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24 posts categorized "Chinese"

21 February 2020

Guanyin: the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

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This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 - 23 Feb 2020. 

Bodhisattvas are sentient beings that seek enlightenment and embrace the principle of compassion to liberate others from suffering. In Buddhist practice, suffering is part of the cycle of rebirth and the level you are reborn is in a cause and effect relationship with your actions in previous lives. There are many levels that sentient beings need to attain before they achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha: the Bodhisattva level is the last step before Buddhahood. This blog post will introduce one of the most famous Boddhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, also known as Guanyin. It is important to highlight that Guanyin had actually become a Buddha known as 正法明如來 (“The Buddha who clearly understands the true law”) in the past. However, in order to make direct contact with sentient beings and lead them from suffering, this Buddha decided to step down and return as a Boddhisattva. This decision is known as 倒駕慈航 (Turning back the Ferry of Compassion). This blog will discuss the great compassion of this Bodhisattva from three perspectives: the name, the form, and the practice, all of which are centred around the needs of sentient beings.

Long Picture of Guanyin
Illustration of Guanyin. (Or.8210/S.9137)

The name: caring for all sentient beings

As Buddhism spread eastwards from its Indian heartland, Buddhist terminology in Sanskrit was adapted to other languages using either a sense-for-sense translation or a transliteration derived from the original pronunciation. For example, the name of Amitābha Buddha underwent transliteration to become ‘Amituo’ in Chinese. By contrast, Avalokiteśvara’s name was translated into Chinese based on its meaning and certain aspects of the Bodhisattva’s nature. This approach leaves more room for interpretation and, as a result, there are two common versions of the name, Guanshiyin and Guanzizai.

Guanshiyin, also known as Guanyin, is the name for this Boddhisattva that is seen in most sutras, such as the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. This translation comes from the Sanskrit “Avalokita”, which means to observe (觀[guan]), and “svara”, which means sound (音[yin]). In other words, the Bodhisattva is “the sound-perceiver” or the one who hears the sounds (of sentient beings) of the world (世[shi]). This name is also referred to the Universal Gate Chapter of Lotus Sutra, which says: “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva will instantly perceive the sound of their cries, and they (the suffering) will all be liberated”. One possible explanation for this name sometimes being abbreviated is that, in order to avoid the name of Emperor Taizong (598-649) of Tang: 李世民 (Li, Shimin), people took out the second character and shortened the name from Guanshiyin to Guanyin. Either way, this reflects the fact that Guanyin is conscious of the voices of the suffering calling for help and is committed to rescuing these beings in various ways.

Name of the Bodhisattva in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanshiyin (觀世音) appears in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. (Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance, 1838, Add MS 16329)

The second name for this Boddhisattva, Guanzizai, is an interpretation based on the characteristics of the Bodhisattva and the path that practitioners need to follow. It comes from a different, but more common Sanskrit root “Avalokita” + “iśvara” from which it is possible to derive the meaning of ‘one who can observe unimpeded’. This name appears in the Heart Sutra which is the condensed, but nonetheless sacred, text of the Sutra of Great Wisdom. It reveals the concept of emptiness and the fundamental truth that nothing is permanent. This Bodhisattva is the one who perfectly understands (or perceives: 觀[guan]) this rule of emptiness, leaves aside their worldly attachments, and attains the great freedom (自在[zizai]) that comes with this realisation. In this way, this Bodhisattva can hold all sentient beings in his heart and rescue them without any obstacles. Therefore, when the Heart Sutra was translated by Master Xuanzang (c.602-664) in the Tang Dynasty, Guanzizai was used in order to reveal this Boddhisattva’s nature and hopefully to encourage practitioners to follow the same path.

Detail of the name of Bodhisattva Guanzizai in the Heart Sutra
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanzizai (觀自在) shows in the lower middle part of the stupa of Heart Sutra (Heart SutraOr.8210/S.4289).

The form: depictions of Guanyin

While there are a few different names to refer to this Bodhisattva, there are even more different forms that Guanyin can take when appearing to sentient beings in order to guide them away from suffering.

One interesting development of Guanyin’s form is the way in which gender is represented. In general, the gender of deities in Buddhism are neutral and rarely discussed. Early depictions show Guanyin with a more masculine appearance, creating the impression that the original gender of Guanyin was male. However, the female form becomes more popular later in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in China. The reasons for this are linked to the historical context. Traditionally, China was a very patriarchal society; a system reinforced by Confucian principles which put pressure on women to obey their husbands and give birth to sons (instead of daughters). As a result, women were generally the ones asking for Guanyin’s help in order to achieve these goals. In addition, it was thought that a woman must commit to one man for her whole life (even after his death), therefore it seemed more appropriate for a woman to worship a deity in female form. In this way, Guanyin starts to take on more feminine qualities such as kindness and grace and, in female form, she is seen as more accessible to women.

Guanyin Bodhisattva in Female Form
Guanyin Bodhisattva appears in female form. (Vignettes Representing Manifestations of Buddhist Saints, before 1911, Add MS 10592)

So far we have discussed the work of Guanyin in isolation, but this Bodhisattva does not go it alone in the rescue business; Guanyin also works with Amitābha Buddha and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva to guide the dead to the Western Pure Land. This trio is known as the Three Noble Ones of the West. When pictured together, it would be easy to recognise the Amitābha Buddha as he is always in the middle but sometimes it can be a bit difficult to work out which attendant is Guanyin since the basic style of Bodhisattvas is the same. One clue would be the plant they hold in their hand; Mahāsthāmaprāpta holds a lotus and Guanyin holds a willow. The other indication is the item on their head; it is a vase containing his parents’ ashes on Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s head and a statue of seated Amitābha Buddha on Guanyin’s. In this case, when a person approaches death, they can call upon not only Amitābha, but also Guanyin to ask for guidance.

