Asian and African studies blog

16 posts categorized "Printing"

11 September 2020

eReading Karma in Snakes and Ladders: two South Asian game boards in the British Library collections

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This guest blog post is by Souvik Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research looks at the narrative and the literary through the emerging discourse of videogames as storytelling media and at how these games inform and challenge our conceptions of narratives, identity and culture. 

Salman Rushdie, in his novel, Midnight’s Children, writes about the game of Snakes and Ladders that ‘all games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate’ (Rushdie 2016, 160). Whether Rushdie is aware one does not know but Snakes and Ladders indeed has its beginnings as a game of morals, or even more than that – a game about life and karma. When Frederick Henry Ayres, the famous toymaker from Aldgate, London, patented the game in 1892, the squares of the game-board had lost their moral connotations. There were earlier examples in Victorian England and mainland Europe that had a very Christian morality encoded into the boards but the game actually originated in India as Gyan Chaupar (it had other local variations such as Moksha Pat, Paramapada Sopanam and other adaptations such as the Bengali Golok Dham and the Tibetan Sa nam lam sha). Victorian versions of the game include the Kismet boardgame (c.a. 1895) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (fig. 1). There were other similar games such as Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished (1818) and the New Game of Human Life (1790) although the latter did not contain snakes and ladders on its board.
Fig. 1. Kismet, c.1895. Chromolithograph on paper and card. Designed in England, manufactured in Bavaria. Victoria & Albert Museum, MISC.423-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    In the Indian versions, it was not a racing-game as it became in its Western adaptations. It was a game that did not end in square hundred but one that people could play over and over until they reached Vaikuntha (the sacred domain of Vishnu) after journeying though many rebirths and corresponding human experiences. Every square in the game signified a moral action, a celestial location or a state of being all of which were important in the Karmic journey. Here is the story of two game-boards in the British Library’s archives and how an Indian game designed to teach the workings of Karma and religion became the Snakes and Ladders that children play the world over, today.

    One of the oldest Gyan Chaupar boards that have been traced so far is now in the British Library (Topsfield 1985, 203-226), originally in the collection of the East India Company officer Richard Johnson (1753-1807) (fig. 2). There are claims that the game originated much earlier – in the Kridakaushalya section of his 1871 Sanskrit magnum opus Brihad Jyotish Arnava, Venkatarama Harikrishna of Aurangabad states that the game was invented by the Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar (1275 – 1296). Andrew Topsfield lists around forty-four game-boards in his two articles published two decades apart and these boards belong to multiple religious traditions, Hindu, Jain and Muslim (Sufi). Topsfield mentions older boards that date back to the late 15th century and also ones that have 128 squares, 84 squares or a 100 squares instead of the 72 squares as on the Johnson board. There is, however, another board in the British Library that has probably not been written about yet. Listed as the Paramapada Sopanam Pata (fig. 3), it is described in the catalogue as: ‘Lithograph in Blockwood printing. of the game Paramapada sōpānam, a traditional Indian indoor game: in a chart titled: Paramapada Sopanam, in which the highest ascent indicates reaching Heaven and anywhere else where the pawn lands indicate various worlds according to Hindu mythology. Language note: In Kannada and Devanagari’. These two boards tell the story of the transculturation of a game that started out as a pedagogical tool to teach the ways of karma and ended up as Hasbro Inc.’s Chutes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders board game on paper from Lucknow
Designs for a game of snakes and ladders, gyan chaupur, commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, 1780-82. Johnson Album 5,8.  CC Public Domain Image

Snakes and Ladders board game, printed on paper, from Karnataka, 19th century
Paramapada Sopanam Pata, board game printed in Karnataka, c. 1800-1850. British Library, ORB 40/1046. CC Public Domain Image

    Around 1832, a Captain Henry Dundas Robertson would present what he called the Shastree’s Game of Heaven and Hell to the Royal Asiatic Society in London where the 128-square Vaishnav Gyan Chaupar board can still be seen. Around 1895, when the game was being sold in England as a children’s game, the civil servant Gerald Robert Dampier was sending a detailed report on the game to North Indian Notes and Queries. Around a century before Dampier and fifty years before Robertson, Richard Johnson’s possession of a Gyan Chaupar board around 1780-2 is in itself a curious affair. This board is now part of the British Library’s collection. Johnson, the deputy resident at Lucknow, is among the lesser-known Orientalists despite his prodigious collection of Indian art and his close connection with orientalists of greater repute such as Sir William Jones. Johnson was supposedly a competent official but he made a fortune through corruption and was called ‘Rupee Johnson’; he was also involved in Warren Hastings’s infamous looting of the Begums of Oudh. In his two years in Oudh (1780-82) Johnson was, however, seems to have been popular and was given the title Mumtāz al-Dawlah Mufakhkhar al-Mulk Richārd Jānsan Bahādur Ḥusām Jang, 1194 or ʻRichard Johnson chosen of the dynasty, exalted of the kingdom, sharp blade in war’, 1780 together with a mansab and an insignia by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. Johnson was also an eclectic collector and commissioned work by many Indian artists and scholars  of which 64 albums of paintings (over 1,000 individual items) and an estimated 1000 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Panjabi, Hindi and Assamese form the ‘backbone of the East India Company library’ (now at the British Library, see Sims-Williams 2014). While other orientalists such as Jones and Hiram Cox wrote on Chess, Johnson seems to have been interested in other games. Besides the Gyan Chaupar board, the Johnson collection contains the Persian game of Ganj (Treasure) and sketches for Ganjifa cards – the round playing cards that were common in India before the advent of European cards (British Library, Johnson Album 5).

    Johnson’s contribution to boardgame studies is no less important than that of the other orientalists although it has taken over two centuries to appreciate this. The Gyan Chaupar board was in his possession a good century before the game was imported to the West and transformed into a race-game. Johnson seems to have been interested in the original game and besides the Devanagari script, each square also contains a farsi transliteration. The words are not Persian but the script is.[i] It is difficult to identify the painter or the source – Malini Roy points out that ‘artists affiliated with Johnson’s studio include Mohan Singh, Ghulam Reza, Gobind Singh, Muhammad Ashiq, Udwat Singh, Sital Das, and Ram Sahai’ (Roy 2010, 181). Whether Johnson read the game-board is a moot question but he certainly cared to get the words transliterated into Persian. Beginning the game on utpatti or ‘origin’, the player can move to maya or ‘illusion’ (square 2), krodh or lobh – ‘anger’ and ‘greed’ respectively (squares 3 and 4) and ascend higher towards salvation via the ladders in the squares that represent daya or mercy (square 13) or Bhakti or devotion (square 54). Bhakti will take the player directly to Vaikuntha and salvation from the cycle of rebirths and the game ends here. For a game purportedly invented by a major figure of the Bhakti Movement, this is no surprise. If the throw of the dice takes the player beyond square 68, then the long snake on square 72 brings the player back to Earth and the cycle of rebirths continues. Johnson’s board is unique among the Gyan Chaupar boards that are known to scholars in that it contains two scorpions in addition to the snakes and the ladders also look somewhat serpentine.

    One more detail is not obvious from the board. None of these boards comes with playing pieces or dice but writing in 1895, Dampier claims that the game was played with cowrie shells as dice and he also adds that the game is ‘very contrary to our Western teachings […] it is not clear why Love of Violence (sq. 72) should lead to Darkness (sq. 51)’. Dampier notes that the game has been ‘lately introduced in England and with ordinary dice for cowries and [with] a somewhere revised set of rules been patented there as a children’s game’ (Dampier 1895, 25-27).

    Dampier’s short but detailed account of Gyan Chaupar provides a clearer entry point into how and why an ‘oriental’ game of karma needed to be Westernised as a children’s game. The transition from the karmic game to the game on Christian morality and then to a race-game for children embodying competition rather than soul-searching is evident from his pithy notes sent to the journal North Indian Notes and Queries. One might assume that the principles working here would have been very different from Johnson’s approach to the game. The story, nevertheless, does not end here. I was fortunate to discover another game-board in the British Library as I mention above. The Paramapada Sopanam or the Ladder to Heaven is similar to the Johnson board in most ways except that there are only snakes on the board. Some snakes help the player ascend and the others are for descent (I purposely eschew terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ here). Square 54 or Bhakti, a many-headed serpent leads the player to Vaikuntha (the board is damaged here) and one might assume that it is Ananta, the celestial snake on which Vishnu reclines. There are some differences with the Johnson board although both relate to the Vaishnav sect of Hinduism. While Gyan Chaupar is largely forgotten in Northern India (except in the Jain tradition where it is reportedly played by some during the Jain festival Paryushan), Paramapada Sopanam is regularly played on the festive day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi in the Indian states of Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, Carl Gustav Jung supposedly obtained a copy of the game when he visited Tamil Nadu in 1938 and took it back to Zurich; Sulagna Sengupta concludes that Jung read the matrix of the game as the play of opposites in the psyche (Sengupta 2017).

