Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

7 posts categorized "Women's histories"

06 September 2021

Sisters from the shadows - Lady Akikonomu

This occasional series of blog posts will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries. The previous post looked at the artist Katsushika Ōi, daughter of the celebrated Katsushika Hokusai.  This time we will look at a fictional character who was also an accomplished artist.

Another female artist emerges from history in the form of a talented noblewoman in the Heian period literary classic the Tale of Genji. This story is often described as the oldest novel in the world. The author was Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), a lady-in- waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi (藤原彰子) in 11th-century Japan. The hero is Prince Genji and the main story line describes his life and relationships with various court ladies of the time. 

Lady Akikonomu is not as widely known as other famous female characters in the Tale of Genji, such as her mother Lady Rokujō, but she is the only one who paints and draws illustrations in the story.

Lady Rokujō is well known throughout the story for her charisma and beauty, and her tragic love affair with Genji. Her loving devotion does not bring joy to her life, but she manages to keep her dignity supported by her sophisticated intelligence and the outstanding beauty of her calligraphy.

Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine
Fig. 1. Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine. Chapter 10 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞,), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.11   noc

Her daughter, Lady Akikonomu is a noble but does not have a strong enough supporter to elevate her position in Heian court society when she loses her mother and becomes an orphan. At the Heian court, writing beautifully is a must-have skill. She writes gracefully but lacks the elegance of her mother who  never had any equals in calligraphy. So how does she eventually become the Empress Akikonomu? The secret to her success lies in her own special talent for drawing. 

Genji, who is a distant relative of Akikonomu, takes her under his wing and arranges for her to marry the boy-emperor Reisei. This is partially Genji’s atonement for his sin of destroying Lady Rokujo’s love for him. At the same time Genji expects Akikonomu to protect the boy emperor, who is nine years younger than her, while he still has much to learn before becoming an adult and fulfilling his duty as emperor. In the end, she is educated by her outstandingly intellectual mother, with a superb noble bloodline; in this way she becomes an ideal governess figure to him. 

A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories.
Fig. 2. A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories. Chapter 17 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.18   noc

It must have caused Genji some surprise when she caught the attention of this boy-emperor by her skills in drawing. The boy happens to be keen on drawing and he discovers that Akikonomu is so elegant when she produces her illustrations. Initially, he is attracted by her talent and intellectually stimulating conversation. As he spends time with her drawing, he discovers her gentle nature and her beauty. Gradually, a fondness between them matures and eventually he makes her his empress. 

Akikonomu successfully reveals her own identity to overcome the disadvantage of being a daughter of a legendary mother and Genji’s expectations to be an ideal figure to guide a young boy’s upbringing. She is a woman with own talent and grace, enhanced by her creative drawing and painting skills.

In these two blogs, we have looked at two women who were very different; one was a commoner who lived in the city of Edo who refused to meet expectations of a woman’s role, the other was a fictional Kyōto court lady who personified female elegance. The similarity is that both were daughters of highly charismatic people and probably they would never have questioned that the fame of their family members forced them to stay in the shadows. Nevertheless, they managed to move into the light by their own artistic talents and gained a place where they could shine as individuals, no longer just daughters of someone famous.

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

02 September 2021

Lu Tianjiao: The First Female Stamp Designer of the People’s Republic of China, 1934-2021

Since the nineteenth century, women of all backgrounds have been involved in postage stamp production. Primarily issued by governments for the prepayment of mail, stamps also carry complex visual, textual, olfactory, tactile, and audio messages making them inherently cultural. They are consequently an important channel through which women’s sustained contributions within the applied arts, design and print capitalism can be meaningfully assessed. The life and work of China’s first female stamp designer Lu Tianjiao, who sadly passed away on 1 August 2021, make these points manifestly apparent.

A black and white photograph of a women from the waist up. She is wearing a ribbed sweater, has her hair in a ponytail and is wearing glasses.
A portrait of Lu Tianjiao. 
CC Public Domain Image

Born in Zhuhai, Guangdong in December 1934, she grew up in Shanghai, developing a love of art and painting from her father, a doctor and famous photographer named Lu Shifu. She enrolled at the Hangzhou State Arts School in 1950 before transferring to the Central Institute of Fine Arts, studying under prominent artists and stamp designers including Zhou Lingzhao, Zhang Ding and Zhang Guangyu. Graduating in 1954, she was assigned to work within the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ Stamp Designing and Issuing section then attached to the Directorate General of Posts.

A black and white photograph of a man in glasses, from the waist up. He is reading a newspaper while wearing a black suit and glasses.
A portrait of Liu Shuoren. 
CC Public Domain Image

At work, she regularly debated with colleagues about the best approaches to apply their technical skills on improving the quality of China’s stamp designs for miniature mechanical reproduction. She also met former schoolmate and fellow stamp designer Liu Shuoren, who sadly passed away on 11 August 2021. Outside work, the couple often visited stamp shops to purchase foreign stamps for research material. The couple married in 1960 and celebrated the birth of a son the following year, going on to support one another throughout their lives, being the first to review and analyse each other’s designs.