The Three Noble Ones of the West
The Three Noble Ones of the West (Photo credit: London Fo Guang Shan; posted with permission).

The practice: Guanyin as a guide

There are many different forms of Buddhist practice including meditation and chanting of texts such as dharanis or sutras. Certain dharanis and sutras can relate to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. The most notable ones featuring Guanyin are the Great Compassion Dharnai and the Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva.

Generally speaking, a dharani is a phrase or mantra, recited as sounds based on the original Sanskrit, which is believed to be powerful and protective. When someone chants the dharani, the related deity will come to provide their support. The Great Compassion Dharani, also known as Great Compassion Heart Dharani contains the power of Guanyin to rescue sentient beings. According to the Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion , this dharani contains the power to remove all horror and suffering and achieve perfection. Furthermore, the dharani can also help followers listen to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), enhance their wisdom, and guide the dead towards rebirth in a Pure Land.

Great Compassion Heart Dharani
Chinese manuscript of the Great Compassion Heart Dharani with annotation (Great Compassion Heart Dharani, 1700-1909, Or 6995).

A sutra is a canonical scripture recording the teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. As the name suggests, in this text the Bodhisattva indicates many ‘gates’, or methods for a follower to practice, and Guanyin will manifest in different forms in order to guide them. No matter who you are, Guanyin will appear in the corresponding role to teach you. The Bodhisattva also has the power to improve a bad situation. No matter what difficulty you find yourself in, when you chant the Bodhisattva’s name, he always is able to release you from suffering. Moreover, the sutra also reveals the power of Guanyin to provide followers with wisdom and fearlessness on the path towards Buddhahood.

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisvatta
The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Or.59.b.24).

The above perspectives all demonstrate the Great Compassion of this Bodhisattva since the name he goes by, the form he takes and the practices he upholds all have the needs of sentient beings at their heart, showing that he does his best to rescues them. However, it is also important to note that practitioners should not totally rely on the power of the Bodhisattva. The main objective is for the followers themselves to cultivate a heart as compassionate as Guanyin’s, and in doing so they will be following the path of the Bodhisattva in order to attain Buddhahood.

Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison.

CCBY Image

The accompanying volume to the Buddhism exhibition, "Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life", is still available for purchase at the British Library Shop and online

Reference:

Conversion table of Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ name

Sanskrit

Chinese

Pinyin

Avalokiteśvara

觀自在

Guanzizai

觀世音

Guanshiyin

觀音

Guanyin

Amitābha

阿彌陀

Amito

Mahāsthāmaprāpta

大勢至

Dashizhi

Conversion table of Sutra names

English

Sanskrit

Chinese

Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance

 

大悲懺儀軌

Heart Sutra

Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya

般若波羅密多心經

Sutra of Great Wisdom

Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra

大般若波羅蜜多經

Great Compassion Dharnai

Mahākaruṇādhāranī

大悲咒

Great Compassion Heart Dharani

Mahākaruṇā-cittadhāranī

大悲心陀羅尼

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Samanta-mukha-parivarto nāmâvalokiteśvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśaḥ

觀世音菩薩普門品

Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion

 

千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經

Lotus Sutra

Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra

妙法蓮華經

21 December 2019

Chinese Botanical Paintings in the British Library Visual Arts Collection

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Rita dal Martello is completing her doctorate at UCL and has completed a doctoral placement at the British Library in November 2019. 

In 2019 the Visual Arts team has been pleased to welcome Rita Dal Martello as the section’s PhD placement focusing on Chinese works on paper. Rita has primarily been working on translating, identifying and cataloguing a collection of over 300 watercolour painting of botanical subjects along with additional paintings related to Chinese furniture and interiors, methods of torture and also the Macartney Embassy to China in 1792-1794. This blog will explore some of Rita’s research related to the Chinese botanical paintings cared for by the Visual Arts team.

In 1975, a collection of Chinese botanical paintings was received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office comprising of 6 volumes of mostly quarto-size sheets of watercolour illustrations. On four different types of paper, the majority of the paintings are on paper watermarked Whatman 1794 II or Whatman 1794 I, whilst a small percentage are on cartridge type paper and a few on a very thin paper.

The paintings are provisionally dated to c. 1800, and are by unknown Chinese artists. 234 of the paintings represent flowering plants belonging to over 60 families, which have now been identified as including Rosaceae, Orchidaceae, Rutaceae, Fabaceae, Lythraceae, Ericaceae, Theaceae, Malvaceae, Magnoliaceae, Annonaceae, Apocynaceae, Asteraceae, Myrtaceae, Paeoniaceae, and Sapindaceae families, which have multiple examples across the collection. The remaining 76 illustrations in the collection are of unidentified flowering plants.

Over half of the identified plants are Asian ornamental flowers, such as orchids, azaleas, camellias, roses, chrysanthemums, peonies, magnolias and lilies among other.

Illustration of a camellia
Pale pink Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) by an unknown Chinese artist, c.1800. British Library, NHD 52/37  noc

The rest of the paintings illustrate mostly Asian economic fruit and legume species, such as oranges, peaches, pears, persimmons, wampees, kumquat, litchi, longan, Bauhinia, and rosary pea among other. Finally, a few examples of Asian trees are illustrated in the later volumes of this collection, including one example of a willow tree, Japanese oaks, pines, and tallow trees.

Nhd_55_032r copy

Sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis) by an unknown Chinese artist, c. 1800. British Library, NHD 55/32.  noc

Most of the paintings show one or multiple flowering leafy branches, with fruits illustrated on a separate, smaller branch on the side. The drawings and colouring are accurate, with detailed illustration of individual petals and stamens, and veins on the leaves’ surface.

The floral and fruit dissections are meticulously illustrated on the lower corners of the paintings; individual pedicels, sepals, pistils, stamens and petals are all represented in these dissected illustrations; for fruit dissections fleshy interiors and seeds are often represented both within the fruit and separately on the side, often dissected themselves. Leaves, flowers, and fruits are illustrated at different stages of their life cycle, including in buds, at full bloom, and decaying, as well as immature and mature for fruits.