    From the karmic game to Jung’s model for the play of psychological opposites, Gyan Chaupar in its many forms is certainly much more than the race game that it has been changed into after its appropriation by the colonial apparatus. Recent research has been able to identify many of these game-boards and these two boards in the British Library are crucial for the ‘recovery research’ into Gyan Chaupar and its variants as well as the cultures in which they were conceived. Recent research on games talks of ‘gamification’ or the application of ludic principles to real-life activities – a closer look at the original Gyan Chaupar will show its merit as a gamified text, an instructional manual on the ways of life and on Indic soteriology.


[i] I am indebted to Ms Azadeh Mazlousaki Isaksen of the University of Tromso, Norway, for the translations. Ms Isaksen initially struggled to translate the words as she found them unfamiliar. The reason was that these were Hindi or Sanskrit words written in the Persian script.


Cannon, Garland, and Andrew Grout. “Notes and Communications.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 55, no. 2, 1992, pp. 316–318. 

Dampier, Gerald Roberts. “A Primitive Game.” North Indian Notes and Queries V (1895): p. 25-27.

Roy, Malini. “Origins of the Late Mughal Painting Tradition in Awadh.” India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow. Ed. Stephen Markel and Tushara Bindu Gude. Los Angeles: Prestel, 2010.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children. London: Random House, 2016.

Sengupta, Sulagna. “Parama Pada Sopanam : The Divine Game of Rebirth and Renewal.” Jungian Perspectives on Rebirth and Renewal: Phoenix Rising. Ed. Elizabeth Brodersen and Michael Glock. London ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Sims-Williams, Ursula. “‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat.” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, 1 May 2014.

Topsfield, Andrew. “The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 46, no. 3, 1985, pp. 203–226. 


By Dr. Souvik Mukherjee CCBY Image

18 July 2019

The first Iranian newspaper: Mirza Salih Shirazi’s Kaghaz-i akhbar

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Todays guest blogger is Borna Izadpanah, PhD Candidate, University of Reading. Borna is a typeface designer and researcher based in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading working on the history of typographic representation of the Persian language.

ithographed portrait of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī by Karl von Hampeln   1868 statue by John Henry Foley of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī in the Asia group of the Albert Memorial, Kensington Garden
Left: the 1829 lithographed portrait of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī by Karl von Hampeln. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; right: the 1868 statue by John Henry Foley of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī in the Asia group of the Albert Memorial, Kensington Garden. Photo by the author

In 1837, the first Iranian newspaper was published in Tehran by Mīrzā Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī, one of five students dispatched to England under the patronage of the crown prince ʻAbbās Mīrzā with the mission to acquire a knowledge of modern European sciences. Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ kept a journal of his time in England that lasted from 1815 to 1819, a manuscript of which is currently held at the British Library (BL Add. 24,034).

Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s journal reveals significant information regarding his interest in the ‘art of printing’, which led him to an apprenticeship under an English printer and typefounder (most likely Richard Watts). He also recorded an account of his encounter with newspapers in London. Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ translated the word newspaper into Kāghaz-i akhbār [literary news-paper]. Perhaps, for this reason, Kāghaz-i akhbār (and often Akhbār-i vaqāyiʿ [news of events]) is used in most sources to refer to his untitled newspaper.

Folio 133r of the manuscript copy of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue containing information concerning his encounter with newspapers in London (BL Add. 24,034)
Folio 133r of the manuscript copy of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue containing information concerning his encounter with newspapers in London (BL Add. 24,034). Public domain

Before his return to Iran in 1819, Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ, with the help of Richard Watts, purchased a typographic press to be shipped to Iran. Later he established a lithographic press in Tabriz, with a press and equipment that were imported from Russia. A single copy of the first publication from the latter press, a lithographed Qurʼān (Ramaḍān 1249/1834), has only recently come to light and is now preserved at the Majlis Library in Tehran.

Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s seal
Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s seal which reads al-Wathiq al-rajī Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ ‘confident and hopeful [of the forgiveness of the God] Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ' (National Archive FO 60/23). Courtesy of the National Archives, UK.

A few years later, Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ published a newspaper in Tehran under the royal decree of Muḥammad Shāh Qājār. Initially a lithographed Ṭalīʿa [pre-publication advice] of this newspaper appeared between 29 December 1836 and 8 January 1837. In 1945, the Persian journal Yādigār published the entire content of the Ṭalīʿa, the only known copy of which was reportedly in the possession of Ḥāj Muḥammad Āqā Nakhjavānī. According to this Ṭalīʿa, one of the main missions of this monthly newspaper was to educate and inform the residents of the mamālik-i maḥrūsa-i īrān [the guarded domain of Iran] about the news of the Eastern and Western nations. This newspaper was to be distributed to different parts of the country (See Yādigār, 1945).

In 1839, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society published an article entitled ‘Persian newspaper and translation’ in which the entire content of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837) was printed with movable type followed by an English translation. This article also provided a brief description of the newspaper and its editor: lithographed and printed at Tehran … under the editorship of Mirza Salih, one of the public secretaries of H. M. the Shah of Persia … two large folios, printed on one side only; it is closely written in a plain hand, and is surmounted by the Persian emblem of the Lion and Sun’ (JRAS, 1839, p. 355). Unfortunately no copy of this newspaper survives today in the archive of the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

The typeset reproduction of Kāghaz-i akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1839)
The typeset reproduction of Kāghaz-i akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1839). Public domain

Also, in 1839, Richard Wilbraham in his Travels in the Trans-Caucasian Provinces of Russia reported that ‘a lithographic press has been established of late year in Tehran … within the past year a newspaper has been printed in the capital’ (Wilbraham, 1839, p. 46).

Perhaps the first Persian source that mentioned an existing copy of the Kāghaz-i akhbār was an article entitled ‘Gāzit-i āntīka-yi īrān’ [antique Iranian gazette] in the Persian newspaper Akhtar, printed in Istanbul in 1876. According to this report, an ‘Iranian merchant’, had provided Akhtar with an imperfect copy (lacking the first page) of ‘an antique Iranian gazette’ from approximately 40 years earlier, which contained news of foreign nations including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Spain, England, and France (See Akhtar, 1876, pp. 2–3).

Finally, in 1968, the leading Iranian newspaper Kayhn for the first time published a rather unclear ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. According to Kayhn, the Iranian scholar Hamīd Mowlānā was granted permission to photograph this ‘unique copy’ of Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum (Kayhn, 1968). In the following year, a clearer reproduction of the front page of a British Museum copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār (Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253/3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) appeared in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, as ‘the only extant copy of the newspaper’ (See Rāʼīn, 1969, p. 27). In fact, this was perhaps the first time that a reproduction of an issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār, which was previously only known through secondary sources, was published.

The Kayhān report entitled ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. The photograph shows Hamīd Mowlānā (left) presenting a facsimile of the Kāghaz-i akhbār to Alī-Qulī Ardalān (3 August 1968)
The Kayhn report entitled ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. The photograph shows Hamīd Mowlānā (left) presenting a facsimile of the Kāghaz-i akhbār to Alī-Qulī Ardalān (3 August 1968)

With regard to the ‘discovery’ of the Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum there are some conflicting statements. Hamīd Mowlānā later claimed to have ‘discovered’ two copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum in 1963 (Mowlānā, 1979, p. 15). However, in his PhD thesis –submitted in the same year– Mowlānā writes that ‘today, unfortunately no copy of Akhbar Vaghayeh is extant’ (Mowlānā, 1963, p. 200). Moreover, the only copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār that appears in Mowlānā’s studies, and seemingly all the subsequent studies of this newspaper, is the same issue from Jumādá al-Ūlá; no visual representation of the second issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār seem to have appeared in any publication to this day.