Lu Tianjiao’s career mirrors political changes within the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao and the early ‘Reform and Opening Up’ era. Producing regular work between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, her output rapidly declined during the Cultural Revolution, possibly spending time, like some of her colleagues in a ‘May 7 Cadre School.’ A second steady stream of work followed between 1976 and 1985, when reforms in the procedure and selection of stamp designs resulted in a permanent decline in her work.

She retired in 2001 and was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards, which was successfully treated. In 2009, state media interviewed her, where reflecting upon her career, she concluded: ‘I have designed stamps for my country for fifty years and I have recorded the changes of our Republic in this small piece of paper. I am happy to witness and record our history. It has been an honour not all could have.’ As expected of officially state-sanctioned works of art, the designs cover various social, political, and economic themes. Holistically, they supply important insights into the heart, soul, and aspirations of the People’s Republic of China.

A postage stamp in blue ink with images of electricity pylons and lines, with Chinese script belowA postage stamp in light brown ink featuring an scene of a metalworker with a large vat of molten metal, below text in Chinese script
(Left) Lu Tianjiao's design celebrating overhead transmission of electricity. 
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Lu, Sun and Dong's design celebrating the mid-point of the 5-year plan. 
CC Public Domain Image

Coming to power in 1949, the Communist Government set about transforming China’s feudal economy into an industrial one via the collectivisation of its agricultural sector whilst initiating successive Five-Year Plans for large-scale industrial development. Lu Tianjiao’s first commission for the 26 February 1955 ‘Development of Overhead Transmission of Electricity’ issue celebrated the successful completion of a key project during China’s first Five-Year Plan. Months later, she collaborated with colleagues Sun Chuanzhe and Dong Chunqi developing eighteen iconic designs for the 1 October 1955 issue commemorating the mid-way point the same five-year plan.

A postage stamp featuring a woman riding a tractor in close-up. The woman is in white with a pink handkerchief on her head, and the tractor and background are light greenA postage stamp in colour with a man holding a machete, a woman holding a stick and a small child peaking out between them. The man and woman are in black and the child in red. The stamp also features text in Chinese characters
Lu Tianjiao's designs celebrating women's communes (left) and encouraging solidarity with the South Vietnamese struggle (right).
CC Public Domain Image

Several of her designs also focused on the social impact arising from the development of the ‘People’s Communes.’ This work promoted the significant role Chinese women played in Socialist construction, such as the 8 March 1964 ‘Women of the People’s Commune’ issue. International relations are another recurring theme a notable example including the 20 December 1963 ‘Support South Vietnamese People’s Struggle for Liberation’ issue. The first design based upon a yet unidentified Vietnamese Propaganda Poster reveals the intertextual nature of stamp design.

A postage stamp in colour showing Vietnamese men and women in traditional clothing with bayonets charging beneath a Viet Cong flag
Another of Lu's designs supporting the South Vietnamese struggle. 
CC Public Domain Image

Her designs also did much to promote the diversity of China’s historic and contemporary cultural heritage globally, her six designs for the 10 June 1975 ‘Wushu’ issue promoting Chinese martial arts when they were becoming popular worldwide.

A colour postage stamp showing two young women in pink jumping above a stick brandished by a man in yellow, who is lunging at them.
Lu's design celebrating wushu, traditional Chinese martial arts.
CC Public Domain Image

Sticking to the theme of culture, her designs for the two separate stamp issues commemorating China’s ancient numismatic history in 1981 and 1982 received international acclaim and several awards. Her final commission prior to retirement was the 11 December 2001 ‘China’s Membership of the World Trade Organization’ issue marking the watershed event which initiated China’s current economic, political, and military pre-eminence.

A colour postage stamp with the logo of the World Trade Organization, a totem pole, and an office and park complex against a yellow backdrop, with cloud bands weaving through the items. The stamp also features Chinese script.A black and white photograph of a woman seated at a desk, looking into the camera. Her hair is in pig-tails and she is wearing a jumper and glasses.
(Left) Lu's final design, celebrating Chinese accession to the WTO. 
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Lu Tianjiao at her desk. 
CC Public Domain Image

Lu Tianjiao excelled in rising to the pressures and challenges placed on stamp design occasioned from national advances within the security printing industry, her designs seamlessly transitioning between intaglio, lithographic and photogravure printing processes. Nevertheless, the examples just discussed are merely a fraction of her total output. She produced or collaborated in the development of seventy separate stamp issues, totalling over two hundred and sixty separate stamps designs, comprising around one-eighth of China’s total stamp design output during her time of employment. Clearly prolific, was she significant? Her work is of fundamental importance for anybody interested in design, printing, and public messaging within the People’s Republic of China. Her career also spans core phases in the nation’s history as well as developments in design, security printing and print culture.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections
CCBY Image


1. Xiao Miao. ‘My visit to stamp designers house’ in China Philately. Spring 1983, pp. 24-26.

2. Yu Xiaohui. ‘Zhou Lingzhao on stamp designing,’ in China Philately. November 1983, pp. 26-27.

3. Zhang Jingming. ‘Who designed China’s best stamps?’ in Postage Stamps of the People’s Republic of China 1977-1980 . (Great Wall Books, 1983) pp. 96-97. Song Licai. 50 Years Devotion to Stamp Design. Accessed 24 February 2020 .

4. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections, Henke Collection

5. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections, UPU Collection: China.



19 August 2021

Motherhood: A Form of Emancipation in the Turkish Minority Press in Bulgaria (1878-1944)

Black and white photograph of six women in traditional Bulgarian dress with four standing in back row and two seated in front row
A portrait of urban women in traditional dress from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/7)

The fight for women’s rights, almost worldwide, is still unfinished business; sad but true.

Delving into the history of feminist activism and women’s rights with the Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition at the British Library was absolutely inspiring. All the more amazing, as a budding researcher interested in the emancipatory activities of women belonging to ethnic minority groups in the late Ottoman and early republican periods, was giving an ear to Turkish women’s voice from the ‘margin.’ For the first time, it provided me with a surprising perspective, through digitised periodicals from Bulgaria (EAP696). What problems did the Turkish women of Bulgaria have? From which ideas were their writings pertaining to the woman question influenced? Or were they limited by which socio-cultural dynamics? Well, then, let’s have a brief look at how women’s rights were defended in the publications of the Turkish minority group in Bulgaria between 1878-1944.

Newspaper page featuring text primarily in Arabic script with some in Latin script above a colour chart
A page from the Turkish-language newspaper Birlik, published in Bulgaria, showing the transition from Arabic to Latin scripts. (EAP696/1/16)

As is known, with the Berlin Treaty (made after the 1877-78 Ottoman-Russian War), the Principality of Bulgaria became autonomous, a Christian governor was appointed to Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia was left to the Ottoman Empire on the condition of reform. Muslim Turks, who had constituted the overwhelming majority of the country’s population for centuries, became a minority for the first time. From this perspective, as a Turkish minority group in Bulgaria, little wonder that they constantly announced their national existence was in danger, mainly with the fear of losing their national identity as the overall discourse in the publications. That’s why their writings particularly emphasise the necessity of education, with the idea that their community should have had a national working system, too. The prevailing discussion is on the ideal of arranging a national way of life that responds to the contemporary needs of their community in Bulgaria.

Regarding women’s and girls’ education, their writings closely followed developments in Europe and Russia. But, they saw the Republic of Turkey as the most significant model in terms of reforms, which the Bulgarian Turks highly appreciated. While the countries of the world attached great importance to the upbringing and education of girls, disallowing sending Turkish girls to school by ignoring their education is presented as one of the biggest stumbling blocks. It was important to ensure that girls attend school, notably the rüşdiyye (Ottoman junior high school) which was opened in Istanbul for the first time in 1858. The school would affect their education and also their way of thinking and appearance.

Page of text in Latin script with a large black-ink masthead above a colour chart
The first page of the Turkish-language newspaper İstikbal's 5th issue, published in Vidin, Bulgaria on 25 January 1932. (EAP696/1/20)

Neriman Hikmet, Ulviye Ahmet, Emine Sıtkı and Mediha Muzaffer are the only four women who wrote in the publications. Actually, I got to know Ulviye Ahmet for the first time thanks to this project. But I think she deserves to be much better known today. As the prodigiously prolific one in matters on women’s issues, in one of her writings in the journal Istikbal (Future) dated 31 March 1932, she informs the reader that women who didn’t have political rights gathered under the flag of “feminism”. Feminists were establishing organisations and fighting for their political rights. However, the woman, who worked with men in every field as his companion, was not yet promoted to the position she deserved in the political world. I think it is quite essential that she directly uses the word “feminism” here. Although the word was typically associated with being like a “witch” as a locus for the cultural negotiation of genders, the women’s struggle united under the ideal of feminism seems to have inspired Turkish women in Bulgaria, too. On the other hand, their “sisters” in Turkey, like Halide Nusret Zorlutuna, advocated strongly nationalist ideas that rejected Western imperialism by emphasising the differences between Turkish and European women regarding women’s morality. Turkish women sometimes openly blamed those who, according to them, imitated European counterparts who were bad mothers, for instance. So, while the term feminism was somehow regarded as foreign, individualistic, and contrary to traditional family norms, Ulviye Ahmet’s text occupies a noteworthy place.

