THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

46 posts categorized "East Asia"

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).

18 May 2020

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll: A British Library Treasure

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Theories abound on the date that Jews arrived in China. Some point to the period following Moses’ birth, others to the dispersion of the Ten Lost Tribes by the Assyrians in 720 BCE, and others to the Diaspora following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Although evidence to support any of these theories is lacking, there is also the likelihood that Jews reached China in the centuries following the Babylonian exile (6 th century BCE). It is known that descendants of the exiles from the Land of Israel moved progressively eastward as they engaged in a thriving commerce by sea and along the trade routes of the Silk Road. Some who had lived in Persia, India and Bukhara may have settled in China. Research work on the Chinese Jewry undertaken particularly in the second half of the 20th century by scholars such as William Charles White, Donald Daniel Leslie, and Michael Pollak, have weighed heavily in favour of Persian roots; however, the exact origin of the Chinese Jews is still shrouded in mystery.


A map of Kaifeng, China. (Source: GoogleMaps; CC-4.0)

The earliest tangible proof of Jewish presence on Chinese soil comes from a fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter dating from the end of the 8th century (British Library Or. 8212/166), which was found by the Hungarian born British explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1901 near Dandan-Uiliq, an important Buddhist trading centre on the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan. This letter (which was obviously en route, being a surface find) was written in Judeo-Persian (Persian in Hebrew script) by a Jewish merchant to a coreligionist in Persia with whom he was engaged in business, and discusses the sale of an inferior flock of sheep. It was written on locally-manufactured paper. 

Fragment of letter in Persian in Hebrew script
Fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter. [1] (Probably Khotan, China, 8th century. Or 8212/166 )
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Historians concur that one of the oldest Jewish communities in China is K’ae-fung-foo (Kaifeng, formerly known as P'ien-Liang), on the banks of the Yellow River, in the province of Henan, which was founded by Jewish traders who settled there by the mid-tenth century. Kaifeng had been the thriving capital of the emperors of the Song Dynasty, who ruled China for 166 years beginning in 960 CE.

The Jewish community flourished until the 18th century, but by the mid-19th century, it was already in a state of decline (and barely survived into the 20th century). In 1850, some 200 Jewish souls lived in Kaifeng. Not having had a rabbi for almost fifty years, the Kaifeng Jews lacked but the most basic knowledge of Judaism, and could no longer read and write Hebrew. Their magnificent synagogue, first built in 1163 and rebuilt on at least two occasions since, stood neglected and dilapidated. It nonetheless provided a safe shelter to hapless and impoverished members of the community who, in order to earn a meagre living, sold bricks and wood from its ruins to their non-Jewish neighbours.

Kaifeng Synagogue
A model of the Kaifeng Synagogue, built around 1163 CE and destroyed in the 1860's. (Source: Asian History; not CC-0)

These observations come from the diaries kept by two Chinese Christians, K'hew T'hëen-sang and Tsëang Yung-che, who in November 1850 were despatched to Kaifeng on a mission of enquiry by the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among Jews. The diaries were subsequently edited by Bishop George Smith and published in Shanghai in 1851 under the title The Jews of K'ae-fung-foo: being a narrative of the mission of inquiry to the Jewish Synagogue of K'ae- fung-foo…

The main purpose of the expedition was to establish contact with the isolated Kaifeng Jews, to learn about their community and way of life, and to retrieve Holy Books from their ancient synagogue. It was on their second visit to Kaifeng in spring 1851 that the two Chinese missionaries obtained forty small biblical manuscripts and purchased six Torah Scrolls (out of twelve Torah scrolls seen on their previous trip) paying the Jewish community 400 taels of silver, the equivalent of about £130.

On December 11th, 1852, the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews presented one of the six retrieved Torah scrolls to the British Museum.

Torah Scroll of Kaifeng when rolled
The rolled Kaifeng Torah Scroll showing the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews' inscription. (Kaifeng Torah Scroll. Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250, front)
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The scroll, which has been part of the British Library’s Hebrew collection since 1973, is composed of ninety-five strips of thick sheepskin sewn together with silk thread, rather than with the customary animal sinew. Its 239 columns of unpunctuated Hebrew text are written in black ink in a script that is similar to the square Hebrew script used by the Jews of Persia.