The depiction of floral and fruit dissections was becoming the norm in botanical paintings and allowed botanists to accurately identify different plant species from illustrations rather than from living or dried specimens, which could die or become damaged in transit.

At least one third of the paintings present visible pencil underdrawings; these most often represent changes in the final painted outcome, but rarely whole flowers and fruits are drawn in pencil on front and have not been painted. One instance of upside-down pencil sketches mirroring the front painting is found on the reverse of NHD56/49.

Numerous inscriptions are present on the front and reverse of the paintings. On the front, these usually include a set of Chinese characters, written in ink either on the lower right or lower left hand corner; these typically relate to the Chinese common name of the illustrated plant, some have folkloristic names which have now become obsolete. On the front, always written in ink on the lower left hand corner, there is one of two sets of initials – ‘W. Ch.’ on 152 paintings, and ‘H. Sh.’ on 129 paintings. Additionally, about a third of the paintings also have Latin plant names, rarely with English translation, written in pencil on the front lower right hand corner.

On the reverse, Chinese characters and their corresponding Cantonese transliteration are written on the lower right corner in pencil; these usually match the characters written on front, but in a few paintings additional characters are written on reverse, indicating the edibility of the plants or other noteworthy characteristics. The Cantonese transliteration are written in European script.

On a number of paintings, flowering times are indicated through Chinese characters written in ink on the reverse lower left hand corner; this is present only in paintings that bear the front inscription of H. Sh.; flowering times are given in individual months, and these match current known flowering times of the species illustrated in South China.

During my time at the British Library, I spent many hours transcribing and translating all the different inscriptions on the paintings, including updating plant Latin names according to the most recent scientific knowledge. I also compared the British Library collection with other Chinese botanical paintings such as the William Kerr collection held at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as well as consulted online and printed Chinese floras. This allowed for the accurate taxonomic identification of many of the plant depicted which were previously catalogued as unidentified botanical illustrations. This will enhance greatly future research and discoverability of this collection.

The records of each individual painting, including detailed information regarding plant species depicted (both common English names and Latin names when available), painting composition, and inscriptions (both front and reverse) can be found on the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (NHD52, NHD53, NHD54, NHD55, NHD56, NHD57), or otherwise by searching for specific plant names.

These paintings are also available for consultation on appointment only, through contacting the Asian and African Studies Print Room Staff in advance.

Rita dal Martello, doctoral candidate at UCL  ccownwork

30 September 2019

Buddhism in Practice: The Yogacara Food Offering Service

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This is the fifth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

One of the distinctive features of the Mahayana (Eng: Great vehicle; Chi: 大乘) school of Buddhism is the emphasis on practising the compassion of bodhisattvas and acting for the benefit of not only individual but all sentient beings. One popular type of practice that embraces other sentient beings is that of offering food. The prime reason for offering food is to extend Dharma teachings to hungry beings while providing them with meals and releasing them from their suffering. As a result they can connect with the Dharma and be reborn in a better realm. This blog post will look at four items held in the British Library that are related to one of the most popular food offering services: the Yogacara Food Offering Service.

The Yogacara Offering Service or Yogacara Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 瑜伽焰口法會) is a Dharma service that offers food to beings in the hungry ghost realm (Chi: 餓鬼). Yogacara (Skt: Yogācāra; Chi: 瑜伽) is the name of a school of Buddhism and was interpreted by Master Deji (Chi: 德基大師) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as “the forming of gestures (mudra), together with the chanting of dharanis and mantras, and the mind in contemplation. When the body, mouth and mind connect, it is the Yogacara.” Burning-Mouth describes the appearance of the hungry ghost. According to the book Faxiang by the Venerable Tzu Chuang, there are ten negative behaviours that lead a being to be reborn as a hungry ghost: minor acts of negative physical, verbal, and mental karma, having many desires, having an ill-intentioned desire, jealousy, holding wrong views, dying while still attached to the necessities of life, dying from hunger, and dying from thirst. Negative karma furthermore results in three ways that hungry ghosts becomes unable to take food: water transforms into blood which they cannot consume; their narrow throats and burning-mouths prevent swallowing; and anything they try to eat will turn into charcoal. Only by relying on the Dharma (or ending the cycle of suffering) can these beings be rescued and leave the realm.

The Sutra of Ten Kings showing different realms a sentient being can be reborn into, including the Hungry Ghost Realm
The Sutra of Ten Kings showing different realms a sentient being can be reborn into, including the Hungry Ghost Realm (5th path from the right) (BL Or.8210/S.3961) Noc

The origin of the offering can be traced back to the Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (Skt: Pretamukhāgnivālāyaśarakāra-dhāraṇī; Chi: 佛說救拔焰口餓鬼陀羅尼經). One day, Ananda, one of the Buddha’s ten great disciples, was studying until late at night. Suddenly, a horrifying ghost named burning mouth (Chi: 焰口) appeared and said to Ananda: “You will die in three days and will fall into the realm of hungry ghost.” The ghost was extremely hideous – his body was emaciated, in his mouth burned a hot and foul-smelling fire, his neck was thin as a needle, his hair was messy, and he had claws that were long and sharp. Ananda asked the ghost how he could escape from this suffering. The ghost said: “You need to offer food to all the hungry ghosts and make offerings to the Triple Gem for me, then you can earn more years to live.” After hearing from the ghost, Ananda immediately went to see the Buddha and asked for help. The Buddha consoled Ananda and taught him the Dharani which holds significant power and can fulfil the ghost's request. The origins of most food offering services can be traced back to this sutra.

Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts
Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (BL Or.8210/S.4119) Noc

The fundamental content of the Yogacara food offering are the mantras from the Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts and the Ambrosia Sutra (Skt: Amṛta-rāja; Chi: 甘露經), which was translated into Chinese by Master Shichanantuo (Skt: Śikṣānanda; Chi: 實叉難陀) (652-710) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, due to various factors including turbulent social conditions and the rising of different schools of Buddhism, it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that more standard procedures of the food offering service started to be documented with commentaries by some popular branches. One of the well-known versions of this text was compiled by Master Tianji (Chi: 天機禪師) and was commonly known as the Tianji Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 天機焰口). Afterwards, Master Zhuhong (Chi: 袾宏大師) (1535-1615) added annotations and explanations to the Tianji version in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (Chi: 修設瑜伽集要施食壇儀). In the Qing Dynasty, Master Deji (Chi: 德基大師) deleted some parts of Master Zhuhong’s version and made some changes based on his own school. This became commonly known as the Huashan Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 華山焰口). Both the Tianji and Huashan versions are widespread, and are probably the main sources for the practice in circulation today.

Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Falming-Mouth FooAltar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (BL 15101.c.24)
Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (BL 15101.c.24) Noc

Although different schools might have different approaches to the food offering Dharma service, the central core of the content is mostly fixed. The principle components are as follows:

  • Purifying the altar (灑淨): Purifying the venue is necessary at the beginning of a big Dharma service. This section sometimes comes with restricting the area (結界) to set up the boundary for the service. Only those who are invited can come within this platform.
  • Inviting the Triple Gem (奉請三寶): The Triple Gem – consisting of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – is the main principle that Buddhists need to follow. The Buddha and Boddhisattvas are the teachers, the Dharma is the vehicle for delivering the principle doctrines to all sentient beings, and the Sangha is the medium for expressing the spirit of the Buddha and the Dharma. It is essential that all parts of the Triple Gem attend the service.
  • Opening the gates to hell (破地獄): There are eighteen hells, and beings endure different forms of suffering in each of them. Opening the gates to hell is not easy – only Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are powerful enough to approach the boundary.
  • Summoning (召請): In order to invite the hungry souls, permission from the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and Ten Kings of hell is compulsory. After their agreement, the service can welcome the souls to the altar.
  • Opening the throat (開咽喉): It is crucial to open the ghosts’ throats. Otherwise, they cannot eat food.
  • Encouraging the Bodhi mind (勸發菩提心): After the meal comes the primary purpose. In this section, the Venerables will encourage the hungry ghosts to listen to the Dharma and hope that they can cultivate their Bodhi mind (the mind striving toward awakening and compassion) which will lead them to liberation.
  • Completion & Sending Off (圓滿奉送): This informs everyone that the service is approaching the end. Everyone should return to their original realms.
  • Taking refuge in the Triple Gem (皈依三寶): This is a reminder to take refuge in the Triple Gem: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Triple Gem is the light shining in the dark ocean of suffering which we need to follow, practice and remind ourselves not to lose our way on the path to liberation.
  • Dedication of merits (迴向): In Mahayana Buddhism, although the individual can earn merit from practicing, the Dharma also teaches practitioners to embrace all sentient beings in their mind. In this way, the participants dedicate the merit they have earned during the service to all beings, not just themselves.

Opening the throat section in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Offering Service demonstrating the hand gestures (mudra) and mantras
Opening the throat section in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Offering Service demonstrating the hand gestures (mudra) and mantras (BL Or.2179) Noc

It is evident that the purpose of this Dharma service is to feed the hungry ghosts. However, the deeper significance is giving those who are suffering a chance to listen to the Dharma, initiate their Bodhi mind and liberate themselves from the realm. In addition, the service also gives the opportunity for practitioners to cultivate their Bodhi mind. This is an embodiment of the great compassion from all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that Buddhists need to learn about and practice as well.

Further reading:
Venerable Tzu Chuang & Robert Smitheram, Faxiang: A Buddhist Practitioner’s Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Buddha’s Light Publishing, 2012.


Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison
Ccownwork

17 August 2018

The Star Lovers

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The 7th day of the 7th lunar month has long been the date of the Star Festival 七夕 in East Asia, traditionally known as Tanabata in Japan, and as Qixi - or more recently as the ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’ - in China. It has always been a very popular festival celebrating the summer evening, and evoking the romantic legend of the star lovers who meet each other once a year by crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way.

Image1a
Above left is the Dunhuang Star Atlas, the oldest known manuscript of a star chart dating to around AD 700. On the right-hand image the Magpie Bridge, which corresponds to the constellation of Cygnus (= Celestial Ford 天津), has been indicated by a green dotted line, and the Milky Way is indicated by two parallel dotted lines in blue (neither feature is marked on the original Star Atlas). The boy lover, known as Niulang (牛郎) in the Chinese folktale, was identified in his original position as Niu su yi (牛宿一), also known as β Capricorni or Dabih Major in Western astronomy. The girl, Zhinü (織女) has always been and still is associated with Vega since the creation of the Dunhuang Atlas. British Library, Stein Collection Or.8210/S.3326. International Dunhuang Project http://idp.bl.uk/

However, the Star Festival is not only for celebrating romance. We first explored the origins of this festival and related astronomical subjects in two previous blog posts in August 2014: ‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1) and (2). This year we concentrate on how the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month has had a dramatic impact on both the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions.

Image2a
A young woman crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way. Grace James, Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Macmillan, 1910). British Library, L.R.26.d.7

One of the most notable references to the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Chinese classical poetry is probably ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret (長恨歌)’ by Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846). The inspiration for Bai Juyi’s poem was the doomed love between Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (唐玄宗帝 685-762) and his imperial consort Yang Guifei (楊貴妃 719-756). On the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, they vowed to be together forever. However, there was to be no happy ending, as Yang Guifei was assassinated.