This quotation from her other text written on 10 April 1932 from the same journal is again radical: “Perhaps there will be obstacles for us to embark on a social and national life with great love and affection. There will be those saying that a woman cannot gain a place in society, cannot show national resistance, she is a house bird, men’s pastime. But never forget to hope; who knows how their delusions will turn out? Don’t we have the strength to withstand all this?” Since society expects a lot of work from women, Ulviye Ahmet underlines they should try to be helpful to and shape society in every way. In that sense, she invites intellectual women to write about women’s progress. The regular letters sent with the title of “To Our Sisters in Turkey” make it obvious that they had a targeted addressee in Turkey, as well. She defends women’s rights to raise Turkish girls, would-be mothers of the nation in the future. They were the mothers of future generations of their poor nation oppressed under the harsh conditions of that time. Yes, “the mothers of the nation…” While I was reading the text, I was anticipating the inevitable topic – Motherhood.

At the end of the 19th century, Ottoman women’s strike for their rights was espoused as a pre-requirement for civilisation. They were principally responsible as mothers and wives and their status needed to be improved for the welfare of the Ottoman men and creating the enlightened generations. To raise responsible citizens of the Ottoman Empire, first, mothers should have been educated and enlightened, at least to some extent. That is, one of the projects built in the hope of reversing the inexorable dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was the modernisation of women. Then, in the Republican period and during the Kemalist regime in Turkey, Turkish women’s primary role as mothers and the process of women stepping into social life were again central themes of state-sanctioned modernisation projects and nation-building processes.

Black and white photo of girls in a school sitting at pew-like desks and facing the front of the class. Many of the girls have their hair in pigtails and some are looking towards the camera. At the right background of the image are large windows
Girls at a school in Bulgaria in the early 20th century, from the archival collection of photographs taken by Rositza Angelova. (EAP618/3/1)

In line with the concern of reviving their national identity, the woman question was expectedly shaped around the same discourse among Turks in Bulgaria, too. Their following arguments for why girls should be educated may sound rather unbearable, at least they do to me, but it would also be good to bear in mind in some way that it was almost all they could do as a Turkish Muslim community at the turn of the century. According to the general attitude in the articles, written anonymously, the one born as a girl would “definitely” be a mother thereafter; they would be engaged in managing a house. The family life of an educated woman and an uneducated one couldn’t be the same. An educated woman would treat her husband in a much more pleasant way than an illiterate one. Women who have to know household management and the family economy well should have a bright mind. A woman needed to be educated to bring up her children properly by paying particular attention to their moral education. Therefore, mothers of the future should be raised as resilient women, capable mothers, and nurturers for the nation’s happiness - the most indispensable need of that time. The woman should never be humiliated because she is the mother of humanity; the future is in her bosom.

Black and white photo of two women standing and two seated, all in traditional Turkish dress and head coverings, in front of three children. The woman on the far right is holding a spindle and is pulling raw wool from it
Rural Turkish women in Bulgaria prepare wool in an archival photograph from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/7)

Ulviye Ahmet dwelled on the point that if women want to serve their nation as true mothers, they must be intensely concerned about schools, societies, and foundations, which constitute the cornerstone of their national existence. She reminds them that their sisters in Turkey had an enormous organisation called the Turkish Women’s Union (Türk Kadınlar Birliği). To establish cultural and social communities to assist their male friends, she thought that they must undertake a particular mission. “If we want Bulgarian Turkish women to be true mothers for generations, let’s work for our nation’s progress and rise. And let’s establish societies for the enlightenment of women,” she said.

There is no doubt that motherhood is a fascinating state, even just biologically. But to idealise motherhood nostalgically and evaluate the woman over a ‘blessing’ or ‘merit’ attributed to her by birth move the writings away from a feminist line in a sense we understand today. Women’s maternal role was an indispensable tool for the patriotic socialisation of the new generation and the Turkish community’s enlightenment and modernisation. To be a mother of the social existence, to represent her husband and children, to be the symbol of femininity and community is somehow to be imposed upon her to maintain traditionally constructed roles and the given ‘appropriate’ and ‘moral’ female identities imposed as ‘ideal’ by patriarchal society.

A black and white photograph of three women in traditional dress and head coverings, with the one in the middle looking at the camera and those on the left and right bent over. The middle woman is carrying a basket while the other two are engaged in picking items from bushes. They are against a background of rolling hills in a rural setting
Women at work harvesting in rural Bulgaria in the early 20th century, in an archival photograph from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/1)

It seems that only motherhood was at hand as the pre-requirement for the development of the Turkish community in Bulgaria, as no significant rights or values had been entitled to women until then. All articles about the woman question were always contextualised in a nationalist framework, too. And there is always a consciously moderate feminist discourse. Even so, they had no choice but to implement this way of writing, didn’t they? Women’s demands for their rights were always justified and legitimised through the ideal of serving the nation and their given roles as mothers and wives providing the nation with patriotic sons. Isn’t this conceptualisation as the creator of the Turkish nation already reasonably expected for a Muslim community worried about losing its national identity, or any other community in the nation-building process? Was there any other way for them to do it at that time?