Detail of the text of the Kaifeng Torah Scroll
Kaifeng Torah Scroll. (Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250 (detail))
CC Public Domain Image

According to scholars, the Torah scrolls originating in Kaifeng were most probably created between 1643 and 1663. Each is marked with an identifying number placed on the reverse of the last skin. The numbers were written in Hebrew and each individual scroll was dedicated to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. For example, the British Library scroll bears the letter ב (bet, i.e. number 2) and was dedicated to the Tribe of Shim‘on.

Detail of the text of the Kaifeng Torah Scroll
Kaifeng Torah Scroll. (Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250 (detail))
CC Public Domain Image

Only seven have survived and are currently preserved in various European and American libraries. Research on the extant Kaifeng Torah scrolls indicates that they were copied from several models of yet undetermined provenance. The considerable number of errors and inaccuracies found in the texts shows that the scribes who wrote them were amateurs whose knowledge of Hebrew was rather poor.

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll is one of the star objects in the Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition. Due to the current global pandemic, the opening of the exhibition scheduled for March 2020 has been deferred until further notice.

Our readers and followers would be pleased to know, however, that the scroll has been fully digitised and catalogued, as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project undertaken by the British Library, 2013-2020. The Kaifeng Torah scroll digital surrogate is freely accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings on the Kaifeng Jews:

Anson H. Laytner & Jordan Paper, eds. The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: a millennium of adaptation and endurance. Lexington Books, 2017.

Charles William White. Chinese Jews, a Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of K'aifeng Fu. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942). 

Donald Daniel Leslie. The survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish community of Kaifeng. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Michael Pollak, The Torah Scrolls of the Chinese Jews. Dallas: Wayside Press, Inc., 1975, 34 and passim.

Sidney Shapiro. Jews in Old China, Studies by Chinese Scholars. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984), 2001.

Ursula Sims-Williams. "Jewish merchants in the desert," in Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, edited by Susan Whitfield (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019), p. 252. [Document supply m19/.11888

 



[1] Please bear in mind that the metadata of the digital surrogate is in the process of being revised. The article link included in the Further readings list provides clear evidence that this letter was written by a Jewish Persian merchant operating in Khotan, to his employer in Persia.

21 February 2020

Guanyin: the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

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

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

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

The name: caring for all sentient beings

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

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

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

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

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

The form: depictions of Guanyin

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

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

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

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

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

The practice: Guanyin as a guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

Conversion table of Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ name

Sanskrit

Chinese

Pinyin

Avalokiteśvara

觀自在

Guanzizai

觀世音

Guanshiyin

觀音

Guanyin

Amitābha

阿彌陀

Amito

Mahāsthāmaprāpta

大勢至

Dashizhi

Conversion table of Sutra names

English

Sanskrit

Chinese

Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance

 

大悲懺儀軌

Heart Sutra

Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya

般若波羅密多心經

Sutra of Great Wisdom

Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra

大般若波羅蜜多經

Great Compassion Dharnai

Mahākaruṇādhāranī

大悲咒

Great Compassion Heart Dharani

Mahākaruṇā-cittadhāranī

大悲心陀羅尼

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Samanta-mukha-parivarto nāmâvalokiteśvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśaḥ

觀世音菩薩普門品

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

 

千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經

Lotus Sutra

Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra

妙法蓮華經

17 February 2020

Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books

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Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books, a new exhibition of images from the British Library’s Japanese collection, runs from 14 February to 17 May 2020 in the Library’s Second Floor Gallery. In the first of a series of blog posts, curator Hamish Todd introduces the exhibition and some of the highlights.

Furuya Kōrin Orb_30!132_1_f010_写生草花
Furuya Kōrin 古谷紅麟, Shasei sōka moyō 写生草花模様. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1907. British Library, ORB.30/132

With the help of a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the British Library is digitising its collection of Japanese pattern books and making these available online. This exhibition of selected images has been created to display the variety and vibrancy of these works, from their origins in the mid-17th century until the early 20th century.