The reproduction of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Jumādá al-Ūlá in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, edited by Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn and published in 1969.
The reproduction of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Jumādá al-Ūlá in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, edited by Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn and published in 1969.

In recent years I have tried to trace the cited copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār in order to study their printing quality and other aspects of their production which could not be deduced from the existing reproductions. According to my investigation, no archive or library catalogue bears any record of an extant copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār –apart from a microfilm at British Library (Or.Mic.4776) which proves that the British Museum at some point possessed two copies of this newspaper. However, I was unable to find a shelfmark or any reference concerning the current location of these two issues. Thus, this led to the assumption that these copies had been lost or even destroyed.

Ultimately, however, and thanks to Dr Goel Cohen who drew my attention to the studies of another Iranian scholar Alī Mushīrī, I was able to locate the copies of the newspaper, which had been moved from the British Museum to the British Library. This investigation led me to the shelfmark O.P. 3 (13), cited in two Persian articles by Alī Mushīrī (Mushīrī, 1963 & 1964) which are probably the earliest sources to introduce the British Museum copies although they did not actually include any visual representation of Kāghaz-i akhbār.

This post is notably perhaps the first report in which the both known copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār are shown – particularly in their present condition. They were inserted into a large anonymous volume containing miscellaneous newspapers in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkish, Sinhala, Japanese, etc. The two issues are from Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) and Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837). They are completely intact and have been layered by Japanese tissue paper that has stiffened the original paper. This, however, has also desaturated the black printing ink which only appears on one side of the paper.

The Rabīʻ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)).
The Rabīʻ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)). Public domain

The Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13))
The Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)). Public domain

The illustration of the emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun] with minor variations appears on both issues. The main headline, which is written in riqaʻ style, reads ‘news of the month of … of the year … that was printed in Dār al-khilāfa [the abode of the caliphate] of Tehran’. As what seems to be a general rule, the right-hand folio contains the ‘news of the Eastern nations’ and the left-hand folio contains the ‘news of the Western nations.’ The main text is written in an elegant nastaʻlīq hand, with the name of cities and countries highlighted in riqaʻ style. The approximate size of a single page is 42 in 27 centimetres.

The emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun].
The emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun]. Left: Jumādá al-Ūlá issue and right: the Rabīʻ al-Thānī issue. Public domain

Some Persian sources have stated that these issues of Kāghaz-i akhbār were sent to the British Museum by an employee of the British legation in Tehran since they contained the news of the death of the King William IV and the coronation of the Queen Victoria (this is reflected in the Rabīʿ al-Thānī issue). Alī Mushīrī mentions a certain ‘Charles Sundt’ as the person responsible for sending the papers to England (Mushīrī, 1964, p. 609). I have not been able to find anyone fitting that description, but, it is possible that the person in question, whose name might have been misspelled in the Persian transliteration, is Charles Stuart, the secretary to the British Envoy to Persia, and the author of Journal of a residence in northern Persia and the adjacent provinces of Turkey .

Primary sources
Microfilm containing two issues of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL Or.Mic.4776)
The manuscript of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s journal (BL Add. 24,034)
The anonymous volume containing two original copies of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P.3)

‘‘Aks-i avvalīn va qadīmītarīn rūznāma-yi īrān dar muʼassisa-yi ʻālī maṭbūʻāt’, in Kayhn (Tehran newspaper), 3 August 1968, p. 14.
‘Gāzit-i āntīka-yi īrān’, in Akhtar (Istanbul newspaper), 15 February 1876, pp. 2–3.
Hamīd Mowlānā, Journalism in Iran: a history and interpretation, PhD thesis, Northwestern University, Illinois, 1963.
Sayr-i irtibāṭāt-i ijtimāʻī dar īrān, Tehran, 1979.
Alī Mushīrī, ‘Avvalīn ruznāma dar īrānī’, in Khvāndanīhā, Vol 24, No 29, 1963, pp. 25&46.
— ‘Avvalīn ruznāma-yi īrānī’, in Sukhan, Vol 14, No 7, 1964, pp. 906–11.
‘Persian newspaper and translation’ in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland , Vol 5, No 2, 1839, pp. 355–371.
Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn, Safarnāma-yi Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī, Rawzan, Tehran, 1969.
‘Tārīkh-i rūznāmanigārī dar īrān’, in Yādigār, Vol 1, No 7, 1945, pp. 6–17.
Richard Wilbraham, Travels in the Trans-Caucasian provinces of Russia, London, 1839.

With special thanks to Goel Cohen, Gerry Leonidas, Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, Fiona Ross, Graham Shaw and Michael Twyman.

Borna Izadpanah, PhD Candidate, University of Reading

03 June 2019

Some new old books on and from the Malay world

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Most of my blog posts are about manuscripts from maritime Southeast Asia, but the majority of items in the British Library are printed, including perhaps the most important collection in the world of early Malay printing. The Library also holds printed books in languages such as Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Batak and Bugis, dating from the earliest printed examples through to contemporary publications, as well as rare imprints in all languages from Southeast Asia. Occasionally there are opportunities to fill in gaps in our holdings, and presented below is a selection of early or relatively rare printed books from or on the Malay world acquired over the past few years.

Notes on secret societies, compiled by C.T. Dobrée, is a guide to Chinese triads or secret societies operating in Malaya in the post-war era, with information on the secret codes of language and gestures by which members could identify each other.  This book was compiled as a report for the Federation of Malay Police service in 1953, and printed at the Caxton Press in Kuala Lumpur. Charles Thomas Winston Dobree was appointed Superintendent in the Federation of Malaya Police service in 1948, and at the time of writing was Assistant Commissioner. He appears to have become quite an authority on Chinese gambling syndicates, for he also authored Gambling games of Malaya, printed at the Caxton Press in 1955.

C.T. Dobrée, Notes on secret societies. Kuala Lumpur: printed at the Caxton Press, [1953]. British Library, ORB.30/8724

The study of languages is one of the great strengths of British Library collections, and whenever possible I try to add to our collection of early grammars and dictionaries of Austronesian languages. One new acquisition is by G.J. Grashuis, Maleische spraakkunst met vertaaloefeningen, printed in Zwolle in 1898. This copy bears the ex libris inscription of H. Kreemer; it is tempting to wonder if he was a relation of J. Kreemer, author of the Acehnese-Dutch dictionary Atjehsch handwoordenboek: Atjehsch-Nederlandsch, published in Leiden by E.J. Brill in 1931 (British Library, 14635.d.17). H. Kreemer evidently did not find this book of much interest, for the pages are still uncut.

From the following century is a small English-Iban phrase book, by Father Leo J. Barry of the Roman Catholic mission in Sarawak. The work was first printed in Kuching at the Government Press in 1958, and this is an (undated) copy of a later printing, probably of 1962.  As indicated by the title, this book was arranged by whole phrases rather than words, and covered the type of sentences deemed helpful for a European working in Sarawak.

IMG_1219   IMG_1215
Left: G.J. Grashuis, Maleische spraakkunst met vertaaloefeningen, Zwolle: W.E.J. Tjeenk Willink, 1898. British Library, ORB.30/8733.  Right: Leo J. Barry, English-Iban phrase book, Kuching, [1962?]. British Library, ORB.30/8723.

Of interest to print historians, linguists, epigraphers, typographers and graphic designers is a book with samples of type in different scripts from the famous Lettergieterij 'Amsterdam' voorheen N. Tetterode (Type Foundry 'Amsterdam', formerly known as N. Tetterode), entitled Proeven van Oostersche schriften, published in 1910. It contains examples of its types for scripts ranging from Chinese and Japanese to Coptic and Syriac and Hieroglyphic, as well as Malay, Javanese, Old Javanese, Bugis, Makassarese (including a 'cypher' script), Batak and Mandailing.

IMG_1222   IMG_1230-crop
Proeven van Oostersche schriften, Amsterdam: Lettergieterij "Amsterdam", 1910; with a list of the scripts presented. British Library, ORB.30/8729

Arabic and Malay types, from Proeven van Oostersche schriften, 1910. British Library, ORB.30/8729

The preferred technology for Muslim printing in Southeast Asia was lithography, but the first Malay newspaper, Jawi Peranakkan, published in Singapore in 1876, was typeset. The small book shown below – Hikayat Aluddin, or the Story of Aladdin – was issued by the prolific publisher Haji Muhammad Siraj in Singapore and printed at the Jawi Peranakkan press, using the same small type familiar from the newspaper.  However, lithography is used for the illustrations and captions within the book. The front cover, with the date 1889, may have been the first part of the book to be prepared, for the colophon on the last page gives the date of completion of printing clearly as 1 Ramadan 1307  equivalent to 20 April 1890 (Proudfoot 1993: 121).