What about now? In every corner of the world, a life where women are unburdened by and relinquish all the roles assigned them by ‘others.’ One where they have got rid of the social pressure that forces them to assume and maintain these roles; a life where they have no need to struggle to exercise their human rights and can freely underpin them when needed; a life where girls don’t emulate a passivised ‘princess’ against active ‘witches’ from childhood, ride their own horses, and gallop wherever they want instead of waiting for the Prince Charming: is such a life still too far away?

Seda İzmirli-Karamanlı, EAP PhD Placement Holder

The images in this blog are for research purposes only. We ask that you not share them without express permission of the rights holder.
CCBY Image

Bibliography :

Burçak, B. (1997). ‘The status of the elite Muslim women in İstanbul under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909).’ (Masters dissertation, Bilkent University).

Dayıoğlu, Ali (2005), Toplama Kampından Meclis’e, Bulgaristan’da Türk ve Müslüman Azınlığı , İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

Ergin, O. (1977). Türk Maarif Tarihi [History of Turkish Education]. İstanbul: Eser Matbaası.

Haskins, E. V., & Zappen, J. P. (2010). Totalitarian visual “monologue”: Reading Soviet posters with Bakhtin . Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 40(4), 326-359.

Metinsoy, E. İ. M. (2013). “The Limits of Feminism in Muslim-Turkish Women Writers of the Armistice Period (1918–1923).” In A Social History Of Late Ottoman Women (pp. 83-108). Brill.

Somel, S. A. (2012). Abdülhamit devri eğitim tarihçiliğine bir bakış: 1980 sonrasında taşra maarifi ve gayrı müslim mekteplerinin historiografik bir analizi .

Tekeli, Ş. (1982). Kadınlar ve siyasal-toplumsal hayat (Vol. 6). Birikim Yayınları.

Tuncer, Hüner (2011), Osmanlı’nın Rumeli’yi Kaybı (1878-1914), İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları.

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family


By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

20 May 2021

An inspiring Indonesian woman writer: S. Rukiah

The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until 1 August 2021), documenting feminist activism in the UK in historical context, is accompanied by a wide-ranging programme of talks and articles exploring the complex history of women’s rights across the world. A recent blog post focussed on Inspiring women writers of Laos; this blog highlights another inspiring female writer from Southeast Asia, S. Rukiah (1927-1996).

The proclamation of Indonesian independence in 1945 towards the end of World War Two heralded another five years of armed conflict within the country: between Indonesian nationalists and the returning Dutch colonial power, but also between left- and right-leaning factions of Indonesia’s nascent military force. The period also ushered in a host of new literary voices. One Indonesian writer who came of age during this time, and whose writings were shaped by the pressures and anguishes of the Revolution, was S. Rukiah, whose 1950 novel Kejatuhan dan Hati (‘The Fall and the Heart’), is probably the most important early Indonesian novel by a female writer.

S. Rukiah, in ca. 1954
S. Rukiah, in ca. 1954, from H.B.Jassin, Seri esei dan kritik kesusasteraan Indonesian moderen (Jakarta: Gunung Agung, 1962, vol. 1, p. 208). Wikimedia Commons.

Rukiah’s early work is set in the foothills of West Java against a backdrop of guerilla activity during the Indonesian Revolution, but her writing transcends place and time by focussing on the dilemmas of an intelligent modern Indonesian woman and the societal conventions which bind her. Explored in Rukiah’s poems and short stories, and developed most fully in her novel, the constraints of the female predicament are contrasted with the freedom enjoyed by male characters, who have the luxury of pursuing their own destiny, often choosing to wed themselves to a cause. But this all-or-nothing revolutionary fervour does not appeal to Rukiah’s female characters – such as Susi in Kejatuhan dan Hati – who yearn for the seemingly impossible: to love passionately and work fulfillingly, but also to enjoy a happy and peaceful family life.

S. Rukiah’s 1950 novel Kejatuhan dan Hati was first translated into English by John H. McGlynn as ‘An Affair of the Heart’ and published in Reflections on rebellion: stories from the Indonesian upheavals of 1948 and 1965 (Ohio University Press, 1983; British Library, YA.1986.b.248). Shown above is McGlynn’s translation republished as The Fall and the Heart (Jakarta: Lontar, 2010). British Library, YD.2011.a.7962.
S. Rukiah’s 1950 novel Kejatuhan dan Hati was first translated into English by John H. McGlynn as ‘An Affair of the Heart’ and published in Reflections on rebellion: stories from the Indonesian upheavals of 1948 and 1965 (Ohio University Press, 1983; British Library, YA.1986.b.248). Shown above is McGlynn’s translation republished as The Fall and the Heart (Jakarta: Lontar, 2010). British Library, YD.2011.a.7962.