Textiles and in particular the kimono in its various forms, have been a focus for artistic creativity in Japan for centuries. Following decades of civil war, the Edo Period (1603-1868) saw the re-establishment of peace and stable government under the Tokugawa shogunate. As the economy prospered, large urban populations developed in Kyoto, Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka. Alongside the Imperial Court and aristocracy in Kyoto, the samurai and increasingly prosperous merchant classes of Edo formed a sophisticated, fashion-conscious audience and many aspects of Japanese culture, notably the arts and crafts, flourished.

The desire among the fashionable for variety and novelty led to the publication of the first pattern books, hinagata-bon 雛形本, in the 1660s. These early works were printed using traditional woodblock technology in black and white, but often included notes describing the intended colour and type of fabric. They were practical in nature, serving as manuals for textile designers and kimono merchants, or fashion magazines and catalogues for the discerning customer.

Or_74_cc_8_f006r_新撰御ひいながた_crop  The first kimono pattern book
The first kimono pattern book. Shinsen o-hiinagata 新撰御ひいながた by Asai Ryōi 浅井了意. British Library, Or.74.cc.8. On the left a pattern of chrysanthemums and on the right, printed in red, the characters representing the names of the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Shinsen o-hiinagata 新撰御ひいながた’A New Selection of Patterns’, the first pattern book, was published in 1666. Initially printed solely in black and white, the following year another edition, shown here, appeared with some pages also printed in single colours of blue, green or red. Early pattern books normally depict the kosode (forerunner of the modern kimono) in a T-shape with the back and sleeves forming the focus of the striking designs.

This novel type of publication proved very popular and new titles appeared in quick succession as publishers sought to capitalise on the new trends. Textile designers and artists drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, notably, the natural world, folklore, history, signs of the zodiac, auspicious symbols and the written word.

For example, in this design, a carp fights its way up a powerful waterfall, a popular symbol of energy and determination drawn from a Chinese legend in which a carp crossed the Dragon Gate rapids on the Yellow River and turned into a dragon.

Dragon Gate Waterfall Orb_30!4449_vol_3_035_雛形萩の野
‘Dragon Gate Waterfall’ 龍門乃滝, from Tōsei somegumi hinagata hagi no 当世染組 雛形萩の野. Kyoto, 1741. British Library, ORB.30/4449.

In this design from Shin moyō yaegasumi 新模様八重霞, the artist Kōyōken Charanshi 紅葉軒茶藍子 has depicted a herd of lively horses. Published in 1784, this work brings an added level of sophistication to the pattern book by the addition of delicate hand-colouring and the inclusion of images of the whole design and of a detail.

Shin moyō yaegasumi _新模様八重霞  Shin moyō yaegasumi _新模様八重霞
Shin moyō yaegasumi 新模様八重霞. Kyoto, 1784. British Library, ORB.30/8579

Symbols of good fortune and longevity were, and remain, popular motifs for textiles. In Japanese folklore, the crane represents 1,000 years of life, the tortoise 10,000 years. In Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉 (‘Tennen’s One Hundred Cranes’) Kaigai Tennen, explored the theme with depictions of these auspicious birds in a variety of styles, settings and combinations with other propitious symbols.

A crane from Kaigai Tennen
A crane from Kaigai Tennen 海外天年, Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1901. British Library, ORB.40./964 (vol.3 folio 1)

A crane with a mythological minogame (long-haired tortoise)_007
A crane with a mythological minogame (long-haired tortoise) from Kaigai Tennen 海外天年, Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1901. British Library, ORB.40./964 (vol.3 folio 4)

Enterprising kimono merchants were quick to see the potential of pattern books as a means of attracting customers and promoting their wares to a wider clientele. An example is the lavish Kuretake 呉竹, produced in 1902 by Ichida Yaichirō 市田弥一郎, proprietor of the Kyoto kimono emporium Ichida Shoten. It includes 120 spectacular designs as well as 47 textile samples from which clients could choose their preferred colours and fabrics.

