THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

53 posts categorized "East Asia"

02 August 2021

How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project

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Photograph of man with back to camera in black shirt looking over long yellowed scroll in front of machinery with many cables
Jon Nicholls, Senior Imaging Technician, digitising a scroll on the Lotus Sutra Project.
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Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is an international collaborative project based at the British Library and with centres around the world. The Project aims to preserve and digitise collections from archaeological sites along the Eastern part of the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Roads, including the Mogao caves near Dunhuang (present day Gansu province in China).

As part of this, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at the British Library is cataloguing, conserving, and digitising Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra from the British Library’s Stein Collection.

These scrolls were procured by the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), when he travelled to Dunhuang. He was followed by several other foreign explorers who also took away a large number of manuscripts and other items. By digitising this corpus of texts, we can facilitate access to these historic items and bring them together digitally, after they were scattered around the globe.

The Lotus Sutra collection

The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text that contains important early teachings on Buddhism. It was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. Its popularity in China, in particular at Dunhuang, is attested by the over 1,000 copies that are now in the British Library’s custodianship.

Although a few of these were digitised in the past, a total of 793 paper manuscripts are yet to be imaged. They are dated roughly between the 5th to 11th centuries, based on dated items at both ends of the spectrum.

Most, except for three booklets, are in the scroll format. Each scroll varies in size and condition. We have some scrolls that are incredibly long as well as some that are just fragments. We also have some very fragile scrolls that our fantastic Conservation team are working hard to preserve so that they are available for years to come.

We have calculated that collectively there is roughly 17km of scroll that needs to be conserved and digitised. That’s the distance from the British Library in North London to Wimbledon in Southwest London!

Thanks to the support from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation based in Hong Kong, we are steadily working through the entire collection, one scroll at a time. The digitised collection will be made freely available on the IDP website (http://idp.bl.uk/).

Equipment and Imaging Standards

To digitise the scrolls, we use specialist equipment at the British Library’s St Pancras site. Below details the equipment I use:

  • Phase One XF medium format camera on a copy stand
  • Phase One IQ3 80 MP Digital back
  • Phase One 120mm lens
  • LED lighting
  • Long and height-adjustable table
  • Capture One Software
  • Adobe Photoshop

To ensure consistency and reliability, we adhere to these imaging standards:

  • Aperture F.16
  • Shutter speed 0.6 Seconds
  • ISO 50

To further ensure quality and accuracy, we use the same equipment and standards for every image.

Step 1. Digitising the scrolls

Once the scrolls have been through conservation and are in stable condition they can be digitised. Digitising scrolls is quite a difficult process. As mentioned before, there are some very long scrolls (one even measuring up to 13 meters) and I have very limited space at my workstation.

At the beginning of this project, I was given specific scroll handling training from our wonderful Conservation team.

Equipped with the knowledge to handle the scrolls safely, I shoot the scrolls bit by bit, un-rolling and re-rolling onto a scroll core as I go, both as a space saving technique but also to avoid damage to the scrolls. Luckily the scrolls themselves are long horizontal rolls, which are made of several rectangular sheets of paper or ‘panels’ attached together. I photograph every panel individually, which makes it a lot easier to capture each part.

I try to lie the scroll down as flat as I can, but it is not always possible. Some of the scrolls undulate naturally and we need to be sympathetic to the item’s condition. When undulation of the scrolls occurs, I use various weights approved by our Conservation Team to hold either side of the panels to flatten them without putting undue pressure.

If need be, I use pins to flatten the scrolls. *We do not use pins directly on any part of the scrolls. Instead, I pin around the scroll and using transparent, acid free tabs in-between the pin and the scroll to protect the item.

Collection of white objects including bead-like string, white scroll, white pouch and other small white squares on a black background
Tools used for holding the item whilst digitising: scroll core, conservation ‘penny weights’, snake weights, weight bags, pins and acid free tabs.
CC Public Domain Image

I include a ruler in the image for size reference as well as a colour chart to calibrate colours and a focusing target to set up the control shots. These are cropped out of the final images.

Black background behind a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it and a black and white focus target with a multicoloured colour palette and black and white strips at bottom of image
Focus target, ruler and colour chart.
CC Public Domain Image

I shoot all the panels’ front (rectos) and back (versos) to capture the entire length of the scroll. As Chinese text is written and read vertically, top to bottom and right to left, I capture the panels from right to left.

