution of agricultural land from landowners to peasants), but also policies promoting literacy and agricultural production (many of the prints in this set depict bountiful harvests). Several others reflect or perhaps, more accurately, promote the burgeoning personality cults of Mao Zedong and his Inner Mongolian counterpart at that time, Chairman Ulanhu, also known as Yunze. The prints are in a modified nian hua style that Flath (2004: 143) credits to the afore-mentioned Gu Yuan: a narrative style with a ‘simplified political message’.

In Sheng chan ji hua (生产计划), ‘Making a plan’, by Liu Jilu (劉繼鹵), of Tianjin – a city in north-east China – a group of peasants are shown engaged in discussion and drinking tea while resting in a field. In the background, a number of other labourers plough the field with oxen. The titles, artists and place names are given in traditional characters, for simplified characters were not introduced until the mid-1950s, several years after the publication of this set of nian hua.
A detail from Sheng chan ji hua (生產計劃), ‘Making a plan’, by Liu Jilu (劉繼鹵), of Tianjin. Revolutionary nian hua, published in 1950 by Zhong hua quan guo mei shu gong zuo zhe xie hui (中华全國美術工作者拹會), ‘The Chinese National Fine Art Workers' Association’ in Beijing (北京) and distributed nationwide by Xin hua shu dian (新華書店), Xin hua [‘New China’] bookshops. British Library, ORB.40/644 (1)

A number of the prints that deal with ‘ethnic minority’ subjects also feature titles translated into Mongolian and Tibetan. For example, Jian zheng huan xuan hao ren (建政懽選好人), ‘Good people happily select a government’, by an Inner Mongolian artist, whose name is transliterated in Chinese to ‘Wulejibatu’ (烏勒吉巴图), depicts a busy scene of people voting, perhaps for local representatives. The Mongolian text above the frame gives a similar title. (With thanks to Eleanor Cooper, Curator of Manchu and Mongolian collections at the British Library, for translating the Mongolian script used on several of the nian hua prints).
ORB 40 644 (12)
A detail from Jian zheng huan xuan hao ren (建政懽選好人), ‘Good people happily select a government’, by ‘Wulejibatu’ (烏勒吉巴图) of Inner Mongolia (Neimeng, 内蒙]). Revolutionary nian hua, published in 1950 by Zhong hua quan guo mei shu gong zuo zhe xie hui (中华全國美術工作者拹會), ‘The Chinese National Fine Art Workers' Association’ in Beijing (北京) and distributed nationwide by Xin hua shu dian (新華書店) 'Xin hua [‘New China’] bookshops'. British Library, ORB.40/644 (12)

Despite their heavy promotion, the new nian hua failed to appeal to the masses, according to Hung (2000: 784-798). People had enjoyed the old, familiar stories purged from nian hua by the cultural authorities, and the new versions were too naturalistic compared with the stylised representations and techniques of the old prints. The new nian hua were thought of as elitist by the very audience to whom they had been designed to appeal; some were considered to be insufficiently colourful, as muted colours were selected over bright, while others were deemed too colourful, using a larger palette than consumers of old prints had been used to; and they were no longer ‘auspicious’, devoid of their old meanings and unfit for purpose. Hung (2000: 798- 799) provides evidence that the new nian hua were largely, and unsurprisingly, a flop. Their production - at least in this form, imitating woodblock prints - dramatically dropped towards the end of the 1950s. These examples are, therefore, very much of their time and, while they were not necessarily favourably received by their intended audience, they provide much evidence of a period of rapid cultural reform and the key policy concerns of the CCP in the early years of the People’s Republic.

Other collections of nian hua:
Examples of traditional nian hua can be seen in James A. Flath’s gallery of prints online. 
The Ashmolean Museum holds similar folios and prints.
Prints are also found in the Royal Library of Denmark (not yet digitised).