Orb_40!1208_f047v_呉竹
Design for a haori (short jacket) incorporating animals of the Chinese zodiac. From Kuretake 呉竹. Kyoto, 1902. British Library, ORB.40/1208

Orb_40!1208_f059r
Fabric samples from Kuretake 呉竹. Kyoto, 1902. British Library, ORB.40/1208

The British Library collection also contains a slightly more ‘homespun’ version of this sort of ‘catalogue’. It is in the form of a scrapbook into which paper cutouts of kimono designs have been pasted. Some of these are reminiscent of the clothes made for Japanese paper dolls (anesama ningyō 姉様人形 ‘big sister dolls’).

Or_16979_f019r_cropped
A design for a furisode (‘swinging sleeves’). From an untitled scrapbook, c. 1890-1900. British Library, Or.16979

As colour-printing became more sophisticated, so did pattern books. By the late 19th century publishers, led by Kyoto-based Unsōdō and Unkindō, were collaborating with talented artists, among them Kamisaka Sekka, Furuya Kōrin and Tsuda Seifū, to produce superb design albums or zuan-chō 図案帳. While some of these were meant as source books for artisans, others were conceived as beautiful objects to be enjoyed for their own sake. We will look at these later works in the following blog.

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, Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years. Andon, 2015, 100.
Milhaupt, Terry Satsuki, Kimono: A Modern History. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.

Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian collections Ccownwork

31 January 2020

Sacred images made to be trampled on: kami fumi-e from Japan

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In this guest post, Dr Pia Maria Jolliffe, who teaches Japanese history at the University of Oxford, and Mahli Knutson, a student of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, Vermont, investigate whether a mysterious image recently acquired by the British Library was really an original item used to test the faith of Japanese Christians during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867).

ORB 40_1061 Kami fumie
Kami fumi-e, which claims to date from mid-Genroku era (i.e around 1676). British Library, ORB.40/1061 Noc

The image in the British Library was sold as a kami fumi-e, or paper image made to be trampled on, supposedly used in the systemic persecution of Christians stemming from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 1614 anti-Christian edict. Indeed, from around 1634 onwards men, women, girls and boys were required to gather for annual ceremonies in which they were asked to trample (fumu) on images (e) depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ. Even the sick and bedridden had to commit this act of blasphemy and images were carried into their homes (Kataoka 2014: 48; Marega 1939: 281, 285). In this way, the authorities hoped to identify Christians who were supposed to refuse to blaspheme against what is considered most holy in their faith.

The material of these images changed over time. Whilst the images preserved today are mostly made of brass, there also existed images with wooden frames and some made of paper (Yasutaka 2018: 242). The image recently acquired by the British Library claims to be one such paper image from the mid-Genroku era (i.e. around 1676). Many other versions of this image exist in places such as at the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Franscisco, at the 26 Martyrs Museum in Nagasaki and at Seinan Daigakuin Museum in Fukuoka, as shown below.

Kami fumi-e from Matteo Ricci Institute
Image at the Ricci Institute (San Francisco), no shelf-mark, claims to be from Tenmei Gannen (1781) (Courtesy of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History, University of San Francisco)

Kami fumi-e 26 Martyrs Museum
Image 26 Martyrs Museum (Nagasaki), no shelf mark, claims to be from the year Keian Kōin (1650) (permission granted by Domenico Vitali SJ, director of the Museum)

Although the item now in the British Library claims to be from the mid Genroku era, there are good reasons to assume it is a replica from a later period. Indeed, Japanese scholars who have analysed the phenomenon of paper fumi-e suggest that it is difficult today to distinguish “real” copies (produced during the Tokugawa period) from fake copies (produced after the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873). For example, Kataoka discussed the occurence of such images as long ago as 1979. He noted that he saw different versions of these image at three different times. At one point, in 1965, even in the house of the Kiyama family whose ancestors were village headmen (shōya). Kataoka (2014: 41) provides an image of the house and notes that the then head of family told him that the image has belonged to the household ever since it was created (monogokoro tsuita koro). Because fumi-e procedures happened in the Kiyama household, one supposes that the paper image with a male head on a cross had been used as a kami fumi-e. More recently, Yasutaka (2018) also commented on the occurrence of this image. In his view most of these images are reproductions that have either been made in the Edo Period itself or afterwards to satisfy the demand for “Kirishitan” objects in a so-called Kirishitan boom. Moreover, there are replica that have been produced for contemporary museums (Yasutaka 2018: 241-242). For example, the museum of Seinan Gakuin University holds such a replica (shown below) which was supposedly reproduced in the Meiji period as a souvenir for foreigners. In a comment on this piece, Mr Churei of the Seinan-Gakuin Museum, suggests that it is quite unlikely people during the Tokugawa period were asked to trample on paper showing the kamon (emblem) of the influential Kuroda family (Churei 2017). This comment is also relevant to the image obtained by the British Library which also shows the emblem of the Kuroda family.