I always overshoot either side of the panel and usually include 3 to 4 columns of text overlap (as seen in the photo below). This helps in the stitching process later.

Close view of yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with black bars above and below
Digitising a panel of a scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Once all the panels are shot, I process each image file from RAW files into TIFF files.

Step 2. Post-production

I edit every TIFF image in Photoshop. This task can take a long time if you have 40+ images to edit.

Firstly, I digitally remove any pins or other unwanted objects in the shot using the lasso tool to select around the item, then delete using the ‘Content aware’ function. Please note this can only be done when the layer is locked.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of digital edit in Photoshop.
CC Public Domain Image

I then select and cut out the background and replace with a digital black background. This is done for aesthetic reasons and something that we inherited from the previous team. We continued with this for consistency with the historical images.

You can achieve a similar goal by shooting directly onto black fabric.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of the end of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Replacing background with digital black background.
CC Public Domain Image

I change the height of every image. This is done for the purposes of ingesting the images onto our website, which requires specific sizes and ensures consistency.

To speed the process up I have created ‘Actions’ in Photoshop to save me some time and partially automate the majority of the postproduction.

Step 3. Stitching

I use automatic stitching to generate the stitched TIFF. Having trialled a few software packages, I can say the Adobe’s Photoshop ‘Photomerge’ seems to be the best at the moment.

Whilst it is the best on the market, it unfortunately it can be very hit and miss, and depends on the length, curvature and condition of each scroll. Most recently I have discovered that dramatic change in colour on the scroll also confuses the software.

Seven scrolls of yellowed paper of various lengths atop a grey and white checkerboard background
Example of a stitched image gone wrong.
CC Public Domain Image

For this example above, I was forced to manually stitch all the separate parts together. This is a much longer process but is occasionally needed.

Automatic stitching works better when there are more reference points, which is why I include extra columns of text either side when shooting the image, as mentioned before.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a very long and thin yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of a smaller scroll successfully digitally stitched together
CC Public Domain Image

If I am lucky there won’t be many changes required (known as post edits), but often I have to automatically stitch the scroll in parts or even manually stitch each image.

Step 4. Editing stitched image

The automated stitch image often produces some arched or warped images. I use ‘puppet warp’ and guidelines in Photoshop to subtly straighten the scroll, being careful to not over edit or make it look unnatural. There are some very helpful YouTube vlogs explaining how to use the Puppet warp function.

Lastly, using the TIFF files, I create three types of JPEG to be ingested to the IDP website, this includes: a large JPEG, a medium JPEG and a thumbnail.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters covered with light grey lines attached to one another at random angleson it with a black background
Example of Puppet warp in action to subtly straighten the scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Step 5. Quality control

I finally quality check the images and make sure I adhere to our specific naming conventions before I move them to another server. From here they are quality checked by a Digitisation Officer in view of ultimately being uploaded to the IDP website.

Screen shot with light blue frame showing website with yellowish-grey left side bar, white background, images of yellowed scrolls with Chinese characters on them and a greyish yellow text box
Example of digitised scroll displayed on the IDP website.
CC Public Domain Image

I hope you found this guide interesting and useful.

Jon Nicolls, Senior Imaging Technician, IDP

(All images were shot by Jon Nicolls)

CCBY Image

 

To find out more about the Lotus Sutra Project and the International Dunhaung Project visit:

You can read more articles about the Project here:

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

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This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

15 March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contents of the glossary

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

28 January 2021

Digitisation in Asian and African Collections 2019 to 2021: what’s new online and where to find it

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In the past year and a half we’ve made over 650 items from the Library’s Asian and African collections newly available online. To make it easier for you to find and explore our wonderful collections, we’ve put together a list of recently digitised items with links to their online versions for you to download here: Download AAC Jan2021. They are arranged by collection area/project, so you can easily search and filter to your heart’s content!

One of the biggest additions to our digital collections are the 300 Ethiopian Manuscripts digitised as part of the British Library’s Heritage Made Digital programme and made available in 2019. These rare and beautifully illustrated manuscripts date mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries and are predominantly written in the classical Ethiopian language Ge'ez.