Image3a
Front cover (left) and illustration (centre and right) of the Daoist master meeting with Yang Guifei in the afterworld (right). Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

Despite the passage of many years, Emperor Xuanzong still pines for his dead lover, Yang Guifei. Although he cannot cross the border into the afterlife, he commissions his Daoist master to seek out Yang Guifei, for whom he is still longing but can no longer see, even in his dreams. Eventually the Daoist master manages to meet Yang Guifei in the afterlife, and she asks him to pass her message to Emperor Xuanzong, calling her Imperial lover to a romantic reunion in the stars. Even though there is no explicit mention of the star lovers in the lines below, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month indubitably references the love of the celestial couple.

“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, in the Hall of Longevity,
At midnight, when nobody is around, this is when we will make our secret pact.
In the heavens, we vow to be as two birds flying wingtip to wingtip,
On earth, we vow to be as two intertwined branches of a tree.”

Image4a
“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month”. Chinese text with Japanese annotations. Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan for Japanese readers, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’ was already very well known among the Japanese when Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), who was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi in the 11th century, wrote ‘The Tale of Genji (源氏物語)’, and it is clear that she consciously included many direct or indirect references to Bai Juyi’s poetry.

At the opening of the story, the relationship of Genji's parents mirrors that of the Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, as Genji's father is the Emperor Kiritsubo and his mother is the most beloved one in his court. Genji’s mother dies young, leaving the Emperor in deep sorrow. While they were together, their favourite saying was “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch”, from the famous lines in ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’. Day and night, he repeatedly bemoans the shortness of her life, making his own but an empty dream.

Image5a
Chapter 41 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century. British Library, Or.1287, f.43

In Chapter 41, Genji is left alone as his wife Lady Murasaki dies. In this chapter, the episode of the night of the 7th day of the 7th month is described as Tanabata, the day of the blessing of the star lovers. Genji is not in the mood for celebrating romance, and he keeps on thinking of his late wife and composes this poem: “They meet, these stars, in a world beyond the clouds. My tears but join the dews of the garden of parting.” Although the symbolic lines “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch” were not quoted explicitly in his poem, they are evoked implicitly through the whole chapter.

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The celestial lovers - Kengyū (Niulang in Chinese) and Orihime (Zhinü in Chinese). Ikeda, Touri 池田東籬. Amanogawa sōshi 銀河草子. Tenpō 6 [1835.] British Library, ORB.30/3377

Konparu Zenchiku (金春善竹 1405-1470) composed a Noh play, ‘Yōkihi (楊貴妃)’, based on the latter part of ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’. The key motifs in his Noh play were the tragic separations and broken promises as the lovers believed that nothing could force them to be parted. The lines about the 7th day of the 7th month, the star lovers, tree branches and birds are repeated at the close of the Noh play, leaving the audience filled with sorrow.

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Yōkihi (楊貴妃) from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Sōfū Matsuno松野奏風. Nōga taikan : nōga nihyakuban ōzoroe 能畫大鑑 : 能畫貮百番大揃. Tōkyō: Seibi Shoin 東京 : 精美書院, 1936. Revised edition of the work originally published in 1934. British Library, ORB.45/153

Lovers in classical literature were aware that they could not thwart fate and that human life is full of uncertainty, but perhaps they admired the star lovers in the night sky as a symbol of eternal love, unobtainable in the real world.

References

Song of Everlasting Regret (Chinese & English translation)

The Tale of Genji (full English translation)

源氏物語と長恨歌

The Dunhuang Chinese sky: a comprehensive study of the oldest known star atlas

With special thanks to Professor Roberto Soria, University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, for identifying positions of the key constellations and the Milky Way on the Dunhuang Star Atlas.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections

 

05 June 2018

Another Chinese paper stamp in a Malay manuscript

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A few years ago, I became intrigued by the red ink stamps of Chinese paper makers occasionally glimpsed on the pages of Malay and Javanese manuscripts in the British Library, and in a post on Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper illustrated all the examples encountered so far. Recently, another example has surfaced, in a fine illuminated copy of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Muhammad Kasim in 1805. The manuscript was previously owned by John Leyden, and is therefore most likely to have been copied in Penang, where Leyden spent four months convalescing from late 1805 to early 1806. On the bottom left hand corner of f. 61 r is a red ink stamp of an animal, a rather rotund quadruped resembling a hippopotamus or rhinoceros.

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Initial illuminated frames of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Muhammad Kasim on 29 Jumadilakhir 1220 (25 August 1805), probably in Penang. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff.1v-2r.  noc

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Red Chinese paper stamp of an animal, in Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, 1805.  MSS Malay B.6, ff. 60v-61r.  noc

My interest in Chinese paper-maker stamps had been rekindled by the fascinating blog post about the history of printing in China by Emily Mokros, From the page up: the Peking Gazette and the histories of everyday print in East Asia. In the second installment of her post, Mokros highlighted the presence of papermakers’ stamps in mid-19th century manuscript copies from Canton of the Peking Gazette, and commented on the important role of Canton as a hub of the southern paper trade, serving both the Qing empire and markets beyond its shores in Southeast Asia. Although little research has yet been carried out on papermakers’ stamps, there has recently been interest in the subject, and Mokros provided links to the main references.

Particularly helpful is a blog post on Chinese paper stamps by Devin Fitzgerald of Harvard University in March 2017 noting the potential value of these stamps for the study of Chinese bibliography and codicology, and proposing the compilation of a database. In a response the following month, David Helliwell published all ten stamps that he had come across – by chance, rather than design – in the Bodleian Library’s collection. The most thorough study of the field to date is by Chang Pao-san of National Taiwan University. In his paper on Paper manufacturer hallmarks in rare Chinese books from the Qing dynasty, Chang proposes three categories of textual hallmarks:
Type 1: a red rectangular mark that clearly states the name of the manufacturer followed by the phrase “observed production” or “selected the material”
Type 2: a red rectangular mark that contains the name of the manufacturer and the type of paper, or only the name of the manufacturer
Type 3: a long, thin, red and blue mark of an images with parts of one or more characters. Sometimes there are no characters, only a red or blue image.