Flath, James A. 2004. The Cult of Happiness: Nianhua, Art, and History in Rural North China. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press; Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Lust, John. 1996. Chinese Popular Prints. Leiden: Brill.
Shen, Kuiyi. 2009. ‘Propaganda Posters in China’. In Landsberger, S. R., Van der Heijden, M. (eds). Chinese Posters: The IISH-Landsberger Collections. New York and London: Prestel: 8-20.
Hung, Chang-Tai. 2000. ‘Repainting China: New Years Prints (Nianhua) and Peasant Resistance in the Early Years of the People’s Republic’. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 42 (4): 770-810.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral Researcher Ccownwork

07 December 2015

The Chinese collections and the Library’s growing links with Chinese partners

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The Chinese collections at the British Library contain more than 100,000 printed books and 2,500 periodical titles. The earliest acquisitions of Chinese material were from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum. The collection includes notable printed pieces from the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Diamond Sutra (Jingang jing), as well as 24 volumes (corresponding to 49 chapters) of the Yongle Dadian. The Chinese collection at the British Library also includes a unique series of more than 450 pieces of oracle bones (jia gu). They are dated between 1600 and 1050 BC (Shang dynasty), and this makes them the oldest items in the Library.

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The earliest Chinese script: Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or.7694/1516 Noc

The Library has always engaged strongly with international partners and researchers, including many institutions in East Asia. The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) was founded in 1994 as a collaborative project with the National Library of China as a founder member. Its remit is the conservation, cataloguing, research and digitisation of the material from Dunhuang and Chinese Central Asia now held in institutions worldwide. The Library’s collaboration with the National Library of China goes back to the 1980s when the BL and the NLC first started consulting together on this material. IDP now includes eight partners around the world, as well as several other collaborating institutions.

Our international cooperation activities with Chinese partners cover the following main areas: the conversion of the Library’s Chinese collection catalogues from microfiche and card formats to electronic records, the digitisation of selected items, the production of facsimile copies of Chinese rare items for distribution in China and worldwide, and the exchange of expertise and skills in different areas. These activities aim at enhancing access to the Chinese collections, within the broader framework of Living Knowledge and our aim of making the Library’s collections “accessible to everyone, for research, inspiration and enjoyment”.

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Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian, signs a Memorandum of Understanding with the Director of Shandong University Zhang Rong in London on 3 December 2014.

2015 has been a remarkable year for the Library’s engagement with China: five agreements have been signed with three Chinese institutions (the National Library of China, the National Library of China Press, and Shandong University) and two digitisation projects were completed (the Yongle Dadian collection and the oracle bones collection). Furthermore, IDP signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ningxia Archives for a collaborative project to conserve and digitise the Tangut manuscripts and block prints in the Library.

This year, the Library also received £62,500 from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport for a project involving the digitisation and the conservation of the oracle bones collection, working in partnership with the National Library of China. The Treasures Gallery free exhibition Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing opened in September, and the crowdsourcing platform LibCrowds has been launched in cooperation with BL Labs. We are already receiving contributions from China, and we hope to be able to increase the number.

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Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing will be open until 17 January 2016 (photo by Tony Antoniou)

The latest exciting project was announced on 21 September 2015 on the occasion of Chancellor George Osborne’s recent visit to China, during an event at the National Theatre in Beijing hosted by the British Council, attended by the Library’s Chief Executive Roly Keating together with other leaders from prominent institutions in the UK’s cultural sector. For the first time, ten manuscripts and early editions from the Library’s collection by some of the best-known British authors of all time, including William Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will star in exhibitions across China between 2016 and 2019. As part of the same project, the Library’s learning website Discovering Literature will be translated into Mandarin, giving unprecedented exposure to the Library’s collections for new audiences.

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Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623. British Library, G.11631 Noc

All the projects supported by the government aiming to take the best of British culture to Chinese audiences are listed on this HM Treasury page.

Sara Chiesura, Asian and African Studies Ccownwork

12 November 2015

BICC Cultural Engagement Partnership: Maoist posters at the British Library

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Today's guest post is by Dr Amy Jane Barnes, a post-doctoral researcher who is carrying out a study on the British Library collection of Chinese propaganda posters, as part of a Cultural Engagement Partnership with BICC, the British Inter-University China Centre. During the course of this project, she will assist the curators in cataloguing the Library’s collection of Chinese propaganda posters, as well as investigate opportunities for its digitisation and display.