ገድለ ጊዮርጊስ, The Acts of St. George, 18th century. Or 715, folio 2v
ገድለ ጊዮርጊስ, The Acts of St. George, 18th century. Or 715, folio 2v  noc

ተአምረ ማርያም, Miracles of Mary, 1717. Or 643, folio 2r
ተአምረ ማርያም, Miracles of Mary, 1717. Or 643, folio 2r  noc

2019 also saw the launch of the Discovering Sacred Texts online exhibition, which brings together expert articles and learning resources on the Library’s religious treasures. You can find many Asian and African collection items on the site, some of which have also been digitised in full. There are 21 now available, including Hindu, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist texts. The image below shows Add MS 11746, a Chinese manuscript containing the Buddhist Heart and Diamond Sutras with illustrations painted on fig leaves.

Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations on fig leaves, 18th century. Add MS 11746, folio 1r.
Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations on fig leaves, 18th century. Add MS 11746, folio 1r  noc

We have now digitised the Library’s entire collection of Zoroastrian Manuscripts, with 34 made available in the last year and more to come over the coming months. Among these you can find Zoroastrian texts in Avestan, Middle Persian, New Persian, Sanskrit and Gujarati, decorated with floral and geometric designs. As well as this, we have published 32 Bugis Manuscripts from South Sulawesi in Indonesia. These manuscripts date from the 17th to early 19th century, and highlights include court diaries from Bone, where on particularly busy days the writing curves around the page to save space (see Add MS 12355). We have also made available 13 West African Manuscripts, including loose leaf manuscripts in leather carrying cases and five Qur’ans, mainly in Arabic.

Bugis diary from the court of Bone, 1774-1793. Add MS 12355, folio 86r
Bugis diary from the court of Bone, 1774-1793. Add MS 12355, folio 86r  noc

An 18th century copy of the Visperad, with floral decoration. MSS Avestan 27, folio 6v
An 18th century copy of the Visperad, with floral decoration. MSS Avestan 27, folio 6v  noc

Another exciting addition is our collection of Japanese Design Books, some of which featured in the Library’s ‘Exquisite Patterns: Japanese Textile Design’ exhibition in 2020. Around 80 have now been digitised, with 29 currently available and more to follow in the next year. These are visually stunning and well worth a look for textile, toy and even sweet designs.

呉竹 / 市田彌一郎, Kuretake / Ichida Yaichirō. Kimono design - ORB.40/1208, folio 53r
呉竹 / 市田彌一郎, Kuretake / Ichida Yaichirō. Kimono design - ORB.40/1208, folio 53r  noc

There are too many to mention here, but in the last year and a half we have also digitised and made available collections of Chinese Manuscripts, Japanese Manuscripts, Tibetan manuscripts, Korean Rare Books and a selection of photographs from the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project. You can find all these and more by downloading this excel spreadsheet, which lists all recently available shelf marks and hyperlinks: Download AAC Jan2021

And take a look at the blogs listed below for more in-depth information about our digitised collections.

There’s still more to come ...

There’s still more to look forward to in 2021, including more Zoroastrian Manuscripts, Korean Rare Books and Japanese Design Books, and new content from the on-going Lotus Sutra and Javanese Manuscripts digitisation projects. And don’t forget to check out content already available through the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

We are very much still open online and doing our best to make as much available as we can. So stay tuned and keep checking back for further updates @BLAsia_African and @BL_MadeDigital.

How to find digitised content

You can find digitised printed material via the main Explore catalogue. Search using the ‘Available online (beta)’ tab, select ‘I want this’ and ‘Go’ to view a collection item online.

For manuscripts, search the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Again, select ‘I want this’ and ‘Go’ to view a digitised collection item.  You can also search directly in Digitised Manuscripts by shelf mark or keyword (e.g. ‘Ethiopian’).

Sara Hale  ccownwork
Digitisation Officer, Heritage Made Digital: Asian and African Collections
Follow us @BL_MadeDigital

Further reading

Ethiopian manuscripts
African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia
A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art
The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts

Zoroastrian manuscripts
Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination
Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’
Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

Bugis manuscripts
Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts
The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library
Bugis flower power: a compendium of floral designs
Bugis manuscript art
Animal days: three Bugis amulets in British collections

West African manuscripts
The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

Japanese design books
Zuan-cho – Japanese design albums in the late Meiji Period
Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books
Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

Visual representations of the third plague pandemic
Bombay Plague Visitation, 1896-97

 

 

04 January 2021

Export paintings of Ming and Qing Chinese Interiors and Furnishings

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

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

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

Lanterns

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

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

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

 

Furniture and decorative displays

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

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

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

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

 

Ritual furnishings of official residences and temples

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

 

16 September 2020

Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

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The Japanese Collection of the British Library includes around 50 Japanese pattern and design books.  Thanks to a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Library is digitising many of these and making them available online.  This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.  In this post Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator at the fine art publisher Unsōdō, explains the company’s origins and its significance in the development of Japanese design.