One aspect that Chang does not mention is pictorial elements, such as the animal mark found in the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah. That these pictures evidently functioned as easily recognizable trademarks is implied by the reference to the “Double Children Seal” of Changfa studios, a red ink stamp of two children holding a ball, found by Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel in a manuscript of 1798 in the National Archives of the Philippines, and published by Devin Fitzgerald in his post. Incidentally, the three related stamps documented by Ruiz-Stovel – the red ink “Double Children Seal”, accompanied by two blue ink textual seals in the name of Changfa studios – are exactly those noted in my 2014 post as having been seen by Midori Kawashima in an Islamic manuscript from Mindanao, suggesting the widespread use of that particular brand of Chinese paper in the Philippines.

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“Double Children Seal” of Changfa studios, in a manuscript from the Ahmad Bashir Collection at the Jamiatu Muslim Mindanao, Marawi City, Mindanao, Ms9; image courtesy of Mr. Mahdi Ahmad Bashir through Midori Kawashima.

Following David Helliwell’s example of collating all examples known so far, presented below are the four Chinese paper stamps found in Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library, with links (where available) to the catalogue entry and the digitised manuscript.

1. Panji Angreni., late 18th-early 19th century, Java. British Library, MSS Jav 17, f. 10v [not yet digitised]  noc
Chinese - 3

2. Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, 1805, probably Penang. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, f. 61r.  noc
Mss_malay_b_6_f061r

2. Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, early 19th century, Malay peninsula or Java. British Library, Add. 12382, f. 29v  noc
Chinese - 2

3. Syair Dang Sarat, early 19th century, Malay peninsula or Java. British Library, Add. 12381, f. 20r  noc
Chinese - 1

References:

Chang Pao-san, Paper manufacturer hallmarks in rare Chinese books from the Qing dynasty, presentation from the conference 'Texting China: Composition, Transmission, Preservation of pre-modern Chinese textual materials', University of Chicago, 11-13 May 2012; published as: 'Paper manufacturers' marks stamped in the rare Chinese books of the Qing dynasty', Bulletin of the Department of Chinese Literature, National Taiwan University, December 2012, 39: 213-246.
Devin Fitzgerald, Chinese paper stamps, blog post, 26 March 2017, Books and the early modern world: the research of Devin Fitzgerald
Annabel Gallop, Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper, blog post, 27 February 2014, British Library, Asian and African Studies
David Helliwell, Papermarks, blog post, 26 April 2017, Serica: some notes on old Chinese books by David Helliwell
Emily Mokros, From the page up: the Peking Gazette and the histories of everyday print in East Asia (2), blog post, 21 May 2018, British Library, Asian and African Studies

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

21 May 2018

From the Page Up: The Peking Gazette and the Histories of Everyday Print in East Asia (2)

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A follow up on the history of printing in China by guest blogger Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

One of the highlights of the British Library collection is that it includes many examples of gazettes published outside of Beijing. At provincial capitals, gazette publishers typically used capital editions supplied by couriers to reprint runs of the gazette on local paper. Before the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, which allowed representatives of Western countries access to the imperial capital, most British trade and diplomatic activity happened in port cities, especially Guangzhou (Canton) and the treaty ports that had been opened in 1842. For this reason, many of the British Library Peking Gazettes dating to earlier than 1860 are in fact reprints, mainly originating from Canton and Suzhou, a city not far from Shanghai.

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A page from an 1853 Suzhou gazette reprint (British Library 15440 – 1853, 2nd month pt. 2)
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Provincial reprints are not identical to their capital cousins, and they have much to tell us about the material culture of publishing in nineteenth-century China. Most Suzhou reprints appeared in pamphlets of a standard size, typically eight columns in width and twenty columns in length. These were roughly the same proportions as a compact book. This format may have appealed to subscribers who obtained gazettes in monthly packets (and thus easily bound into a book format), rather than the daily pamphlets available in the capital.

Canton reprints and manuscript editions evoke the commercial networks that supported print culture in South China and maritime Southeast Asia. Canton was a major urban market for the rural papermaking enterprises located in hinterland Guangdong and especially in its provincial neighbor, Fujian. In Canton, paper firms (zhihang 紙行) controlled by natives of nearby Foshan sold a wide range of paper products transported by waterways from the mountainous interior. Through the entrepreneurship of Foshan merchants, southern paper was sold and used throughout the Qing Empire. Both papermakers and these intermediate suppliers often left their mark on the page, in the form of stamps that served advertising and branding purposes, and some gazettes bear theses stamps.

The print quality of these reprints is strikingly different from the movable type editions produced in Beijing later in the 19th century. By contrast with the fairly wobbly columns of movable type in the Beijing editions, the columns of Suzhou reprints are far more uniform. There are still markers of individual types (see the last three characters of the second column from the right on the below page, where the borders of the individual characters are clearly visible). On the whole, this page – and other Suzhou reprints – exhibits a smudgy quality, which suggests that local gazette publishers went about the printing process in a different manner than their capital counterparts, in ways that we still do not fully understand. One working hypothesis is that they may have used an intermediate medium, perhaps a wax mixture, to create a stereotype as the basis for an imprint, rather than printing directly from the assembled wooden blocks.

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Papermakers’ stamps on Canton gazette copies (British Library 15440 – Left: 1832, 3rd month. Right: 1846, 3rd month)
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The stamps that I found on gazettes in the British Library collection include the name of the craftsman or brand, and advertise the quality and characteristics of the paper. While many book publishers likely trimmed off the margins and stamps, gazette purveyors were evidently less discerning. Notably, all of the stamped gazettes are manuscript editions, and may have been copied by scribes on paper purchased separately from paper suppliers.