Hikayat Alauddin dengan pelita ajaib = Hikayat Aluddin (in Malay), translated by A.F. von Dewall. 
Singapore: Haji Muhammad Siraj bin Haji Muhammad Salih, 1890. British Library, ORB.30/5554  noc

Lithographed illustration of Aladdin being importuned by a sorcerer (Tuk Nujum). British Library, ORB.30/5554  noc

Colophon to Hikayat Aluddin, giving the date of printing at the Jawi Peranakkan press as 20 April 1890 and the name of the publisher as Haji Muhammad Siraj. British Library, ORB.30/5554  noc

As noted above, throughout the second half of the 19th century lithography was the print technology of choice for Muslim publishers because of its ability to reproduce the elegant flowing lines of Arabic calligraphy and to emulate the look of Islamic manuscript books.  Shown below is a typical lithographed publication of this period from a Malay Muslim press, published by Haji Muhammad Taib of Kampung Bali Lane, Singapore, in 1895 (Proudfoot 1993: 483). This is a work on the practice of Islamic law (fiqh), Sullam al-mubtadi fi makrifat tarikat al-muhtadi, composed in 1836 by Syaikh Daud ibn Abdullah al-Fatani (1769-1847), a renowned scholar from Patani in southern Thailand, who spent most of his life studying and writing in Mecca. According to Bradley, this is one of Syaikh Daud's most popular and influential works, and no fewer than 75 manuscript copies are known, in addition to at least eight published editions. The book is inscribed at the beginning and end of the book with the name of its owner, Muhammad Syam bin Abdullah Menjalar, who has also added manuscript annotations in the margin, explaining in Malay certain words in Arabic. 

IMG_1232 IMG_1235
First and last pages of Sullam al-mubtadi by Daud bin Abdullah al-Fatani, lithographed in Singapore in 1895. British Library, ORB.30/4335  noc

Muhammad Syam's manuscript annotations in Malay in the margins of the lithographed book, explaining difficult legal terms in Arabic. British Library, ORB.30/4335  noc

Further reading:

Francis Bradley, Center for Patani Studies.
John Randall (Books of Asia). Southeast Asia: Orientalia 7. London, 2018 (items 2 and 7).
I. Proudfoot. 1993. Early Malay printed books: a provisional account of materials published in the Singapore-Malaysia area up to 1920, noting holdings in major public collections.  [Kuala Lumpur]: Academy of Malay Studies and The Library, University of Malaya.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

With thanks to my colleagues Sud Chonchirdsin and Marja Kingma for cataloguing these items.

03 May 2019

Jesuit Mission Press ‘Feiqe monogatari’ now online

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One of the most important items in the British Library’s Japanese collections is a small, rather ordinary-looking, leather-bound volume, generally known as Feiqe monogatari (BL shelfmark Or.59.aa.1). Despite its appearance, it is, in fact, a remarkable work in a number of ways. Firstly, it was one of the earliest books printed in Japan using movable type rather than the traditional woodblocks, secondly, it is the first non-religious text printed in colloquial Japanese transcribed into the Roman alphabet, offering valuable insights into the phonology of the Japanese language in the 16th century, and thirdly, it is the world’s only extant copy.

Now, thanks to a collaborative project between the British Library and the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL), Tokyo, a fully digitised version of this unique work is available online along with transcriptions, as part of NINJAL’s  Corpus of Historical Japanese, Muromachi Period Series II : Christian Materials.  In addition to a full set of images, NINJAL has also provided transcriptions of the Romanised text and in mixed Japanese kanji/kana script.

The book contains three different texts bound together: Feiqe monogatari a version of the Heike monogatari 平家物語 or Tale of the Heike, a famous medieval epic about the rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto clans, Esopo no fabulas the first Japanese translation of Aesop's Fables, and an anthology of maxims, drawn from Chinese classics, called the Qincvxv (Kinkūshū 金句集).

First page of Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, p.3)
First page of Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, p.3)Noc

First page of Esopo no fabulas (Or 59.aa.1, p.408d)
First page of Esopo no fabulas (Or 59.aa.1, p.408d)Noc

First page of Qinquxu (Or 59.aa.1, p.507)
First page of Qinquxu (Or 59.aa.1, p.507) Noc

All three were printed on the Japanese island of Amakusa by Jesuit missionaries using a movable-type printing press in late 1592/early 1593. Feiqe monogatari has a preface dated 10 December 1592, the title page of Esopo no fabulas is dated 1593 and a general preface added at the front of  the volume was completed on 23 February 1593.

The three texts are accompanied by a printed glossary of ‘words difficult to determine’ (funbetsv xinicuqi cotoba) found in Feiqe monogatari and Esopo no fabulas.  At the end of the book is a handwritten Japanese-Portuguese vocabulary.

Handwritten Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Or.59.aa.1, p.597)
Handwritten Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Or.59.aa.1, p.597) Noc

From the preface of Feiqe monogatari we know that it was the work of the Christian convert - and later apostate - Fabian Fucan (Fukansai 不干斎, c. 1565–1621). Fabian was baptised in 1583 and joined the Jesuits in 1586, teaching Japanese to missionaries in the Jesuit College in Amakusa. He later rejected Christianity and in 1620 published the anti-Christian tract Deus Destroyed (Ha-Daiusu 破提宇子).

When the first Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in the 1540s they immediately set themselves to learning the Japanese language. Their aim, of course, was to convert the population to Christianity and to do this they needed to be able to communicate its teachings in the local language. They made rapid progress and with the help of Japanese converts, soon began translating Christian texts into Japanese. To assist with their work, Alessandro Valignano, head of the Jesuit Mission in East Asia, had a movable-type printing press brought from Portugal. It reached Japan via Goa in July 1590 and was set up at the Jesuit College in Kazusa 加津佐, on the Shimabara Peninsula, where the first work, a life of the apostles and saints entitled Sanctos no gosagyveono vchi nvqigaqi (Sanctos no go-sagyō no unchi nukigaki サントスの御作業の内抜書), was printed in 1591. Shortly afterwards, in the face of official persecution, the College and press were moved to the more remote and safer location of Amakusa 天草 where printing resumed in 1592. The College on Amakusa was suppressed by the Japanese authorities in 1597 so the Jesuits moved again, this time to Nagasaki, taking the press with them and books continued to be printed there from 1598 to 1611.

The books produced by the Jesuit Mission Press in Japan between 1591 and 1611, almost exclusively religious in content, are known collectively in Japanese as Kirishitan-ban or “Christian publications”. The majority were translations of Christian texts widely read in Europe such as Doctrina Christaã, Guía de pecadores and parts of Introducción del símbolo de la fe, in some cases adapted to the Japanese context with additional explanations or omission of doctrines which might have provoked controversy.

The Japanese authorities increasingly came to regard Christianity as subversive and, following a series of repressive measures, it was eventually suppressed and all remaining missionaries expelled from Japan in 1639.

The precise number of Kirishitan-ban titles printed in Japan is not certain.  With the suppression of Christianity and the destruction of images and artefacts connected with it, most of the Jesuit printings were lost.  In his pioneering work The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, 1591–1610 published in 1888, Sir Ernest Satow identified 14 titles. Kirishitan Bunko: A Manual of Books and Documents on the Early Christian Mission in Japan (1940) by Johannes Laures, identifies 30 books published by the Jesuit Mission Press but this includes 5 printed in Macao, Goa or Manila. A more recent publication, Kirishitan to Shuppan (2013), lists a total of 41 Kirishitan-ban (including 5 fragmentary texts) with 92 extant copies identified worldwide, 7 of them in the British Library.  For the 35 works published in Japan, it lists a total of 72 known copies.

Besides its rarity, Feiqe monogatari is important in that it is a literary rather than a religious text..  It was not intended for the education of Japanese Christians but for the missionaries themselves as an aid to learning the language and to understanding the history and values of the Japanese for whom the warrior code (bushidō), reflected in Heike monogatari, and the Chinese classics represented by Kinkūshū had great significance.