Unsōdō is a Japanese publishing company, specialising in art books, which was founded in Kyoto in 1891 and is still in operation today.  Established in the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was rapidly modernising, Unsōdō sought through its publication of art books to educate Japanese society on design in the new age, and to highlight the direction of art publishing and the modernisation of the textile industry.

Unsodo store front

Unsōdō’s premises in Teramachi, Kyoto c. 1929. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Unsōdō was able to develop against a backdrop of change in Japanese society.  Key contributory factors were the rise of the textile industry, modernisation of crafts, establishment of department stores, systematisation of the art world.  The emergence of a middle class with an interest in culture and a willingness to buy created a growing market for Unsōdō’s publications. In this article I would like to give a brief outline of the history of Unsōdō, the changes in Japanese society, arts and crafts in Kyoto, and the expansion of Unsōdō’s achievements.

First, let us look at the history of Unsōdō. The firm was founded in 1891 in the Teramachi Nijō district of Kyoto by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎 (1866-1932). He gained his knowledge of the workings of the book trade from Tanaka Jihei 田中治兵衛, proprietor of the Kyoto bookshop Bunkyūdō 文求堂, before setting up his own independent store specialising in art books. He asked the literati painter Tomioka Tessai 富岡鐡斎 to create a name for the new enterprise. The name he chose, Unsōdō 芸艸堂, was inspired by ‘unsō’ 芸艸, a Japanese name for the herb rue (Latin: Ruta graveolens). This strong-smelling plant, traditionally believed to be an effective insect repellant, was used to make bookmarks and was thus a fitting name for a bookshop.


Usondo founder
Yamada Naosaburō (1866-1932), founder of Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

 

Woodblock store_576pxls
Unsōdō’s store of over 10,000 original woodblocks, still used to produce reprints. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD.

Yamada Naosaburō was born into the Honda family, proprietors of a book-binding business. Alongside book-binding, the eldest son Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎 (1863-1944) and third son Honda Kinnosuke 本田金之助 (1868-1930), began to publish kimono pattern books which were very much in vogue at the time. From around 1889 the company was known as Honda Unkindō本田雲錦堂. Large numbers of kimono-related books were being published in Kyoto at that time and there was intense competition between Unsōdō and Unkindō, a rivalry which stimulated the creation of a great many design books. However, as they were brothers first and foremost, Naosaburŏ, Ichijirō and Kinnosuke eventually merged the two companies in 1906 under the name Unsōdō. From then on, all three brothers worked together in the publishing business. They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates. These luxurious books were expensive but proved profitable and were published in rapid succession. This momentum continued and in 1918 Unsōdō opened a branch in Yushima in Tokyo. 

woodblock for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902  Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902
Two woodblocks for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902. Left: Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD. Right: equivalent page from the British Library copy of Kairo ORB.40/838

Unsōdō also managed to acquire woodblocks for art books from other publishers in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and to republish the works as Unsōdō imprints.

Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō.
Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Despite the occasional periods of economic depression, Japanese society continued to develop, thanks to official campaigns to encourage new industries and also to the special demands of times of war. The textile industry was one of the first to attract the attention of business entrepreneurs. Modern textile factories were set up across Japan, long-established kimono dealers became department stores, textile wholesalers and brokerage businesses were established and a skilled workforce developed. Traditional local textiles came to be distributed through kimono dealers and department stores. The successful, affluent classes became art collectors and ordinary people were able to see works of art in museums or the art galleries of department stores. 


Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks
Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Kyoto’s replacement by Tokyo as the national capital in 1869 and the resultant departure of the Emperor, Imperial Family and upper aristocracy, led to a period of uncertainty for the city. Yet this sense of crisis acted as a catalyst to the modernisation of the arts and crafts industry, taking advantage of a local population with a deep connection to traditional culture and the existence of large numbers of artisans skilled in various crafts. Descendants of court painters set up painting academies, and art schools were founded to promote the modernisation of art education. Cooperative associations were established for many industries including lacquer manufacturing, ceramics, dyeing and weaving. These organisations worked to improve standards and modernise designs in their respective industries, to stabilise distribution networks throughout Japan and to use the high levels of expertise developed over centuries to produce art objects for export. This was an important means of acquiring foreign currency for Japan at that time and was actively supported by the government.

Key reasons for the expansion of Unsōdō’s business were the appearance of “art books born from social change” and the increase in the number of “people who need art books”. An example of the former would be catalogues for displays of new works that were held in kimono dealers and department stores, or for exhibitions in the painting academies. “People who need art books” included those involved in the creation of art and craft objects as well as those selling them – artists, designers, craftspeople and teachers, and also merchants. Painting manuals, pattern books and picture albums had existed in the Edo Period (1600-1868), but in the later 19th century new publications were needed that took into account new tastes and Western influences. Art schools and industrial technology institutes across Japan needed textbooks and reference works. Then, as now, art books tended to be large format and require elaborate binding and printing techniques, resulting in higher prices. The reason these books ‘flew off the shelves’ was that they were not only bought for personal interest and pleasure but were used for work and were provided in the work place.

Orb_40!1080_hollyhock_576pxls  Orb_40!1080_wistaria_576pxls
‘Yellow hollyhock’ and ‘Wisteria’ from Jakuchu gafu, a collection of designs by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), published by Unsōdō in 1908. British Library ORB.40/1080

In other words, art books were an inseparable part of industrial development. As a Kyoto publisher, Unsōdō, played its part in disseminating the essence of Japanese history – the aristocratic culture with the emperor at its summit, the millennium of craftsmanship that produced ‘guides to traditional customs’ (yūsoku kojitsu), patterns and designs, cultural properties, handicrafts, collectables, and even the foreign art works and designs that were incorporated over the centuries.

In recent years, woodblock-printed design books of the late Meiji Period have been attracting growing attention. It was a time when Kyoto, the centre of Japan’s publishing culture since the Middle Ages, was full of skilled craftspeople. Although in terms of cost, print run and finish, woodblock printing was the only practical method of colour printing available, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries woodblock printing technology developed markedly. It is characterised by what can be called ‘high quality art printing’ and its ‘human touch’. Moreover, we still marvel at the creativity of the designers of the time. As well as the professional designers, artists who specialised in Japanese and Western-style painting also created designs as a side-line to their main careers. Today we cannot easily tell how many people were involved in the world of design at the time. This is because the modernisation of Japanese art has brought a division into ‘artists’, who created fine art, and ‘craftspeople’, who created practical wares. Designers themselves have not yet been appraised, and often artists’ design work has not been considered in an assessment of their careers.

Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator, UNSODO CO., LTD

(translation: Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collection, British Library)

 

Further reading

Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.

Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.

Johnson, Scott, “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years”. Andon 100, 2015.

Yokoya, Ken’ichiro, Fischbach, Becky (ed.), Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

24 August 2020

When you wish upon a star: The Celestial Weaver Maiden at the Star Festival

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The Star Festival 七夕, the night when many of us in Eastern Asia wish upon a star and celebrate romance, is on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, and this year it falls on the 25th of August 2020. As we have mentioned in previous blog posts, this annual summer event has been a tradition since time immemorial. This year, we are focussing on a simple question: why do Japanese call the Star Festival 七夕 Tanabata? In China, it has been known as Qixi (qi = 七 and xi=夕), literally meaning seven evenings or the seventh evening. If Japanese followed the Chinese convention, it would become Shichiseki (shichi = 七 and seki=夕). But the Japanese have written the Star Festival as 七夕, and read it as Tanabata in this unusual way for a long time. We may see reasons for this in a key motif of the Star Festival - the weaver maidens who are called Tanabata or Tanabatatsume.