Another tiny stamp, this one found on an 1849 gazette reprint tells that it was sold from the Jinyu lu shop (金裕祿全堂), located on Datang street. Datang street was the site of the local administrative offices and civil examination yards, and was therefore the center of government life in Canton. Both local administration and the imperial examinations were important markets for local printers and paper suppliers.

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Jinyu lu shop stamp on the cover of Jingbao (British Library 15440, 1849 vol. 2, daily edition)

The port city of Canton served as the hub of a maritime trade in paper that extended far beyond its shores. The paper trade left its marks on the city streets. Even today, there is a ‘Paper Merchants’ Street’ (zhihang lu 紙行路) in central Guangzhou. The antecedent of this street can be found on 19th century maps of the city, as seen below. A previous contribution to this blog, Malay Manuscripts on Chinese Paper (February 2014), describes the seal of a Chinese paper supplier, based outside the Taiping Gate in Canton (not far from that street), found on a Javanese manuscript from the early 19th century. Chinese merchant seals have also been found on texts in the Philippines and Japan (see examples collected by Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel, highlighted in Devin Fitzgerald’s blog entry).

Photo 10 East Asia Library_2000
Map of central Guangzhou (Canton) with sites including Taiping Gate, Zhihang jie, and Datang jie. From: Guangzhou fu zhi [Guangzhou Prefecture Gazetteer] (Guangzhou: Yuexiu shuyuan, 1879, juan 8). Image courtesy of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

Details like flipped and smudgy characters and incidental stamps may seem like trivial matters in the history of Chinese print culture, and indeed in the history of the Peking Gazette. However, our knowledge of Chinese book history is so dominated by elite tastes and collecting practices that these elements of commercial production and exchange remain virtually unknown. These fragmentary impressions on the page are hints at a complex history that encompassed a larger variety of materials, techniques, and geographical spaces than we previously thought possible.

Further Reading
Rutherford Alcock, “The Peking Gazette,” Fraser’s Magazine (1873): 245-256; 341-357.
Devin Fitzgerald, “Chinese Paper Stamps,” Books and the Early Modern World blog post, 26 March 2017.
David Helliwell, “Papermarks,” Serica blogpost, 26 April 2017.



Thank you to Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel for sharing their research in Chinese paper stamps.

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley
emilymokros@uky.edu

 

15 May 2018

From the Page Up: The Peking Gazette and the Histories of Everyday Print in East Asia (1)

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Today we  welcome back guest blogger Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley. This is the first of two posts on printing and moveable type in East Asia.

image from upload.wikimedia.org
Representation of movable type at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, the Beijing Olympics opened with a demonstration of four great inventions from China’s long history: the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. In particular, you might remember the dramatic representation of movable type: 897 performers manipulated movable type blocks representing the character he (harmony) in a series of historical script styles. The display spoke to the important role that this innovation played in Chinese, and indeed world, history. Readers with a knowledge of Chinese book history, however, are probably more familiar with books printed with solid woodblocks rather than movable type.

The British Library is home to a significant collection of texts printed using wooden movable type – this is the Peking Gazette collection. The Peking Gazette was a periodical record of government communications for the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The British Library collection includes a wide variety of editions from the nineteenth century. In my last post I described the significance of the Peking Gazette as a source for understanding the political and diplomatic history of China in the nineteenth century. In this, the first of two posts, I’ll highlight the ways these material sources shed light on little known aspects of the history of print in China. Peking Gazettes contain valuable clues as to the everyday applications of wooden movable type, the diversity of premodern print techniques employed by urban publishers, and even the routes by which print and paper were made, bought, and distributed in Qing China and maritime East Asia.

Xylography, or printing from wood, enabled a vibrant print culture to emerge in premodern Chinese empires. The fine detail of the British Library’s Diamond Sutra from AD 868, the oldest dated woodblock print example, makes it clear that woodblock carving and printing techniques were already very sophisticated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In later centuries, woodblock printed books became increasingly common, especially after an explosion of commercial publishing activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To print books from woodblocks, manuscript pages were commonly laid onto prepared blocks of hardwood, on which a block-cutter carved the text, columns, and other features in relief. After carving, a printer applied ink to the block, laid paper on the surface, and pounded the paper evenly with a special brush, producing an imprint. Depending on the quality of the block, thousands of imprints could be taken from a single woodblock before it required repair. The flexibility of this technology was a key factor in the flourishing book culture of early modern China.

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The woodblock is darkened by the use of black ink for printing. On the upper right side, the original colour of the wood is visible in a hole made for replacing a character (British Library Or. 14251)
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Despite its apparent rarity, movable type came into use quite early in the history of print in East Asia. In the eleventh century, the polymath scholar Shen Kuo wrote of a contemporary named Bi Sheng, who had invented an ingenious method of using fired clay to form movable types (huo zi 活字) for printing. According to Shen, Bi laid the clay type into a frame, the bottom of which had been painted with a mixture of ash and wax. After laying the type, the bottom of the frame was heated to fix the type in place, allowing the printing process to proceed in the same way as in traditional xylography. According to surviving descriptions, movable types of fired clay, wood, and metal (predominantly copper) were used in succeeding centuries to print both Chinese and non-Chinese script. Such editions are extremely rare today.

Today, the most prevalent examples of premodern wooden movable type printing in China come from two commercial enterprises: the printing of lineage genealogies, and of government gazettes. In genealogical printing, traveling printers carried a type supply and carved new types on a per-job basis. By contrast, gazette printing took place in cities, typically adjacent to government offices or the examination yards. Still, on the level of texts, these two seemingly disparate industries shared some important qualities. Both used a limited subset of the vast corpus of characters in the Chinese written language. Genealogies used a fairly circumscribed vocabulary, focusing on names, generational and familial terms (which could be recycled between jobs); gazettes contained summaries of official correspondence and employed the constrained vocabulary of bureaucratic language. In both cases, the producers did not have any use for retaining stores of carved woodblocks—instead, they wanted to produce a fixed and limited set of copies on a quick basis. In addition, while block-cutting labor was growing increasingly cheaper in early modern China, natural resources were limited. In particular, the durable and large-format hardwoods used for woodblock printing grew increasingly rare with the pressures of population expansion, urbanization, and wartime destruction. By using movable types, often carved from relatively soft woods, printers minimized their expenses. As a result, gazettes were cheaply available in urban markets.

