Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

30 March 2020

Sân khấu: a Vietnamese magazine on theatre and performing arts

Today’s guest blog is by Haewon Lee, who is currently working on a Ph.D. at SOAS, University of London, on safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, with special reference to Vietnamese Lên đồng.

Sân Khấu, which means “stage” or “theatre" in Vietnamese, is a monthly (bi-monthly in the early stages) magazine on theatre and performing arts. Although it has now faded into Vietnamese history, with the final volume published in 2002, the British Library holds a long run of Sân Khấu from 1977 to 2002, covering almost the entire life of the journal (16671.c.4).

Image 1
Front cover of Sân Khấu, no.17 (1-1979). British Library, 16671.c.4   

I am writing this post to raise awareness of this fantastic magazine so that more people can make good use of it for various purposes. The table below indicates the available volumes in the British Library. However, when requesting an item, it is necessary to specify which particular issues are required. As many first-time users will probably not know which volume to consult, attachments are provided via the links below, giving the table of contents for each volume.

Table: British Library holdings for Sân Khấu, 1977-2002 (16671.c.4)
Image 1 (table)

Downloadable PDFs of images of the contents pages of Sân Khấu for the following years:
Download San Khau 1977-1991
Download San Khau 1992-1994
Download San Khau 1995-1999
Download San Khau 2000-2002

Each volume usually contains around ten sections, with four core sections common to all the volumes. Theatre Issues (Những Vấn Đề Sân Khấu), Foreign Theatre (Sân Khấu Nước Ngoài), Cultural Exchange/Communications (Trao Đổi), and New Plays/Theatre News (Vở diễn mới/Tin sân khấu). Theatre Issues is the section for updates in the field. The editorials in this section discuss important issues such as fundraising and conserving the traditions.  The Foreign Theatre section covers a wide range of international topics of relevance to the theatre. The Cultural Exchange/Communications section contains not only interviews with artists and performers but also scholars’ discussions concerning ways to integrate traditional and contemporary art forms. Finally, the New Plays/ Theatre News section introduces new plays in Vietnam to the readers. On occasions it provides information about certain troupes who have made names for themselves by performing abroad.

Image 2
Front cover; introduction to a troupe of performers; and the table of contents, Sân Khấu, no. 152 (12-1993), pp. 1-3. British Library, 16671.c.4

This magazine is especially valuable for researchers for two reasons. First, the magazine covers not only the Viet people but also ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. For example, I was editing the paper I wrote on the Cham peoples’ impact on Bóng rỗi performance in southern Vietnam. The main purpose of the editing process was to fill in the gaps on Vietnamese perspectives on Cham performing arts, and I found numerous thought-provoking perspectives by Vietnamese scholars on Cham performing art in this magazine. Secondly, it gives me insightful ideas for my doctoral research. My doctoral research is on Vietnamese beliefs and practices in a folk religion called Lên đồng or Mother Goddess, and the current issues they are facing in terms of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage since 2016 when it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This magazine has been valuable for me my research as it also covers various opinions on the issues of "stage-isation” of intangible cultural heritage not only in Vietnam but also worldwide. Concerns about “stage-isation" have been raised frequently as an issue of grave concern either in the Theatre Issues section or the Cultural Exchange/Communications section by experts in Vietnam since the late 1970s. Other matters of interest can also be found since each issue of the journal starts with the section called Theatre Issues

I intend to promote this magazine to reach more readers by introducing its full scope. The main focus of this magazine is the four key traditional performances in Vietnam: Chèo, Múa rối nước from northern Vietnam, Cải Lương , and Tuồng or Hát bội from southern Vietnam (see the blog post by Sud Chonchirdsin on Tuồng or Hát bội) Histories, contemporary issues, and reviews of individual performances are also discussed in this magazine. Additionally, each issue introduces the troupes presenting these traditional performances, along with contact information for the troupe and profiles of each member. This information is helpful for those who conduct fieldwork and need more networks in Vietnam.