S. (Siti) Rukiah was born on 27 April 1927 in Purwakarta, a small town northwest of Bandung in West Java. During the Japanese occupation she trained as a teacher, and while teaching at a local girls’ school in 1946 she published her first poems. She also began writing for the magazine Godam Jelata, ‘The Proletariat Hammer’, one of the founders of which was her future husband Sidik Kertapati. Around May 1948, Rukiah became Purwakarta correspondent of the influential literary journal Pujangga Baru (‘The New Poet’), and over the next few years she published 22 poems, six short stories and her novel Kejatuhan dan Hati, which first appeared as a special issue of Pujangga Baru (Nov.-Dec. 1950) before being re-issued by Pustaka Rakyat.

S. Rukiah, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (Djakarta: Pustaka Rakjat, 1950). British Library, 14650.f.148.
S. Rukiah, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (Djakarta: Pustaka Rakjat, 1950). British Library, 14650.f.148.

Rukiah’s first collection of poems and short stories, Tandus (‘Barren’) – mostly work which had previously appeared in journals in 1948 and 1949 – was published in 1952 by the government publisher Balai Pustaka, and the following year it won the inaugural National Cultural Council award for poetry. The esteem accorded to Rukiah’s work can be judged by her fellow awardees: Pramoedya Ananta Toer for short stories, Mochtar Lubis in the novel section and Utuy Tatang Sontani for drama, later regarded as three of the top Indonesian writers of all time.

Tandus, the rare 1st edition of 1952  S. Rukiah, Tandus, 'Barren', a collection of poems and short stories (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 2nd ed. of 1958).
S. Rukiah, Tandus, 'Barren', a collection of poems and short stories, published in Jakarta by Balai Pustaka.  Left: the rare 1st edition of 1952, British Library, 14650.f.46; Right: the 2nd edition of 1958. British Library (shelfmark pending).

In 1952 Rukiah married Sidik Kertapati, and they had six children. By 1951 Rukiah had begun editing the children’s magazine Cendrawasih (‘Bird of Paradise’), and over the next decade, under her married name of S. Rukiah Kertapati, she published actively in the fields of children’s literature and retellings of Indonesian folk stories. In 1959, at the first National Congress of Lekra, a cultural association sympathetic to the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), Rukiah was elected as a member of its Central Committee, and she represented Lekra at a writers’ Congress in East Germany in 1961.

S. Rukiah Kertapati, Djaka Tingkir, a retelling of a Javanese folk tale. Djakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1962. British Library, 14650.f.75.
S. Rukiah Kertapati, Djaka Tingkir, a retelling of a Javanese folk tale. Djakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1962. British Library, 14650.f.75.

The febrile political atmosphere in Indonesia by the early 1960s came to a head on 30 September 1965, with the murder of top military leaders in an apparent coup attempt. The aftermath saw a ferocious purge of Communist Party members and suspected PKI sympathizers, leaving up to a million dead and hundreds of thousands imprisoned. At the time Sidik Kertapati – then a PKI member of parliament – was visiting China; like many leftists then abroad, he was unable to return to Indonesia and spent the next four decades in exile. Rukiah herself was imprisoned, with no provisions made for the care of her six young children. Her books were banned and her writings were expunged from future editions of the authoritative anthology of Indonesian literature, Gema Tanah Air ‘Echoes of the Homeland’. She was eventually released in 1969 on condition that she did not write or publish again, and returned to her hometown of Purwakarta, where she lived quietly, aware that she was under constant suveillance as she struggled to support her family.

In 1985, at the suggestion of my supervisor Dr Ulrich Kratz, I made the work of S. Rukiah the subject of my MA dissertation in Indonesian and Malay studies at SOAS, and my first visit to the British Library was to look at the rare editions of Rukiah’s works pictured here. With the help of a close friend, S. Budiardjo – an Indonesian exile living in London – I was able to write to Rukiah in Purwakarta, and was overjoyed to receive a letter back from her. Addressing me as Ananda (‘Child’; I addressed her reverently as Bunda, ‘Mother’), she wrote, ‘I was so glad and touched to receive your letter, and to hear that you know and are studying my works that were published decades ago, for even I myself had forgotten them, it was so long ago.’

In another letter written in December 1985, Rukiah gave a harrowing account of her fate after 1965: “While in prison, I was not allowed to see my beloved children. And so all the time I was detained, I had no idea of the fate of my children: were they living destitute under bridges, or had they even starved to death? (For in those terrible times, nobody was allowed to take in or look after my children. If anyone had dared to do so, they themselves would have faced prison.) So you can just imagine how I agonized and suffered in prison. In the end, my desperate longing for my children and my fears for them forced me to write to the Government begging for release, under any conditions.

