Asian and African studies blog

21 posts categorized "Chinese"

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.

02 Guoni welcoming BL staff_2000
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.

03 NLC exhibition with Lei Qiang_2000
Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies with Mr Lei Qiang from the Exhibition Department of the NLC. © British Library in China

04 audience participation corner_2000
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.

05 Visit to the conservation studio_2000
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.

06 expert at rubbings department_2000
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.

24 May 2016

Tang Xianzu, the great Ming dynasty playwright

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This year the Library celebrates one of the greatest literary figures of all time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), with a major exhibition and a rich series of events and on-line resources. Coincidently, two other world-famous writers died in the same year: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550–1616). To commemorate these two writers, the Library recently presented in its permanent free exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the display Imagining Don Quixote, and is currently showing a selection of woodblock printed editions from Tang Xiangzu’s work. For those who cannot visit the British Library to see the display on Tang in person, this blog post presents some information on the exhibits.

Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest Chinese playwrights. He was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi province, and worked as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620) of the Ming dynasty. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece is called the ‘Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭 Mudan ting). The ‘Peony Pavilion’ was written and staged for the first time in 1598 and performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng, one of the great Chinese towers in Southern China. It is still one of the most beloved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.

Tang blog 1 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. In this illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the text, we can see the opening scene, when the sixteen-year-old Du Liniang falls asleep in the garden and starts dreaming. British Library, 15327.b.15 Noc

The term ‘opera’ is often used in reference to Chinese theatre as it was common for dramatic performances to be highly choreographed and punctuated by singing and musical accompaniment. There are many forms of Chinese opera, but the ‘Peony Pavilion’ is traditionally performed as a kunqu or ‘Kun opera’, a style developed in the early Ming period, which combines spoken parts with singing and dance movements.

Tang blog 2 by Sara
The Peony Pavilion performed in Venice on 15th of June 2010 (photo by the author). The original version of the Peony Pavilion runs for 20 hours, and comprises a total of 55 scenes, but it is now usually performed in shorter adaptations.

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is sometimes referred to as ‘A Ghost Story’, because part of it takes place in the underworld and the protagonist returns from the afterlife. It narrates the love story between a girl from a wealthy family, Du Liniang, and the scholar Liu Mengmei. After seeing Liu in a dream and falling in love with him, Du dies of sorrow. Her spirit keeps looking for the young scholar and the Judge of the Underworld promises to resurrect her so that she can see him again. After appearing in Liu’s dreams as a ghost, her body is exhumed by Liu and the couple live happily thereafter.

Tang blog 3 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. British Library 15327.b.16, another copy of the same edition of the work as in 15327.b.15. Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is one of the so-called ‘Four Dreams’ (Lin chuan si meng), four of Tang’s most important plays in which dreams play a significant part in the story. They include also ‘The Purple Hairpin’, ‘The Dream of Handan’ and ‘The Dream of the Southern Bough’. The latter two in particular contain themes of rejection of traditional feudal values and the possibility of escape through love and compassion in order to achieve happiness.

Tang Blog 4 by Sara
The ‘Dream of Southern Bough’, in the collection Shi er zhong qu十二種曲, ‘Twelve operas’, by Li Yu, 1785, woodblock printed edition. British Library, 15327.a.3 Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been translated into many languages and adapted several times for television and theatre productions such as contemporary opera, ballet and musical performances, both in China and abroad. The escape from the conventions of feudal society, the power of true love to conquer even death, and the cathartic role of dreams are central themes of the ‘Peony Pavilion’. Together they created a story that is universal and beloved by students, readers and audiences around the world.

Tang blog 5 by Sara
‘Die Rückkehr der Seele’ (The Return of the Soul), translated by Vincenz Hundhausen. Zürich/Leipzig, 1937. This edition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’, translated and edited by Vincenz Hundhausen, is accompanied by forty reproductions of Chinese woodcuts from the Ming period. British Library, 11101.f.28

Further reading:
Tan, Tian Yuan and Santangelo, Paolo 'Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion' (3 vols.),  in Emotions and States of Mind in East Asia, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Tan, Tian Yuan, Edmondson, Paul and Wang, Shih-pe, 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.

Sara Chiesura, East Asian collections Ccownwork

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.

IMG_0273 - Copy
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).