Looking closely at the content, some special issues for certain months might grab the attention of a broader audience. For example, part of the October or November issues of the magazine celebrate the Russian revolution in 1917, and in these issues, contemporary issues in Russian theatre or cultural exchanges between Vietnam and the Soviet Union were featured. International perspectives are not only confined to communist states. Almost every issue has a section called Foreign Theatre, which might include essays on Broadway productions in the US and Shakespeare in the UK. These special issues and the coverage of general topics make this magazine more historically valuable as it allows readers to fathom Vietnamese perspectives  on various topics relating to theatre and performance. 

Image 3
Changes in front covers over time. Sân Khấu, no.6 (5,6-1977), no.20 (5-1979), no.165 (1-1995), no.225 (1-2000), no.242 (6-2002), and no.244 (8-2002). British Library, 16671.c.4    

Apart from the special issues, other features of the magazine are noteworthy. The special issues, which can be goldmines for researchers on Vietnam studies, became more frequent in the late 1970s. A different approach was apparent in the 1990s, when a number of “pretty” female artists were featured frequently in the magazine. During that period, the magazine seemed to be slowly losing its academic identity through the inclusion of more advertisements and articles on general lifestyle issues, as well as health and  beauty. However, in the very final stage, before it ceased publication in the early 2000s, the magazine returned to its roots and featured more editorials and reviews of plays. Reading through issues of Sân Khấu in the British Library can provide a rewarding journey through the lifecycle of the magazine.

Haewon Lee  ccownwork

Haewon Lee trained as an anthropologist, and has wide interests that include ritual practices and performing arts in Southeast Asian countries, and studies on intangible cultural heritage. She earned her BA in Vietnamese and Communications from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, while her MA dissertation (SOAS, 2017) and other writings mainly focus on the meaning of of gender in Lên đồng, a ritual practice in Vietnam. Her interest in ritual practices of mediumship in Vietnam led on to her current doctoral research at SOAS.  Haewon can be contacted by email on

Note from Annabel Gallop, Head of the Southeast Asia section:
When Haewon Lee attended the annual Asian and African Collections Doctoral Students Day at the British Library on 20 January 2020, she asked if there was any quick way of finding out the contents of individual issues of Sân Khấu. My short answer was no: there was no alternative to ordering up every single issue of the journal to the Reading Room.  This Haewon duly did, slowly and methodically, while photographing every contents page. She then generously contacted me to ask if there was any way to make this information available to future researchers; hence this blog, with its valuable downloadable compilations of the contents pages of Sân Khấu.

23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.

16 March 2020

Hands off! This book is mine! Ownership inscriptions in Hebrew manuscripts

Making notes in a book in not always an act of vandalism. Sometimes it is an act of caring. I often put my name in my own books before lending them. And I am not the only one. Manuscripts were held dear by their owners. A good number of inscriptions bear witness of the care patrons took to ensure the safety of their precious books. Just like Jewish scribes, Jewish owners also developed set phrases to make their marks.
"לעולם יכתוב אדם שמו על ספרו שמא אחד מן השוק יבא ויאמר זה הספר שלי לכן כתבתי שמי..."
[People sign their books from the beginning of time lest someone come from the market and say ‘This book is mine’, thus I have written my name …]

Elishaʿ ben Gad of Ancona, ʿEts ha-daʿat. Italy, 1535/6.Or_12362_f049v
Elishaʿ ben Gad of Ancona, ʿEts ha-daʿat. Safed, 1535/6. British Library, Or 12362, f. 49v Noc

This is one of most popular phrases. Why people from the market? A marketplace was seen as a gathering place for strangers, idlers, and perhaps even rascals. Owners were concerned that such suspicious characters would claim their precious books. The owner of an 18th-century Passover hagadah expresses his opinion about such false claimers very explicitly:
"לעולם יכתוב אדם שמו על ספרו שמא יבוא ר' חמסן ור' גזלן מן השוק יאמר שלי הוא."
[People put their name into their book lest Rabbi Robber and Rabbi Thief come from the market and say ‘It is mine’.]

Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756.Or_12324_f001r det
Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756. British Library, Or 12324, f. 1r Noc

The owner of a halakhical miscellany composed an entire poem to declare his right to possess the book with a warning at the end:

הפנקס הזה מאן דאשבחתיה / החכם הוא אם הוא שוטה / במהרה ישיבהו לי בחפצי / ומכיסו מעותיו יוציא / כאשר עשיתי כי רציתיו / פרעתיהו ואחר לקחתיהו
אני ראיתי אנשי מדות / שקונים ספרים בלי מעות / רק בחמשה אצבעות / לכן חתמתי עליו שמי / כדי שלא יבא אחד מן השוק / ויעשה לי צוק / ואני נותן לו פוק.

[Whoever finds this book, be he wise or a fool, quickly return it to me in accordance with my wishes,
And take his money out of his pocket, as I did when I wanted it: I paid for it, and then I took it.
I have seen people who bought books not with money but only with their five fingers, thus I wrote my name on [this book] lest someone come from the market and bring me trouble, [because then] I will tell him to scram.]

Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f046r Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f045v
Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century. British Library, Or 10092, f. 45v and 46r Noc

As you can see, the owner wanted to make sure that his message gets through to whoever tries to take his book, so he added the first part of his little poem also in Italian on the other side of the opening:
Questo libro chi la cata sia savio o sia matto tosto tosto al mio piacere lo renda e danari della sua borscia spenda come fece io quando lo volso lo pagai e poi lo tolso
[Whoever takes hold of this book, be he wise or be he foolish, quickly quickly return it in accordance with my wishes, and spend coins from his purse as I did when I wanted it: I paid and then I took it.]

The first stanza is somewhat obscure both in Hebrew and in Italian. A possible interpretation is that if someone gets hold of this manuscript, they should return it to the owner without hesitation, and buy one for themselves.

Such Italian inscriptions in Jewish books are not something unique. In the British Library collection, there is a large number of Italian Jewish manuscripts, and they often contain notes by the owners in Italian. These notes are very often put in rhyme. Raffael Vita inscribed the following little verse into his manuscript:
Questo libro e di carta chi è orbo non lo quarda. Se piace a qualcheduno se ne vada comprar uno com' ho fatto ancor'io questo libro è mio Raffael Vita …
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. This one’s mine! Raffael Vita…]

Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. Or_10485_f009v det
Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. British Library, Or 10485 f. 9v Noc

Almost identical inscription appears at the beginning of a 17th-century miscellany, but someone, probably a later owner deleted the name at the end:
Questo libro è di carta che un … orbo non lo guarda se piacere a qualche uno si ne vada a comprar uno et per questo mi son sotto il mio nuome Jacob .. da …
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. And this is why I have my my name here Jacob….of …]

Miscellany, Italy, 17th century.Or_12360_f001v det
Miscellany, Italy, 17th century. British Library, Or 12360, f. 1v Noc

Another popular rhyme, used not only by Jewish, but also by Christian book owners, was a note in case the book would get lost:
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non si sapesse io che morire sono nato graziadio et angeli Sacerdoti son nominato. Reggio 12 aprile 1767
[If this book ever gets lost and the name of its owner is not known, I who was born to die thank God and the angels Sacerdoti is how I am called. Reggio 12 April 1767.]

Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century.Or_9902_f001r
Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century. British Library, Or 9902, f.1r Noc

As you can see, more than one member of the Sacerdoti family left their mark on this page.

The owner of a 16th-century collection of commentaries wanted to use the same rhyme, but for some reason he left the note unfinished. The most important thing - the name - is missing!
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non sapesse che lo trova che lo rende….
[If this book ever gets lost, and the name of the owners is not known, whoever finds it, whoever returns it...]

Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535.Or_9155_f002r det
Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535. British Library, Or 9155, f. 2r Noc

If you decide to compose a short poem to ensure that everyone knows this book is yours, do not forget to add your name at the end! Otherwise you might never get it back!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections Ccownwork