THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

51 posts categorized "East Asia"

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

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

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

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Historical sources

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

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

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

 

Further reading

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

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

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

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

19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Further reading

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

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

22 May 2020

Zuan-cho – Japanese design albums in the late Meiji Period

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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. For a list of what is currently available see Japanese manuscripts and woodblock-printed books relating to design arranged by theme. This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.

The first blog looked at the origins and development of Japanese textile pattern books, hinagata-bon, in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were mainly practical in nature, serving as manuals for kimono makers or catalogues for merchants and their customers. In this blog we will focus on the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when enterprising publishers and inventive artists collaborated to produce superb design books, or zuan-chō 図案帳, intended to be appreciated and enjoyed for their own sake, as much as for any practical application.

‘Dew on the plains of Musashi’ by Mizuta Shizuhiro from Sono no kaori ‘Scents of the Garden’
Fig. 1. ‘Dew on the plains of Musashi’ by Mizuta Shizuhiro from Sono no kaori ‘Scents of the Garden’. Unkindō, Kyoto, 1903 (British Library, ORB.30/6166)
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The Meiji Period (1868-1912) saw Japan emerge from centuries of self-imposed isolation and take its place on the international stage. Exposure to Western ideas and technology had brought profound changes to many aspects of Japanese society and culture and this,in turn, led to a fascination with ‘the new’ and a re-evaluation of ‘the old’ as traditions were adapted, preserved or discarded.

In late 19th century Kyoto, traditional centre of Japan’s textile industry, technological developments in dyeing and weaving led to large-scale production of goods, and a growing demand for new textile designs (zuan). The modernisation of education led to the establishment of arts schools such as the Kyoto Prefectural School of Painting 京都府画学校 (forerunner of today’s Kyoto City University of the Arts京都市立芸術大学), founded in 1880, where design was taught as a formal subject for the first time. By the 1890s professional zuanka or designers appeared, creating large number of designs which could be used not only for textiles but also for ceramics, lacquerware, screens or other craft products.

‘Peacocks’ from Kōgei shinzu by Tanaka Yūh
Fig. 2. ‘Peacocks’ from Kōgei shinzu by Tanaka Yūhō. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1892 (British Library, ORB.30/8098)
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One of the first design albums was Kōgei shinzu 工芸新図 (New Designs for Crafts) by Tanaka Yūhō 田中幽峰. It was published in 1892 by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎, son of a family of Kyoto bookbinders, who had set up his own the publishing house the previous year under the name Unsōdō 芸艸堂.

Yamada Naosaburō was the younger brother of Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎, proprietor of Unkindō 雲錦堂, another leading publisher of design books in the first years of the 20th century. The siblings were influential in nurturing the talent of many young designers. By employing exceptionally skilled block-carvers and printers, and pursuing the highest standards of book design and production, Unsōdō and Unkindō raised the zuan-chō to the status of an art object in its own right.

Unsōdō launched a number of influential design periodicals including Bijutsukai 美術海 (Oceans of Art), which ran from 1896 to 1902 and was succeeded by Shin Bjitsukai 新美術海 (New Oceans of Art) (1902-1906), and Seiei 精英 (Elite) which appeared in 15 issues from 1902 to 1907. Together these innovative publications featured hundreds of designs by dozens of different artists, giving them the opportunity to explore new styles and themes as they honed their skills.

‘Bicycles’ by Mōri Ennen 毛利延年 from Seiei no. 2.
Fig. 3. ‘Bicycles’ by Mōri Ennen 毛利延年 from Seiei no. 2. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1903 (British Library, ORB.30/697(2))
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‘Pine, bamboo and plum’ by Sawatari Kensai 沢渡乾斎 from Seiei no. 4
Fig. 4. ‘Pine, bamboo and plum’ by Sawatari Kensai 沢渡乾斎 from Seiei no. 4. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1904 (British Library, ORB.30/697(4))
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Many of the artists who contributed to these periodicals also collaborated with Unsōdō and Unkindō to produce albums of their own designs. One of the most celebrated was Kamisaka Sekka 神坂雪佳 (1866-1942). Visiting Europe for the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901, he was inspired by Art Nouveau and Japonisme. He was also profoundly influenced by the Rinpa painting style originally founded in the 17th century by Hon’ami Kōetsu and later developed by brothers Ogata Kōrin and Ogata Kenzan.

Sekka collaborated with Unsōdō on some of its most successful publications. For example, in 1902 they published Kairo 海路 ‘One Hundred Patterns of Waves’. As its English title suggests, in this work Sekka explored ‘variations on a theme’, experimenting with colours, styles and layouts.