Drawing of loom with red, white, green, yellow and blue yarn next to a wicker basket and fabric sample
A depiction of a loom as used in Kureha (呉服) from the collection of theatre settings of Noh plays. (Yamaguchi Ryōshū 山口蓼州, Nōgu taikan 能具大観 (Kyōtō: Unsōdō京都 : 芸艸堂, 1924). ORB.40/1069 (Vol.3))
CC Public Domain Image

The Star lovers’ story originated in China and deals with the weaver girl and the cowherd boy, a couple who are separated by the Milky Way in the night sky. They can only see each other once a year by crossing the magpie bridge. The weaver girl’s name is written 織女 Shokujo or 織姫 Orihime both meaning ‘the weaver maiden’, and is a traditional name in modern popular Japanese culture. However, it is likely that ancient Japanese people, who were directly influenced by the arrival of Chinese fairy tales, might have not read 織女 as Shokujo as we currently do, but as Tanabata or Tanabatatsume.

This unique Japanese reading of the name of the weaver maiden appears in The Tales of Ise (伊勢物語, Ise monogatari), a very famous work of Japanese literature which is thought to have been written and collected together sometime during the Heian period (794-1185 CE). The hero of the tale is never clearly named, but all readers assume it is Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平 825-880 CE). In the real world, he was a grandson of one of previous emperors but not a member of the imperial family. He was a notable Heian courtier and left his name as a great waka poet.

Drawing of five men in traditional Japanese dress seated in semi-circle under a tree
Prince Koretaka, Ariwara no Narihira and other hunting members resting at the river bank of Amano. (Chapter 82 of The Tale of the Ise (伊勢物語圖會, Ise monogatari zue), Naraehon manuscript, mid-16th century, Or 904, f.98r)
CC Public Domain Image


In Chapter 82 of the Tale of Ise, Prince Koretaka and his followers, including Narihira, are out enjoying a day's hunting. The group come to the river bank of Amano (天野) and decide to have refreshments after their hunt. Prince Koretaka orders Narihira to compose a fitting waka for this occasion.

狩り暮らし七夕に宿からむ天の河原にわれは来にけり

Let us rest from this day’s hunt and pass the night with the Weaver maiden
as we have come to the fields of the Celestial River.

Cursive Japanese text
Above left is the page featuring the Tanabata waka composed by Narihira, which starts by the vertical yellow lines on the right-hand image. (Chapter 82 of The Tale of the Ise (伊勢物語圖會, Ise monogatari zue), Naraehon manuscript, mid-16th century, Or 904, f.97r)
CC Public Domain Image

This waka poem contains references to the motif of the star lovers. They come to the bank of the Amano River – in Japanese, it is pronounced Amanogawa (天野川), the same as the Milky Way (天の川) in Japanese. Narihira elegantly composes his waka as if they were approaching the bank of the Milky Way in the night sky, so naturally, there should also be Tanabatatsume, who is the Heavenly Weaver maiden. Interestingly, Tanabata (七夕 the seventh evening) in this waka indicates the Heavenly Weaver maiden in person. Also, his waka shows us that by the zenith of Heian court culture, the Star Lovers had already been popular among the Japanese.

The oldest anthology of Japanese waka poetry books, the Man’yōshū ( 万葉集 literally the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) is estimated to be have been compiled towards the end of the Nara period (710-794 CE), at a time when the court and capital was situated in Nara. Donald Keen (1922-2019), who was one of the most remarkable Japanese scholars in modern times, counted the number of the Seventh Night poems, which number more than 120 in the Man’yōshū. He commented that it was about this time that the Chinese legend was absorbed into Japanese folklore, and the number of related waka in Man’yōshū helped us to judge how deeply this romantic story was widely cherished by the Japanese people.

Waka 2027

為我登織女之其屋戸尓織白布織弖兼鴨
The waka in the Man’yōshū are notoriously difficult to interpret but basically in Waka 2027 , someone (typically a man or noble) is wondering aloud to himself when his lover will finish the garment which she has been weaving for their next meeting.

In this waka, the Heavenly Weaver maiden is written as 織女, as we do in the 21st century, but it is pronounced as Tanabatatsume, not Shokujo.

Waka 2034

棚機之五百機立而織布之秋去衣孰取見
The Heavenly Weaver maiden is working on many looms – who shall look upon and receive the cloth she is making?

Interestingly, in this waka, the Heavenly Weaver maiden is written as 棚機, and the script matches the pronunciation ‘Tanabata’. Even though there is no explicit mention of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month and she is one of the star lovers in the lines, both waka undoubtedly refer to the love of the celestial couple.