Seinan Gakuin Museum
Image at the Seinan Gakuin University Museum (Fukuoka), claims to be from Bunsei Gannen (1818), shelfmark N-b-005 (permission granted by Shimozono Tomoya, curator of the Museum)

The second mystery of this image lies in whether it is a fumi-e at all. Indeed, there is the possibility that these images may not have been used as fumi-e. Instead, they are likely to depict the severed head of a Dutchman who refused to “trample on” (or object to?) Christian priests. How did we get this idea?

First of all, the text on the right hand side suggests this. Here, above the kamon of the Kuroda family, we can read: 黒田家の定一切支丹破天連ヲ踏マザル者ハ獄門ノ事 (Kuroda-ke no sadame. Hitotsu Kirishitan Bateren wo fumazaru mono ha gokumon no koto) which can literally be translated as “1. The decree of the Kuroda family. This is about the exposure of the severed head (gokumon) of someone who did not trample on a [picture of a] Christian priest”.

Gokumon (“gate of the gaol”) was a punishment that consisted of the public exposure of a severed head. Before the 17th century, a severed head was sometimes hung above gaols. During the Tokugawa period, however, the severed heads of those sentenced to gokumon were taken from the gaol (where the beheading took place) to an official execution ground. There, the severed heads were left on a stand for a couple of days, as a kind of humiliation beyond death, as shown in the illustration below.

Gokumon
Gokumon in Keibatsu Dai Hiroku 刑罪大秘録. (1836). National Diet Library, B150 K34-1

It is also noteworthy that this punishment was more common than burning at stake or crucifixion which were two severe punishments for Christians (Botsman 2005: 20). Is it likely that the image of the British Library is about a Dutchman who was sentenced to gokumon for not trampling on (or opposing) Christian priests?

Why do we think it may be the depiction of a Dutchman? It is the red curly hair of the depicted person that makes us wonder whether it is a Dutch person’s head that is depicted here. During the Tokugawa period, Dutch people were generally referred to as kōmō jin (紅毛人, red -haired people) and Edo popular literature accordingly portrayed Dutch men with curly red hair.

Orandabanashi
A Dutchman: Orandabanashi 紅毛談 (1765). Waseda University Library, Bunko 08 C0200

In sum, through the acquisition of this doubly mysterious item, the British Library has joined the community of other institutions that hold images of this kind. Whether these are “real” Tokugawa period or “fake” Meiji period kami fumi-e images is an interesting question and the answers give different but nonetheless fascinating information about the history of Christianity in Japan. Likewise, interpreting the images as depictions of a Dutchman who was punished for not being in opposition to Christian priests opens up a series of new questions.

References
Botsman, Daniel (2005) Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Churei, Shōji (2017) “Kami fumi-eSeinan Gakuin University Museum News 3.
Gotō Godōan (1765) Orandabanashi vol. 1.
Keibatsu Dai Hiroku (1836).
Kataoka, Yakichi (2014) Fumi-e, Kakure Kirishitan. Tokyo: Tomo Shobō.
Marega, Mario (1939) “E-fumi” Monumenta Nipponica, 2/1, pp. 281-286
Yasutaka Hiroaki (2018) Fumie o funda kirishitan. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan.

Pia Maria Jolliffe (University of Oxford) and Mahli Knutson (Middlebury College) Ccownwork

We are very grateful to Alessandro Bianchi, Hanaoka Kiyoko, Miyata Kazuo and Hamish Todd for commenting on earlier drafts of this paper.

21 December 2019

Chinese Botanical Paintings in the British Library Visual Arts Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nhd_55_032r copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rita dal Martello, doctoral candidate at UCL  ccownwork