First page of preface to Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, ftpr)
First page of preface to Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, ftpr) Noc

The spelling conventions of Portuguese, together with differences in pronunciation of the time, mean that the Romanised texts appear unfamiliar to those used to Hepburn, Kunrei-shiki and other later systems. For example, comparing spellings to the Modified Hepburn transliteration system most widely used today: ‘c’ and ‘q’ are used instead of ‘k’ depending on the following vowel (‘c’ before ‘a,’ ‘o’ or ‘u’, ‘q’ before ‘e’ and ‘i’), while ‘x’ represents ‘sh’ before ‘’i’ and, unlike modern standard Japanese, also before ‘e’. The letter ‘v’ can represent either the vowel ‘u’ or the semivowel ‘w’. The bilabial fricative sound now Romanised as ‘h’ (or ‘f’ before a ‘u’) is written as ’f’ in all positions, presumably reflecting the pronunciation of the time. ‘tçu’ is the equivalent of ‘ts’. As in Portuguese spelling, ‘u’ is inserted after ‘g’ to maintain a hard sound before ‘e’ or ‘i’.

The opening sentence on the first page reads: Nifon no cotoba to historia uo narai xiran to fossvrv fito to tameni xeva ni yavaragvetarv Feiqe no monogatari [The Tale of the Heike made easy to help those wishing to learn the language and history of Japan] which would be written in Modified Hepburn as Nihon no kotoba to historia o naraishiran to hossuru hito no tame ni sewa ni yawaragetaru Heike no monogari, or in Japanese script as 日本の言葉とhistoria [歴史]を習い知らんと欲する人の為に世話に和らげたる 平家の 物語.

Another interesting aspect of Feiqe monogatari is that while not the oldest, it was the first book in the British Museum/British Library’s Japanese collections. The preliminary pages of the volume bear a succession of shelfmarks and annotations from which it appears that the book was acquired by the eminent collector Sir Hans Sloane (1662-1753) in the first years of the 18th century. The earliest number is R3594, one of many sequences used by Sloane. Research published by Amy Blakeway in The Library Catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: Their Authors, Organization, and Functions (, suggests that the R-sequence was used for a rather random can be dated to between 1712 and 1723.  Sloane has also added the erroneous description in his own hand “Fables in the Language of Tonquin” (i.e. Vietnam). After Sloane’s death his vast collections became the foundation of the British Museum and its library and were installed in Montagu House. The number on the titlepage (3Ib) is a Montagu House location, showing that the book was stored in room 3, press I, and on shelf b with other works on Mythology. The book was given the general shelfmark 1075.e. but was later considered to be important/valuable enough to be moved to a case pressmark C.24.e.4.  A subsequent reorganisation of the British Museum Library saw it being transferred to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books (OMPB) where shelfmarks beginning “Or.” were assigned - Or.59.d.6 and, later, its current number Or.59.aa.1.  As part of OMPB Feiqe monogatari passed to the custodianship of the British Library in 1973.

Its role as a teaching tool for non-Japanese missionaries gives Feiqe monogatari is greatest significance today - that it is written in colloquial, rather than literary Japanese and is printed in the Latin alphabet, not in Japanese script.  The Japanese written language was, and is, extremely complicated combining many thousands of Chinese characters and two different syllabaries.  Using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet made the task of writing and printing much simpler and meant that the text was easier for the Jesuits to read.  Since at that time there was no standard way of transcribing Japanese, the missionaries simply wrote down what they heard often using the spelling conventions of their native Portuguese.  For the study of Japanese historical linguistics, therefore, Feiqe monogatari is a very valuable source of information for how the language was actually spoken and pronounced in the late 16th century.

In a way that will be familiar to all who have ever tried to learn a foreign language, whenever they were unable to find the correct Japanese translation of a word the missionaries and their Japanese helpers seem to have simply used the Portuguese word instead. So "Aesop's Fables" becomes "Esopo no fabulas” and “history” is “historia” rather than the expected Japanese words gūwa 寓話 and rekishi 歴史respectively.

Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages)
Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Noc

Sadly, no record has been found of how Sloane acquired the book or from whom. Between 1723 and 1725, Sloane purchased a substantial collection of Japanese books, manuscripts, natural history specimens and other material from the family of the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) who had lived in Japan from 1690-92 as physician in the Dutch East India Company’s trading base in Nagasaki. However, as noted above, a study of the shelfmarks and other annotations suggest that Feiqe monogatari was acquired by Sloane before the Kaempfer collection. It is known that the Jesuits sent some of their publications back to Europe – either to Rome or to their influential benefactors. Recent research by Peter Kornicki has shown that Japanese books reached England during the 1620s, sent to wealthy patrons by the East India Company through its trading factory in Hirado. Dutch traders also continued a supply of books back to Europe, some of which would have circulated among collectors like Sloane.

One final mystery is the illustration on the front page of the volume which depicts a crowned classical figure in a chariot pulled by lions. Neither the image nor the Latin inscription have no obvious connection to the content of any of the contained works. Perhaps this was an etching or woodcut that had been used in another work and was simply inserted here as decoration. If any readers of this blog recognise it, I would be delighted to hear from them.


Hamish Todd,

Head of East Asian Collections

With thanks to Dr Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator for Incunabula and 16th Century Books, British Library.



Blakeway, Amy, “The library catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: their authors, organization, and functions”. eBLJ (2011).

Elison, George, Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, 1973.

Kornicki, Peter, Umi o watatta Nihon shoseki : Yōroppa e, soshite Bakumatsu, Meiji no Rondon de 海を渡った日本書籍 : ヨーロッパへ、そして幕末・明治のロンドンで. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2018.

Laures, Johannes, Kirishitan Bunko: A manual of books and documents on the early Christian mission in Japan. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1940.

Orii, Yoshimi, “The dispersion of Jesuit books printed in Japan: Trends in bibliographical research and in intellectual history”. Journal of Jesuit Studies 2 ; 2 (2015).

Satow, Ernest., The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, Privately printed, 1888.

Toyoshima, Masayuki 豊島正之 (ed.), Kirishitan to Shuppan キリシタンと出版. Tokyo: Yagi Shoten,


21 May 2018

From the Page Up: The Peking Gazette and the Histories of Everyday Print in East Asia (2)

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A follow up on the history of printing in China by guest blogger Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

One of the highlights of the British Library collection is that it includes many examples of gazettes published outside of Beijing. At provincial capitals, gazette publishers typically used capital editions supplied by couriers to reprint runs of the gazette on local paper. Before the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, which allowed representatives of Western countries access to the imperial capital, most British trade and diplomatic activity happened in port cities, especially Guangzhou (Canton) and the treaty ports that had been opened in 1842. For this reason, many of the British Library Peking Gazettes dating to earlier than 1860 are in fact reprints, mainly originating from Canton and Suzhou, a city not far from Shanghai.

Photo 6 - Suzhou gazette sample_2000
A page from an 1853 Suzhou gazette reprint (British Library 15440 – 1853, 2nd month pt. 2)

Provincial reprints are not identical to their capital cousins, and they have much to tell us about the material culture of publishing in nineteenth-century China. Most Suzhou reprints appeared in pamphlets of a standard size, typically eight columns in width and twenty columns in length. These were roughly the same proportions as a compact book. This format may have appealed to subscribers who obtained gazettes in monthly packets (and thus easily bound into a book format), rather than the daily pamphlets available in the capital.

Canton reprints and manuscript editions evoke the commercial networks that supported print culture in South China and maritime Southeast Asia. Canton was a major urban market for the rural papermaking enterprises located in hinterland Guangdong and especially in its provincial neighbor, Fujian. In Canton, paper firms (zhihang 紙行) controlled by natives of nearby Foshan sold a wide range of paper products transported by waterways from the mountainous interior. Through the entrepreneurship of Foshan merchants, southern paper was sold and used throughout the Qing Empire. Both papermakers and these intermediate suppliers often left their mark on the page, in the form of stamps that served advertising and branding purposes, and some gazettes bear theses stamps.

The print quality of these reprints is strikingly different from the movable type editions produced in Beijing later in the 19th century. By contrast with the fairly wobbly columns of movable type in the Beijing editions, the columns of Suzhou reprints are far more uniform. There are still markers of individual types (see the last three characters of the second column from the right on the below page, where the borders of the individual characters are clearly visible). On the whole, this page – and other Suzhou reprints – exhibits a smudgy quality, which suggests that local gazette publishers went about the printing process in a different manner than their capital counterparts, in ways that we still do not fully understand. One working hypothesis is that they may have used an intermediate medium, perhaps a wax mixture, to create a stereotype as the basis for an imprint, rather than printing directly from the assembled wooden blocks.