And so a suffocating deal was struck: “On 24 April 1969, I was freed fom prison and reunited with my children, on condition that I could never write again. I was clearly regarded as far too outspoken and critical. In the event that I might try to get something published, all publishers were informed that it was forbidden to publish my writings. The Government knew, of course, that this was the harshest possible punishment for any writer. But I agreed to everything, because of my love for my children, who were still so young, and who couldn’t possibly fend for themselves without a mother or a father.”

Extract from a letter from S. Rukiah to Annabel Gallop, December 1985.
Extract from a letter from S. Rukiah to Annabel Gallop, December 1985.

In October 1986, I came to Jakarta and Rukiah’s son, Windu Pratama, met me and took me to visit his mother in Purwakarta. I was overwhelmed to finally meet this courageous woman whose gentle smile and serene demeanour belied the horrors she had faced in years past.

S. Rukiah in Purwakarta, 1986. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.
S. Rukiah in Purwakarta, 1986. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.

In her writings Rukiah had plumbed the depths of the dilemmas of heart and mind. In her life too, Rukiah, had been forced to choose between the very essence of her being – her writing – and her beloved family. Her surviving works are all the more precious for the enforced silencing of her original and inspiring voice.

Further reading:
Annabel Teh Gallop, The work of S. Rukiah. [M.A. thesis]. London: SOAS, 1985.
Yerry Wirawan, Independent woman in postcolonial Indonesia: rereading the work of Rukiah. Southeast Asian Studies, 2018, 7(1): 86-101.

Annabel Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

With very many thanks to John H. McGlynn of the Lontar Foundation for his advice and help.

01 March 2021

The Courtesan and the Preacher: The Romance of Mahsati, an Early Female Persian Poet

Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
 noc copy

Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:

Heaven has saddled the mount of felicity for you, King,
And praised you among all the rulers,
In order that your steed’s golden shoe not get muddied
It has spread silver on the ground.

Mahsati is better known for her earthy poems, especially for the quatrains composed on the boys of the bazaar in the shahrashub (amorous, sometimes bawdy verse) genre. The corpus of her poems has increased over the years and modern editions contain between 250 to 300 poems, many of which are also attributed to other poets such as ‘Umar Khayyam.[1] The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī.[2] His research, especially on the fifteenth century romance starring Mahsati and her lover Amir Ahmad or Pur-i Khatib, who was the son of a preacher named Khatib, was published posthumously by Gudrun Schubert and Renate Würsch.[3]

The anonymous romance, Amir Ahmad u Mahsati, survives in at least three versions. One of these is in an illustrated manuscript in the British Library, Or. 8755, which also includes two other short versified narratives: Manqabatnamah, or Qissah-yi shir u div, on the exploits of Ali, and Qissah-yi Isma‘il about Ism‘ail and Ibrahim. The eighteen paintings in the manuscript, thirteen of which belong to the Mahsati romance, are in the Turkoman style.[4]

The story of Mahsati and Amir Ahmad is narrated in prose with 475 quatrains making up the dialogue by the main characters. It is told that Mahsati is the well-educated daughter of a mufti in Khujand whose special talent lies in impromptu versification. The townspeople disapprove of her musical abilities but when they complain to her father, he informs them that according to her horoscope she will become a courtesan. After her father’s death she and her mother move to Ganja where she settles in a tavern. She drinks wine, recites poetry, and even gets the king to fall for her charms. In the same town lives a preacher’s son, Amir Ahmad, who teaches around four hundred students. One night he dreams that he is being offered wine by a houri in paradise. Upon waking up he goes out and sees Mahsati as she plays music on a harp:

Mahsati sees Amir Ahmad for the first time
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
 noc copy

In true fairytale fashion they fall in love with each other. Amir Ahmad leaves his home and begins to lead a dissipated life with his beloved. When his father has him locked up in a cell his pupils come to intercede on his behalf and hear his laments. His poems about Mahsati are mistaken by his father for verses on mystical love and he is thought to be cured of his lovesickness. But upon being released, he goes back to the tavern to be with Mahsati. As the condition of a wager with his father, he mounts a mule and is ready to go to the mosque if the beast leads him there, but the mule takes him right back to Mahsati.

The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati  f. 70a
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
 noc copy

The father persists and sends his pious brother Pir ‘Usman to go and bring the profligate back, but he himself becomes drunk and has to be carried home.

A drunken Pir Usman  is brought home
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
 noc copy

Upon the intercession of the king, the tavern is ordered to be closed and the drinkers to disperse. Mahsati goes off to Khurasan followed by Amir Ahmad. There he discovers her at a feast with three hundred distinguished poets and scholars.

Mahsati at a feast with the poets of Khurasan
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
 noc copy

The couple eventually returns to Ganja, where in the marketplace Mahsati sees and composes poems on a group of professional youths comprising a beer-seller, camel driver, spice-seller, bloodletter, barber, as well as a rind, a rakish drunkard.