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Jingbao pages printed in movable type (British Library 15440 – 1872 vol.1, pt. 1)
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These gazettes exhibit the visual markers of movable type printing. A low “shoulder” on carved wooden types allows us to see the imprint of square borders around characters. The occasional mistake in type-setting resulted in a flipped character. Most types were of individual characters, but printers also produced “double characters,” that held common two-character combinations. Daily gazettes typically numbered about ten leaves of paper (thus twenty pages), each containing up to seven columns of text. However, movable-type techniques freed the printer to create a wider page if needed. In the case of a long memorial, printers could fill a wider page and simply fold the page within the gazette.

Beijing, as the seat of the imperial government, was naturally the main hub for gazette publishing. At least ten publishers operated in late Qing (1860-1911) Beijing, clustering in the southern commercial districts of the city, close to Liulichang, Beijing’s lively market for books and antiques. Together, the publishers produced between one and two thousand gazettes per day. Of these, about two hundred were carried by government couriers to officeholders around the empire, but the majority were sold to capital residents. Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897) called this district “the Paternoster Row of the capital” (Alcock, p. 252), in reference to London’s news district, and described the cabinets of wooden type that lined the walls of the shops in a widely reprinted account in the English periodical press. Wang Zhonglin (1818-1878), a Chinese minor official, once wrote in his diary about an idle afternoon spent watching printers “hunting for characters to fill their blocks.”[1]

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Jingbao daily edition covers, in long octavo format , showing shop names on the lower part of the page. (British Library 15440,  1861 1st to 4th month)
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The publishers typically included their shop names on an opening page or the issue cover. The names of some of these publishers and these names attest to the use of movable types (as in juxing 聚興 “assembled prosperity,” in which the use of the character ju 聚 often refers to assembled types); more commonly they simply summoned auspicious themes, with recurring terms as in the recurrence of terms like “prosperity,” (xing 興) “advance,” (sheng 升), and “success” (cheng 成).

In my next post I'll be writing about some provincial gazettes published outside the capital.

Further Reading
Rutherford Alcock, “The Peking Gazette,” Fraser’s Magazine (1873): 245-256; 341-357.
Devin Fitzgerald, “Chinese Paper Stamps,” Books and the Early Modern World blog post, 26 March 2017.
David Helliwell, “Papermarks,” Serica blogpost, 26 April 2017.


Thank you to Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel for sharing their research in Chinese paper stamps.

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley
emilymokros@uky.edu
 ccownwork


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[1] Wang Zhonglin riji 王鍾霖日記, in Lidai riji congchao (Beijing: Xueyuan chubanshe, 2006), vol. 59: 483.

07 March 2018

Introducing the Lotus Sutra Project

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Conserving and digitising the Stein Collection's Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra at the British Library

The Lotus Sūtra, whose earliest known Sanskrit title is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. Through the medium of parables and short stories, it delivers the message that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. As such, it is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and it is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.

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Frontispiece of Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sūtra, "The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs" (British Library Or.8210/S.1511)    noc

The most prevalent versions of this Sūtra in Chinese are the Zheng fahua jing (徵法華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Correct law”), translated by the monk Dharmarakṣa between 286 and 288, and the Miaofa lianhua jing, (妙法蓮華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”), translated by Kumarajiva over a century later, in 406. There is also an alternative version called the Tianpin Miaofa lianhua jing (添品妙法蓮華經 “Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law"), compiled in 601 by the masters Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta.

Images and scenes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra can be seen in the murals adorning the caves of the Mogao Buddhist complex, near the oasis-town of Dunhuang, Gansu. An estimated 4,000 copies of the Lotus Sūtra were also found in one of the caves, commonly called the Library Cave or Cave 17. They are now dispersed across various institutions in Beijing, Paris, St Petersburg and London. In the British Library's collection, the Lotus Sūtra outnumbers all the other Chinese Buddhist texts brought back by Sir Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia (1906-1908). There are over a thousand manuscripts, some of which are scrolls measuring up to 13 metres long.

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End piece of Or.8210/S.54, with wooden roller  (British Library Or.8210/S.54)    noc

If a few have already been digitised and are now accessible via the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website, a large proportion has remained practically untouched since their discovery in 1907 and is currently unavailable online. Thanks to a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, in Hong Kong, work is now underway to address this issue. The aim of this four-year project is to conserve and digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese, with a view to make images and information about them freely accessible on the Internet.

For the past six months, I have been busy checking the condition of all these manuscripts in order to plan both the conservation and digitisation workflows for the years to come. I have been extremely lucky to be joined in this task by three colleagues from the British Library Conservation department, who have volunteered some of their precious time to assess the collection with me. Together, we have been writing up detailed condition status reports to facilitate future conservation treatment and handling during photography. Another important part of my curatorial role has also been to enhance information on each of the corresponding catalogue recor

Meanwhile, Vania Assis, full-time conservator for the project, has started conserving the scrolls. Although an initial estimate based on a sample of manuscripts had established that between 200 and 300 items would need to be conserved, the ongoing assessment of the scrolls has so far revealed that most of them require some level of intervention. They are extremely fragile: they present tears, missing areas, creases and other damage that make photographing them in their current state inadvisable. Vania has already completed treatment of more than 50 items and will tell you about her amazing work in a separate post.

The project's team should soon include two senior imaging technicians, who will be ensuring the digitisation of the Lotus Sūtra copies. We will let you know how the project progresses and will post updates as regularly as possible, so watch this space!

Mélodie Doumy, Curator, Chinese collections
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