Stamp2  Stamp2 
Papermakers’ stamps on Canton gazette copies (British Library 15440 – Left: 1832, 3rd month. Right: 1846, 3rd month)

The stamps that I found on gazettes in the British Library collection include the name of the craftsman or brand, and advertise the quality and characteristics of the paper. While many book publishers likely trimmed off the margins and stamps, gazette purveyors were evidently less discerning. Notably, all of the stamped gazettes are manuscript editions, and may have been copied by scribes on paper purchased separately from paper suppliers.

Another tiny stamp, this one found on an 1849 gazette reprint tells that it was sold from the Jinyu lu shop (金裕祿全堂), located on Datang street. Datang street was the site of the local administrative offices and civil examination yards, and was therefore the center of government life in Canton. Both local administration and the imperial examinations were important markets for local printers and paper suppliers.

Photo 9 - tiny stamp_2000
Jinyu lu shop stamp on the cover of Jingbao (British Library 15440, 1849 vol. 2, daily edition)

The port city of Canton served as the hub of a maritime trade in paper that extended far beyond its shores. The paper trade left its marks on the city streets. Even today, there is a ‘Paper Merchants’ Street’ (zhihang lu 紙行路) in central Guangzhou. The antecedent of this street can be found on 19th century maps of the city, as seen below. A previous contribution to this blog, Malay Manuscripts on Chinese Paper (February 2014), describes the seal of a Chinese paper supplier, based outside the Taiping Gate in Canton (not far from that street), found on a Javanese manuscript from the early 19th century. Chinese merchant seals have also been found on texts in the Philippines and Japan (see examples collected by Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel, highlighted in Devin Fitzgerald’s blog entry).

Photo 10 East Asia Library_2000
Map of central Guangzhou (Canton) with sites including Taiping Gate, Zhihang jie, and Datang jie. From: Guangzhou fu zhi [Guangzhou Prefecture Gazetteer] (Guangzhou: Yuexiu shuyuan, 1879, juan 8). Image courtesy of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

Details like flipped and smudgy characters and incidental stamps may seem like trivial matters in the history of Chinese print culture, and indeed in the history of the Peking Gazette. However, our knowledge of Chinese book history is so dominated by elite tastes and collecting practices that these elements of commercial production and exchange remain virtually unknown. These fragmentary impressions on the page are hints at a complex history that encompassed a larger variety of materials, techniques, and geographical spaces than we previously thought possible.

Further Reading
Rutherford Alcock, “The Peking Gazette,” Fraser’s Magazine (1873): 245-256; 341-357.
Devin Fitzgerald, “Chinese Paper Stamps,” Books and the Early Modern World blog post, 26 March 2017.
David Helliwell, “Papermarks,” Serica blogpost, 26 April 2017.

Thank you to Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel for sharing their research in Chinese paper stamps.

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley


15 May 2018

From the Page Up: The Peking Gazette and the Histories of Everyday Print in East Asia (1)

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Today we  welcome back guest blogger Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley. This is the first of two posts on printing and moveable type in East Asia.

image from
Representation of movable type at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, the Beijing Olympics opened with a demonstration of four great inventions from China’s long history: the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. In particular, you might remember the dramatic representation of movable type: 897 performers manipulated movable type blocks representing the character he (harmony) in a series of historical script styles. The display spoke to the important role that this innovation played in Chinese, and indeed world, history. Readers with a knowledge of Chinese book history, however, are probably more familiar with books printed with solid woodblocks rather than movable type.

The British Library is home to a significant collection of texts printed using wooden movable type – this is the Peking Gazette collection. The Peking Gazette was a periodical record of government communications for the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The British Library collection includes a wide variety of editions from the nineteenth century. In my last post I described the significance of the Peking Gazette as a source for understanding the political and diplomatic history of China in the nineteenth century. In this, the first of two posts, I’ll highlight the ways these material sources shed light on little known aspects of the history of print in China. Peking Gazettes contain valuable clues as to the everyday applications of wooden movable type, the diversity of premodern print techniques employed by urban publishers, and even the routes by which print and paper were made, bought, and distributed in Qing China and maritime East Asia.

Xylography, or printing from wood, enabled a vibrant print culture to emerge in premodern Chinese empires. The fine detail of the British Library’s Diamond Sutra from AD 868, the oldest dated woodblock print example, makes it clear that woodblock carving and printing techniques were already very sophisticated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In later centuries, woodblock printed books became increasingly common, especially after an explosion of commercial publishing activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To print books from woodblocks, manuscript pages were commonly laid onto prepared blocks of hardwood, on which a block-cutter carved the text, columns, and other features in relief. After carving, a printer applied ink to the block, laid paper on the surface, and pounded the paper evenly with a special brush, producing an imprint. Depending on the quality of the block, thousands of imprints could be taken from a single woodblock before it required repair. The flexibility of this technology was a key factor in the flourishing book culture of early modern China.

Photo 2 - woodblock_2000
The woodblock is darkened by the use of black ink for printing. On the upper right side, the original colour of the wood is visible in a hole made for replacing a character (British Library Or. 14251)

Despite its apparent rarity, movable type came into use quite early in the history of print in East Asia. In the eleventh century, the polymath scholar Shen Kuo wrote of a contemporary named Bi Sheng, who had invented an ingenious method of using fired clay to form movable types (huo zi 活字) for printing. According to Shen, Bi laid the clay type into a frame, the bottom of which had been painted with a mixture of ash and wax. After laying the type, the bottom of the frame was heated to fix the type in place, allowing the printing process to proceed in the same way as in traditional xylography. According to surviving descriptions, movable types of fired clay, wood, and metal (predominantly copper) were used in succeeding centuries to print both Chinese and non-Chinese script. Such editions are extremely rare today.

Today, the most prevalent examples of premodern wooden movable type printing in China come from two commercial enterprises: the printing of lineage genealogies, and of government gazettes. In genealogical printing, traveling printers carried a type supply and carved new types on a per-job basis. By contrast, gazette printing took place in cities, typically adjacent to government offices or the examination yards. Still, on the level of texts, these two seemingly disparate industries shared some important qualities. Both used a limited subset of the vast corpus of characters in the Chinese written language. Genealogies used a fairly circumscribed vocabulary, focusing on names, generational and familial terms (which could be recycled between jobs); gazettes contained summaries of official correspondence and employed the constrained vocabulary of bureaucratic language. In both cases, the producers did not have any use for retaining stores of carved woodblocks—instead, they wanted to produce a fixed and limited set of copies on a quick basis. In addition, while block-cutting labor was growing increasingly cheaper in early modern China, natural resources were limited. In particular, the durable and large-format hardwoods used for woodblock printing grew increasingly rare with the pressures of population expansion, urbanization, and wartime destruction. By using movable types, often carved from relatively soft woods, printers minimized their expenses. As a result, gazettes were cheaply available in urban markets.

Photo 3 - movable type_2000
Jingbao pages printed in movable type (British Library 15440 – 1872 vol.1, pt. 1)

These gazettes exhibit the visual markers of movable type printing. A low “shoulder” on carved wooden types allows us to see the imprint of square borders around characters. The occasional mistake in type-setting resulted in a flipped character. Most types were of individual characters, but printers also produced “double characters,” that held common two-character combinations. Daily gazettes typically numbered about ten leaves of paper (thus twenty pages), each containing up to seven columns of text. However, movable-type techniques freed the printer to create a wider page if needed. In the case of a long memorial, printers could fill a wider page and simply fold the page within the gazette.

Beijing, as the seat of the imperial government, was naturally the main hub for gazette publishing. At least ten publishers operated in late Qing (1860-1911) Beijing, clustering in the southern commercial districts of the city, close to Liulichang, Beijing’s lively market for books and antiques. Together, the publishers produced between one and two thousand gazettes per day. Of these, about two hundred were carried by government couriers to officeholders around the empire, but the majority were sold to capital residents. Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897) called this district “the Paternoster Row of the capital” (Alcock, p. 252), in reference to London’s news district, and described the cabinets of wooden type that lined the walls of the shops in a widely reprinted account in the English periodical press. Wang Zhonglin (1818-1878), a Chinese minor official, once wrote in his diary about an idle afternoon spent watching printers “hunting for characters to fill their blocks.”[1]

2  2
Jingbao daily edition covers, in long octavo format , showing shop names on the lower part of the page. (British Library 15440,  1861 1st to 4th month)

The publishers typically included their shop names on an opening page or the issue cover. The names of some of these publishers and these names attest to the use of movable types (as in juxing 聚興 “assembled prosperity,” in which the use of the character ju 聚 often refers to assembled types); more commonly they simply summoned auspicious themes, with recurring terms as in the recurrence of terms like “prosperity,” (xing 興) “advance,” (sheng 升), and “success” (cheng 成).