It's possible that 棚機 could represent the advanced loom brought into Japan by oversea weavers. A Noh play, ‘Kureha (呉服)’, inspired by a legend of skilled artisan weavers who were invited to Japan to train the Japanese. Among them, were two foreign sisters Kurehatori 呉服織 and Ayahatori 漢服織. They wove for the Emperor Ōjin 応神 who considered to have reigned in the late 3rd century CE.

Drawing of two actors wearing Noh masks and in traditional Japanese dress kneeling next to a loom with blue, white, red, yellow and green yarn
Kureha from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. (Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Matsuno Sōfū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.) (ORB.45/153)
CC Public Domain Image

We can find possibly the oldest Tanabatatsume motif in the Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀 Nihon Shoki), completed in 720 CE. The earlier chapters of Nihon Shoki describe a Shintō myth of how the land of Japanese islands are created by Shintō gods and goddesses and their activities as deities in their land, the Upper Heaven.

In the chapter which deals with the reign of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni 葦原中国, which literally means ‘The middle country of reed beds’ and which represents the physical land of Japan, the name of a sister of a god is known as Tanabata 多奈婆多 who is the Heavenly Weaver maiden in the Upper Heaven.

Printed Japanese text in rows consisting of kanji
Above left is the page showing a part of the waka dealing with Tanabata, 多奈婆多indicated by a vertical blue line on the right-hand image. (Prince Toneri 舎人親王(676-735) [editor], Chronicles of Japan. Chapters on the Age of Kami (日本書紀神代巻, Nihon shoki. Jindai no maki), Movable type print edition published by command of Emperor Go-Yōzei 後陽成天皇 (慶長勅版, Keichō chokuhan), 1599, Or.59.bb.5, f 057r)
CC Public Domain Image

Weaving cloth dedicated for Shintō deities have been treated as an important activity since the very early legends of the Upper Heaven. There is an earlier famous episode in the Upper Heaven, in which the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, hides herself in the Heavenly Rock cave (Ama no iwado 天の岩戸) so that the all of the worlds lose her rays of light. She is extremely upset by her brother who has disturbed her or her weaver maiden. He throws a dead horse into the special workshop where the ladies are weaving. His action not only destroys the building but also injures the ladies and stains their clothes. Amaterasu rages at her brother and goes into the cave to hide herself.

Printed Japanese text in rows consisting of kanji
Above left is the page showing the episode of ladies weaving in the special workshop. The keywords ‘weaving for gods at the special holy workshop’ (織神衣居斎服殿) is indicated by a blue line on the right-hand image. (Prince Toneri 舎人親王(676-735) [editor], Chronicles of Japan. Chapters on the Age of Kami (日本書紀神代巻, Nihon shoki. Jindai no maki), Movable type print edition published by command of Emperor Go-Yōzei 後陽成天皇 (慶長勅版, Keichō chokuhan), 1599, Or.59.bb.5, f 031v)
CC Public Domain Image

The legend of the heavenly weaver maidens has passed their ancient name as Tanabata down through the ages to the Star Festival. This occurred long after the Star Lover’s story became very popular and their romance was celebrated annually on the 7th day of 7th lunar month. In this way, their curious legacy remains just barely visible beneath the surface of later traditions.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections
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References

Keene, Donald, and McMillan, Peter, Translator, Writer of Added Commentary, The Tales of Ise, (UK : Penguin Classics, 2016). (YKL.2018.a.8090)

Keene, Donald, The Manyoshu : The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems, with the Texts in Romaji . Records of Civilization, Sources and Studies ; 70. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965). (Ac.2688/45.(70.))

Manyoshu [Book 10] Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library

Related blogs

The Star Lovers

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1)

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (2)

With special thanks to Mr Stephen Cullis, Lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, for providing the summarised interpretations of the waka in the Ise Monogatari and the Man’yōshū.

24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

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

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

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

‘An Explanation of Radical Characters’

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

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

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

A page of a printed Chinese book with ruled columns containing bold characters
A page from Zi bu ji jie (15344.c.24) containing local character variants.
CC Public Domain Image

The copy of this work held in the British Library is stamped with “I. J. Roberts” and also includes a handwritten dedication to another prominent missionary, Walter Medhurst, and the date “October 13th, 1840”.

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

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

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Historical sources

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

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

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

 

Further reading

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

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

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

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