IMG_0707 - Copy
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.

Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.13.45Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.14.15
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

26 October 2015

Oracle bones: genuine and fake

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Today's guest post is by Sarah Allan, Burlington Northern Foundation Professor of Asian Studies at Dartmouth College, Chair of the Society for the Study of Early China and Editor of the Society’s journal, Early China. Professor Allan worked extensively on the Couling-Chalfant collection of oracle bones at the British Library and, together with Li Xueqin and Qi Wenxin, compiled a catalogue of the oracle bones collections in Great Britain.

Some oracle bones from the Couling-Chalfant collection are now on display in the Library’s Treasures Gallery until January, as part of the exhibit Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing.

(Sara Chiesura, East Asian Collections)

The Couling-Chalfant collection or oracle bones and its fakes

In 1899, a Chinese scholar, Wang Yirong 王懿荣 was examining the “dragon bones” in his medical prescription before they were pounded into powder and noticed that they had what seemed to be an ancient form of writing on them. Within a few years, a few Chinese scholars had begun to collect these inscribed bones. By 1904, the Western missionaries, Frank Chalfant (1862-1914), and Samuel Couling (1859-1922) began to collect them too. The sellers refused to divulge where the bones were found, but in 1914, the source was traced to Yinxu 殷墟, “the Remains of Yin,” near Anyang in Henan Province. Yin is another name for Shang, an ancient Chinese dynasty, and when the site was finally excavated in 1928, the last capital of that dynasty was discovered. Current archaeological evidence suggests that the Shang ruled from this site from about 1300 to 1050 BC, so the name of the site reflected a cultural memory that had lasted some 3,000 years.

The inscribed “dragon bones” include turtle shells (primarily the undershells) as well as bones (primarily ox scapula), as the Chinese name, jiagu 甲骨denotes. The English popular name, “oracle bones” reflects the fact that they are primarily divinations intended to ensure that the ancestors were satisfied by the offerings made by the Shang king and would favor the activities of him and his people. The writing is the direct antecedent of modern Chinese characters and it was already a fully developed system, using the same principles of character formation as later characters. Nevertheless, it was not easy to decipher.

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Oracle bone (turtle plastron) from the Couling-Chalfant collection. All characters appear to be genuine (British Library Or. 7964/1509 recto and verso, Ying 597)

The divinations usually start with two characters that denote a day in a cycle of sixty. This cycle is made up by correlating a cycle of ten characters, later known as “heavenly stems” and a cycle of twelve characters, later called “earthly branches.” I have hypothesized that these were the names of the ten suns and twelve moons in Shang mythology. The names used to designate the royal ancestors also included one of the ten sun-names and offerings were made to them on the corresponding day, with the most ancient ancestor listed first. Thus, once these characters were deciphered, it was possible to establish a genealogy of the royal ancestors and these ancestors corresponded generally to the list of Shang kings found in the transmitted histories.

Part of the Couling-Chalfant collection was acquired by the British Library in 1911. At that time, the writing was still in the early stages of decipherment. Fake inscriptions began to be produced very soon after people began to purchase the bones. About 90% of Shang oracle bones are blanks: a divination was made by applying a hot poker to a prepared hollow, which produced a crack on the opposite side, but no writing was engraved on the shell or bone. Other bones had empty spaces. Since the price was calculated by the number of characters, the peasant who found it or seller often added characters. An example, is Or.7694/1517 (Ying 英 600). This bone has at least two genuine characters that are written very faintly, a common notation on cracked bones that is not well understood but means something like “two reports” (er gao 二告). It also has one line that makes sense and may be genuine. This is the fifth line from the left in the main block of characters. It says, “if the king goes to inspect the region of (name), he will receive [divine favour]. The other characters are copies of ones found on genuine oracle bones, but because the forgers did not understand the script, they don’t make sense.

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Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection with both genuine and fake inscriptions (British Library Or. 7964/1517recto, Ying 600)

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Another example of oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection with both genuine (at the top) and fake (at the bottom) inscriptions (British Library Or. 7964/1759 recto, Ying 1861)

Further reading:

Sarah Allan, The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art and Cosmos in Early China (State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1991)
Sarah Allan (Ai Lan 艾兰), 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).   

Sarah Allan, Dartmouth College