In my next post I'll be writing about some provincial gazettes published outside the capital.

Further Reading
Rutherford Alcock, “The Peking Gazette,” Fraser’s Magazine (1873): 245-256; 341-357.
Devin Fitzgerald, “Chinese Paper Stamps,” Books and the Early Modern World blog post, 26 March 2017.
David Helliwell, “Papermarks,” Serica blogpost, 26 April 2017.

Thank you to Devin Fitzgerald and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel for sharing their research in Chinese paper stamps.

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley

[1] Wang Zhonglin riji 王鍾霖日記, in Lidai riji congchao (Beijing: Xueyuan chubanshe, 2006), vol. 59: 483.

11 December 2017

An Introduction to the Peking Gazette at the British Library

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Today’s post is by Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley. She wishes to thank the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies for funding a trip to the British Library in summer 2017. This post draws on research from her 2016 doctoral dissertation on the Peking Gazette and for her book on the same subject.

Pages from a manuscript gazette, 10 January 1841 (Daoguang 20). From collection of Dr. James Art Sinclair, surgeon in the Bombay Army (BL Add 14333)

In January 1808, the missionary Robert Morrison recorded some musings on news and politics in south China, where he had recently arrived under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. He wrote:

A court gazette from Pekin falls into the hands of some, & the loquacious Chinese, who spend much of their time in chatting parties, soon diffuse reports, and as is general, with considerable additions. I have called the Chinese loquacious, it is however only to be understood of them when by themselves. To foreigners they are reserved on every topic that regards the internal affairs of the Empire.
(Robert Morrison, Journal, January 1808, in CWM/LMS Collection, SOAS, University of London)

By early 1809, Morrison had begun to translate the court gazette (jingbao) for his new employers, the East India Company (EIC). Confined to posts in Macao and Canton, English traders yearned for access to Beijing, the nerve-center of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. The “Peking Gazette” promised a glimpse at the activities of the imperial court and bureaucracy. Soon, translations of the Peking Gazette by Morrison and his students became common in London newspapers and journals. Meanwhile, the EIC, the British Superintendency of Trade (established in 1842), and the Chinese Secretary’s Office (established in 1860) began to collect, transcribe, and translate the gazettes. European and American visitors to China sought out copies of the gazette as souvenirs of their encounters with the Qing state.

Originating from the intelligence missions of British diplomatic and trade representatives in China, the British Library now holds the most comprehensive collection of nineteenth-century Chinese gazettes in the world. The collection is almost continuous between 1820 and 1910, and contains both manuscript and print editions for many periods. In total this amounts to about a million pages, documenting events like the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and subsequent efforts to modernize and rescue the ailing dynasty. At that time, most Chinese archives, libraries, and scholars saw gazettes as cheap daily publications, and not suited for long-term collection. As a result, the British Library collection is singular in scope.

A page from an 1853 printed gazette. Peking Gazette Collection, 1853, 3rd month (2). (BL PB 15440)

Government gazettes are valuable sources for historians who want to understand state communications, and the exchange of official information between the central state, its officials, and the public. By reading the Peking Gazette, we can better understand what people in nineteenth-century China knew about the Qing state and its operations. Gazettes contained details of wars, disaster relief campaigns, criminal cases, and everyday personnel transfers. They were both distributed to imperial officials, and sold on the streets and by subscription. Gazettes reveal what types of information the state made available to readers throughout the empire, and how quickly this information could travel. Finally, they are important exemplars of the print and textual methods employed in early modern China.

Chinese gazettes offer exciting transnational comparisons to both other official counterparts and to commercial newspapers emerging around the globe at the same time. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the English government published a daily gazette called the London Gazette. By the nineteenth century, the London Gazette contained advertisements, and was subject to a press tax. Like the Chinese gazette, this paper excerpted from official documents. In comparison with the London Gazette, the Peking Gazette included relatively candid representations of state operations, because it published critical internal reports about the misbehavior of serving officials and the salacious details of criminal cases.

Like newspapers, gazettes provide insights into everyday life and social conditions. However, gazette writers did not act as editors. They did not include their own opinions, solicit letters, or publish commercial information. The Qing government regulated the contents , and punished accidental or intentional variations. Although the state controlled gazettes, it did so in order to maintain the document’s authority, rather than to eliminate unfavorable representations of court and officials as we might expect.

In addition, the margins of the Peking Gazette collection reveal hidden dimensions of historical Sino-British interactions. Many gazettes in the British Library collection were annotated by readers: names were marked, Western dates were added, and pencil summaries in English were included.

Gazette with names marked. Peking Gazette collection. 1855 1st month (Daily Edition) (BL PB 15440)

We also see  evidence of the idle moments of the Chinese clerks who worked through gazettes, including whimsical sketches and calligraphy practice on unused pages.

Sketch in a gazette. Peking Gazette collection. 1845, 3rd-4th month (BL PB 15440)

British diplomats also compiled translated summaries of the Chinese gazette. The archives of the Chinese Secretary’s Office, held at the National Archives at Kew, reveal this process in action (see in particular FO 233 and FO 1080).

The diary of Sir Chaloner Alabaster (1838-1898), held at the University of London, details his experience as a student interpreter in China. British student interpreters worked through translations each day as part of their language training. One day in 1856, eighteen-year-old Alabaster wrote in his diary:

…we worked away but did not do much today the teachers being remarkable stupid at 12 1/2 down to office & when there wasted my time nicely reading extracts from the Peking Gazette however as it was by Wades [Thomas Francis Wade, Chinese Secretary] order it was alright.
(Diary of Sir Chaloner Alabaster, 1856, n.p, MS 380451, SOAS, University of London)

Today, as in Alabaster’s day, it is possible to waste your time quite nicely reading the Peking Gazette collection at the British Library. It is a fascinating glimpse into the daily reading of individuals across nineteenth-century China, from emperor to interpreter.

Further reading
For a study of the place of the Peking Gazette in the late Qing newspaper Shenbao, see:
Barbara Mittler, A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai’s News Media (1872-1912) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), Chapter 3.

For a pioneering scholarly introduction to the Qing gazette, see:
Jonathan Ocko, “The British Museum’s Peking Gazette,” Ch’ing shih wen-t’i 2, no.9 (1973): 35-49.

On the history of news in Europe before the modern newspaper, see:
Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

On the history of the London gazette, see:
P.M. Handover, A History of the London Gazette, 1665-1965 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1965).

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley

20 November 2017

Il Kaulata Maltia – The only extant copy of the first journal in Maltese

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Since September I have been working on the Maltese collection at the British Library, where I am tasked with cataloguing Maltese publications. The library boasts an impressive range of material ranging from 16th century publications by the Knights of Malta to books published in 2017. Amongst these there are some of the earliest references to the Maltese language as in Jean Quintin’s historical and geographical survey of the islands Insulæ Melitæ descriptio (1536, BL 795.g.6.(1.)), contemporary accounts of the Great Siege of Malta from 1565, some of the earliest works on the Maltese language by Agius De Soldanis from 1750, and a complete collection of Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s works from 1791.

Map copy
Map of the Maltese islands in Jean Quintin’s Insulæ Melitæ descriptio ex commentariis rerum quotidianarum (1536). (BL 795.g.6.(1.))