Kairo (One Hundred Patterns of Waves) by Kamisaka Sekka. Unsōdō Kairo (One Hundred Patterns of Waves) by Kamisaka Sekka. Unsōdō
Fig. 5. Kairo (One Hundred Patterns of Waves) by Kamisaka Sekka. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1902 (British Library, ORB.40/838)
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This proved a very popular concept and led to the publication in 1904 of Chō senshu 蝶千種 ‘One Thousand Butterflies’. Its two volumes contain a total of 49 double-page designs of butterflies, ranging from more or less lifelike depictions to near geometric forms as Sekka explored his theme to its limits.

‘One Thousand Butterflies’ Chō senshu by Kamisaka Sekka

‘One Thousand Butterflies’ Chō senshu by Kamisaka Sekka
Figs. 6a and 6b. ‘One Thousand Butterflies’ Chō senshu by Kamisaka Sekka. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1904 (British Library, ORB.30/6437)
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Between these two publications, Sekka showed his versatility by also producing a series of humorous designs which appeared as Kokkei zuan 滑稽図案 in 1903 with themes ranging from the signs of the Chinese zodiac to the absurdities of contemporary life.

Fashionable hairdos and ‘dogs being dogs’ Front cover
Fig. 7a. Front cover and fig. 7b. Fashionable hairdos and ‘dogs being dogs’!

Kokkei zuan by Kamisaka Sekka Kokkei zuan by Kamisaka Sekka
Fig. 7c. Zodiac animals  and Fig. 7d. Slurping noodles
Fig.7a-7d Kokkei zuan by Kamisaka Sekka. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1903 (British Library ORB.30/6436)
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As a lecturer at what is now Kyoto City University of the Arts, Sekka inspired many talented young designers. Perhaps his most accomplished pupil was Furuya Kōrin 古谷紅麟 (1875-1910) who, while pursuing a distinguished artistic career, also went on to teach alongside his former mentor at Kyoto City School of Arts and Crafts. Like Sekka, he was strongly influenced by the art of the Rinpa School, and even changed his name from Fujitarō 藤太郎 to Kōrin in homage to one the school’s greatest exponents Ogata Kōrin,

Furuya Kōrin contributed a number of designs to the periodicals Shin bijutsukai and Seiei and subsequently worked with Unsōdō to create a series of spectacular zuan-chō. Like Sekka, he explored the ‘variations on a theme’ concept, for example, in his 1902 two-volume publication Unkashū which contains around 80 sinuous designs inspired by clouds and mist.

10b_orb_30_6169_vol_1_007__10b   Cloud patterns from Unkashū by Furuya Kōrin
Figs. 8a and 8b. Cloud patterns from Unkashū by Furuya Kōrin. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1902 (British Library, ORB.30/6169)
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Kōrin continued to collaborate with Unsōdō until his premature death in 1910 and produced a succession of exquisite publications. For example, Date moyō hanazukushi 伊達模様花つくし ‘An Abundance of Flower Motifs for the Fashionable’ appeared in 1905 and contains 48 designs arranged two per page. Belying its title, it included many non-botanical motifs.

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Designs from Date moyō hanazukushi by Furuya Kōrin
Figs. 9a and 9b. Designs from Date moyō hanazukushi by Furuya Kōrin. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1905 (British Library, ORB.40/1011)
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One of his most successful works was Shasei sōka moyō 写生草花模様 ‘Patterns of Flowering Plants Drawn from Nature’ (1907), in which his 50 striking designs are complemented by the superb colour-printing and sumptuous use of metallic and mineral pigments that were the hallmarks of Unsōdō and Unkindō deluxe publications.

Bitter melons. Botanical designs from Shasei sōka moyō by Furuya Kōrin
Fig.10a. Bitter melons

Botanical designs from Shasei sōka moyō by Furuya Kōrin
Fig.10b. Irises
Figs. 10a and 10b. Botanical designs from Shasei sōka moyō by Furuya Kōrin. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1907 (British Library, ORB.30/132 vol.1 and ORB.30/132 vol.2)
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Sekka and Kōrin were just two of the virtuoso designers creating zuan-chō in the late Meiji Period and a subsequent blog will look at works in the British Library by others of their contemporaries, including Tsuda Seifū, Shimomura Tamahiro (Gyokkō) and Ogino Issui.


Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collections

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The author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance of Professor Scott Johnson in the compilation of this series of blog posts.

Further reading
Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.
Jackson, Anna (ed.), Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.
—— “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).