Dr Barnes has a background in Asian Art History and her doctoral research looked at the collection, interpretation and display of the visual culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in British museums. She is the author of Museum Representations of Maoist China (Ashgate, 2014).

(Sara Chiesura, East Asian Collections)

Dr Barnes working in the Chinese section of the Library

During my three months at the British Library I aim to catalogue the Library’s collection of Chinese propaganda posters from the 1950s to 1980s and research several academic papers, as well as investigate the possibilities for digitising and making the collection more accessible to a wider audience. The project also gives me the opportunity to develop my Chinese language skills, albeit a very specialist vocabulary relating to revolutionary ideology!

The first week of the project was predominantly taken up with induction-related activities, sorting out IT access, getting to grips with collections procedures, meeting my new colleagues and investigating the collection in the British Library stores with curator Emma Goodliffe – we found lots of things we were expecting, but a few we weren’t, including an exquisite set of revolutionary nian hua (年画, “New Year’s prints”) dating from 1950. From an initial estimate of around 40 posters, we eventually located over 70. And there are many plan chest drawers still to investigate, so we may yet turn up even more!

With the formalities out of the way, towards the end of the week I started to photograph, research and catalogue the collection. The posters may be organised thematically – there are examples of public information posters, posters relating to the Mao cult, nian hua ‘catalogue’ posters, so-called ‘chubby baby’ posters and a fair number of anti-Gang of Four cartoons and caricatures. But I have begun with a group of posters which depict scenes from feature films and model operas.

For example, one of the posters in the collection, which was published by the Shanghai Revolutionary Press (Shanghai fu chu ban ge ming zu chu ban, 上海巿出版革命组出版) in 1970, depicts, in dynamic pose, the ‘proletarian hero’ Li Yuhe from the revolutionary opera Hong deng ji (红灯记) (“Legend of the Red Lantern”), one of the eight “model works” (yang ban xi 样板戏) performed in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) (British Library ORB.99/174).

And in another, stills from the 1975 film Feng huo shao nian (烽火少年) (“Beacon of Youth”), produced by the Beijing Film Studio (Beijing dian ying zhi pian chang she zhi, 北京电影制片厂摄制), are accompanied by a synopsis of the plot (British Library ORB.99/171).

The brightly coloured and attractive poster below, for the romantic film Wu duo jin hua (五朵金花) (“Five Golden Flowers”) (1959), was quite tricky to identify at first, given its use of a highly stylised script that barely looks, but I am assured is, Chinese! This style reflects the emphasis on ethnic minority culture in the film’s plot, in which the hero tries to find a girl called Jinhua whom he had met at the same festival the previous year.In the course of the film he meets four other girls called Jinhua (See the plot summary here). Together, they are the “Five Golden Flowers” of the film’s title and are represented, on the poster, in the four roses and the flower held by the original Jinhua, who is seated on a rock at the centre of the scene. At first glance, it may not appear that film has overtly propagandist intent, but commenters have noted that the narrative supports the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) – a programme of industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation.
Poster for the 1959 film Wu duo jin hua (五朵金花) (“Five Golden Flowers”) produced by the Changchun Film Studio (Dian ying zhi pian chang she zhi, 长春电影制片厂摄制). Poster published by the China Film Corporation (Zhongguo dian ying gong si fa xing, 中国电影公司发行). (British Library ORB.99/172).

In order to catalogue the items, I am making a record of materials, measurements and content, as well as noting down the condition of each poster and highlighting those that might need the attention of a conservator. I have also been making rough translations of the text that appears on the posters – the types of information we need in order to determine the identity of potential copyright holders, such as publishing houses and distribution companies. My knowledge of Chinese (and set of Pleco flashcards) is expanding exponentially.

Over the next few weeks I intend to continue to photograph and catalogue each item in the collection. Then begins the exciting work of researching them in depth.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral Researcher