The turning point in the history of Maltese publications was the liberalisation of the press in 1839, which formally came into force in March of that year following a wider drive for political autonomy in the British colony throughout that decade. The earliest wave of independent newspapers to be published in Malta came on the heels of this development. These newspapers were a largely multilingual affair, with the vast majority being in Italian or English, bilingual Italian and English (Il Mediterraneo, BL NEWS8160 NPL), and even trilingual in Italian, English and French (Il Corriere Maltese, BL NEWS8160 NPL). However, a number of short lived journals in Maltese started popping up at the same time, with one issue of the English-language publication The Harlequin published on the 6th of December, 1838, under the title L’Arlecchin, jeu Kaulata Inglisa u Maltìa, (Cassola, 2011,p. 22), being entirely in the vernacular. One month later, on the 15th of January, 1839, the first issue of the first Maltese journal Il Kaulata Maltia was published followed by two other issues. Only one copy of the first issue was thought to have survived in a private collection in Malta, and a reproduction of its frontispiece was first published by Ġużè Cassar Pullicino (1964). The second and third issues have thus far eluded researchers for decades until I recently discovered a copy of the full three-issue set in the British Library newspaper collection (view Kaulata pdf here).

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The frontispieces of issues 1 and 3 of Il Kaulata Maltia (1839) (BL NEWS8160 NPL)

The editor of Il Kaulata Maltia was James Richardson[1], an Anglican missionary for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who was also the editor of the aforementioned The Harlequin as well as The Phosphorous. The CMS was no stranger to publishing in Maltese in the years prior to the liberalisation of the press. In fact, the society’s own press, established by William Jowett in 1822, was one of the few allowed to operate before 1839 despite stringent press laws, and serviced other non-Catholic Christian denominations such as the Methodist Wesleyan Missionary Society. Its operations were nonetheless limited in the nature of the material which could be published, and were subject to the governor’s approval. The British government gave the green light to Anglican and other Protestant groups to operate and publish material in Malta yet pledged to protect the local Catholic population (Zammit, 2008, p. 258). This meant that no material of a religious nature intended for local circulation was allowed, and so output was limited to religious and educational material in Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, Italian and Greek and educational material in Maltese or about the Maltese language. Most notably, the CMS’s press was responsible for the publication of a number of works by Mikiel Anton Vassalli, known as “The father of the Maltese language”, including a revised edition of his Grammatica della Lingua Maltese (1827, BL 621.e.4), Motti, aforismi e proverbii Maltesi (1828, BL 14599.c.43), and Storja tas-Sultan Ciru (1831, BL 14599.b.58). All of these books fail to credit the CMS for their publication, instead using simply “Malta” or “Published by the author” despite their non-religious content, although this may have been done to avoid announcing Vassalli’s close ties with a Protestant group (Zammit, 2008, p. 259). In fact, Vassalli’s 1829 translation of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (BL was also published by the CMS, albeit in R. Watts’ press in London, thus circumventing the ban on religious material. Of particular note are the Wesleyan Missionary Society’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831, BL 14599.c.3) and Ktyb yl Qari fuq bosta h̡uejjeg mah̡tura myn kotba Kattolici (1832, BL 621.a.9), both written by Cleardo Naudi which despite their religious content, were allowed to be printed as they were intended for exclusive use in its Malta Charity School.

Excerpt from Cleardo Naudi’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831), which uses Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s original orthography before the further Latinised variety used in Il Kaulata Maltia. BL 14599.c.3)

The CMS’s focus on nurturing the Maltese language was a well calculated effort. In an article in the 1831 issue of CMS’s The Missionary Register, which compares the inhabitants of Malta and Syria, the linguistic situation is described thus (vol. 19, p.317):

The Maltese, in general, are not a reading people, and their language can scarcely be said to be a written language: it is only a few years since it was reduced to writing; and nearly all the books which have ever, to my knowledge, been published in it have been published within a very short time, and mostly by Mr. Jowett, or at his press […] and perhaps not twenty persons can be found, among the native population of the whole island, who are able to read them.

This may have been seen as a hindrance to the missionary efforts of the CMS which consequently undertook a role in education. It is in this context that Il Kaulata Maltia should be seen. Rather than a newspaper, it was meant to be a compilation of opinion pieces by its author George Percy Badger, together with poetry, idioms and aphorisms. The 13th December, 1838 issue of The Harlequin included an advert for it, saying (reproduced in Cassola, 2011, p. 30. My translation):

There is no need to spell out the usefulness and prestige of such a publication, these are obvious matters to everyone. Who is to say that this paper might not one day be the first to establish the Maltese language on a level and solid foundation, and produce a literature that could fill the Mediterranean with its praiseworthy and glorious revelations?

The second and third issues of the journal had scathing attacks on the Maltese educational system, in particular with regard to language instruction, perhaps acting as a precursor to Badger’s own publication Sullo stato della educazione pubblica in Malta (“On the state of public education in Malta”) later that year.

The second issue tackled suggestions brought forward by the Royal Commission of 1836, in which the two commissioners sent to Malta, John Austin and George Cornewall-Lewis, reviewed the educational system of the islands. In their report they had suggested that all elementary school children should first learn Maltese, followed by Italian, which they deemed to be the de facto language of the educated, through the medium of the former. Consequently, English should be taught on the basis of the country being a British colony, followed by Arabic. Badger criticised the idea of teaching students four languages and rubbished the need to learn Italian except for those businessmen who required it for their trade. He declared pro-Italianism as the domain of irredentists and Carbonari wanting to secede from the British Empire, and suggested that the Maltese people as a whole wanted to be British and should thus be taught English. His article highlights the vehemently pro-British nature of the publication.

The third issue picked up the issue of linguistic education by turning the spotlight onto the Maltese language. Here Badger criticised those who had wilfully neglected the language by discouraging its use. This was no doubt an attack on the Knights of Malta who had ruled the country until 1798, and was by extension a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church. Despite a seemingly anti-Catholic stance, the very same issue included a poem dedicated to St. Publius by the Catholic priest Dr. Ludovico Mifsud Tommasi, who, in spite of his religious differences, showed an overlap with the CMS’s support for the freedom of religion and press, and was also a pioneering translator of religious texts into Maltese.

Il Kaulata Maltia also sheds some light on another aspect of the Maltese language that was topical at the time of its publication: orthography. As written Maltese was still in its infancy there were different opinions on how it should be written, particularly in terms of the sounds that have no equivalent letters in the standard Latin alphabet, such as the għajn and the rgħajn, equivalent to the Arabic ع and غ respectively. Some writers preferred to use the Arabic letters mixed in with the Latin alphabet, while others like Vassalli added specially designed characters to it, as can be seen from the image reproduced above from the spelling book by Cleardo Naudi. More radically, others proposed the exclusive use of the Arabic consonantal script, an example of which can be seen below. 

Chtieb-ilkari Maltese_abjad

Left: An example of the Arabic ع , غ and ه mixed into the Latin alphabet from Francesco Vella’s Chtieb-ilkari yau dahla عal ilsien Malti (1824) (BL 14599.b.1)
Right: Excerpt of a dialogue in Maltese written in Arabic script from Rev. C. F. Schlienz’s Views on the improvement of the Maltese language and its use for the purposes of education and literature (1838) (BL 14599.c.4)

The CMS, however, opted for a modified version of Vassalli’s Latin orthography which became the basis of its Maltese publications, including Il Kaulata Maltia. In fact, it seems that the journal was intended to introduce the orthographic system to the general population, as the second page of the first issue lists the whole alphabet with a guide to its pronunciation and an explanation. Different opinons gave rise to some animosity between their respective proponents, and in this description the author taunted Rev. Giuseppe Zammit, known as Brighella, by jokingly requesting that he bless his orthography. Brighella published a response in the journal Bertoldu in January, 1839 in answer to that taunt (Cassola, 1994, pp. 59-60), and a reply to that was in turn published in the third issue.

Further reading
Cassar-Pullicino, Joseph,  Kitba w Kittieba Maltin, it-tieni ktieb, l-ewwel taqsima. Malta: Università Rjali ta' Malta, 1964.
———, Il-kitba bil-Malti sa l-1870. Pieta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2001.
Cassola, Arnold,“Two Notes: Brighella and Thezan”,  Journal of Maltese Studies (1994): 25-26, 58-62.
———, Lost Maltese newspapers of the 19th century. Malta: Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism, 2011.
Zammit, William, Printing in Malta, 1642-1839: Its cultural role from inception to the granting of Freedom of the Press. Malta: Gutenberg Press, 2008.

I would like to thank Dr. William Zammit and Dr. Olvin Vella from the University of Malta for the help and information provided.

Karl Farrugia, Asian and African Collections


[1] The final pages of each of the three issues, as well as The Phosphorus, say that they were published for the editor of The Harlequin. For this reason, I regard Richardson as the official editor and Badger as the author.