Mahsati and Amir Ahmad encounter a drunkard in the marketplace
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
 noc copy

There she also encounters the master poet Sana’i whom she satirizes in ribald verses. In the meantime, Amir Ahmad finally reconciles with his father and resumes his old life. Mahsati also repents and is allowed to marry her beloved. They lead a devout life and bring up god-fearing children. Eventually Amir Ahmad becomes the preacher of Ganja after his father’s death, and after his death his grave becomes a shrine for penitent drunkards.

The romance about Mahsati provides a contextualized narrative built around her poems. She is transformed into a pious, married woman who is repentant of her past life, but her earlier non-conventional persona persisted in the biographical accounts about her. However, one must be careful to not confuse either persona, the one that comes through in her poems as a poet of the bazaar, or in the romance with her conversion, with that of the actual individual.[5] Even if we do not have historical facts about her life, Mahsati’s poems were never forgotten over the centuries. Especially in the nineteenth century Persian literati in Iran and India sought to retrieve the voices of women and create a female canon of poets for which the inclusion of some classical poets was necessary to provide the authority of tradition. Mahsati, along with Rab‘ia Quzdari or Balkhi, feature in the small group of the earliest poets in these anthologies and continue to be remembered and read in the erstwhile larger Persianate world.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
 ccownwork copy



[1] Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.
[2] Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963).
[3] Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
[4] G.M. Meredith-Owens, “A Rare Illustrated Persian Manuscript,” The Memorial Volume of the Vth International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology, edited by A. Tajvid, (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Arts, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 125 -131.
[5] For a discussion on the gender implications of Mahsati’s poetic voice, see Rebecca Gould, “Mahsatī of Ganja’s Wandering Quatrains: Translator’s Introduction,” Literary Imagination 13/2 (2011), pp. 225-227.

11 January 2021

Inspiring women writers of Laos: (1) Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong

The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until at least 21 February 2021) explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. This two-part blog post presents four female writers from Laos, all of whom have had to overcome traditional societal barriers to achieve recognition.

Although women have always played a major role as supporters of Buddhism, the main faith in Laos, and as musical performers and storytellers (mor lam) in traditional Lao society, they were not encouraged to actively write literary or Buddhist texts. While exceptions may have existed, female writers in Laos only began to emerge and to be respected for their work in the second half of the twentieth century. Their works have helped to shape contemporary Lao literature, and they have contributed significantly to women's rights and gender equality in Laos. This two-part blog post introduces the lives and works of four contemporary female Lao authors who are now celebrated nationally and internationally, starting with the sisters Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong.

Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)
Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)

Douangchampa (Lao for "Plumeria flower", the national flower of Laos) is the pseudonym of Dara Viravong Kanlagna, a Lao National Artist who has authored some sixty short stories, ninety poems, seven novels, and a screenplay for a popular feature film entitled Boua Deng which was screened at the International Festival of Cinemas of Asia in 1988. A selection of her works is held in the British Library.

Born in 1940 in Ban Oupmoung, Vientiane, as the daughter of the well-known Lao historian and philologist Maha Sila Viravong, Dara Kanlagna has been interested in literature since early childhood. She started her career as a schoolteacher in 1958 and began to write around the same time. Few years later she became an editor at Phainam Magazine, and she also began to translate literature books. After the revolution in 1975, Dara Kanlagna worked at the Ministry of Culture as a translator, editor and writer. In 1979 she established Vannasin (British Library ORB.30/6666), a literary magazine, together with other leading Lao writers. Much of her time was dedicated to working with the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme that ran from 1988 to 1994 with support from the Toyota Foundation, and from 1992 to 2004 with support from the German government. Subsequently this programme led to the establishment of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts which today makes images of over 12,000 manuscript texts from across Laos accessible online. In 1996 Dara Kanlagna was awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture and Community for her passionate work with the manuscripts project.

Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.
Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.

After her retirement in 2001 she continued to write, focusing on issues which occur in society. Her themes include the role of women in society and education, the struggles and obstacles that Lao women face, and inequalities which are often a result of ancient traditions and poverty. To raise awareness about the tradition of weaving and the fact that textile production is an important industry run and led by women in Laos, Dara Kanlagna teamed up with members of the Group for Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles, all experienced female weavers, to record their personal stories and research into practices and techniques of weaving and dyeing not only of the Lao, but also of ethnic minority groups. The project resulted in the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving, published with the support of the Japan Foundation Asia Center (Vientiane, 2001).

Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

For her collection of poems with the title Hak dok... chung bok ma (Vientiane, 2005) Dara Kanlagna received the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2010. She explained that she wrote the poems in honour of her mother, who raised her and her thirteen siblings with great patience and determination amid hardship and poverty and provided them with a good education despite being illiterate herself.

Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)
Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)

Douangdeuane Bounyavong, born in 1947 in Vientiane, is also known under her penname Dokked. Like Dara Kanlagna she grew up with a love of books and literature: she is another daughter of the historian Maha Sila Viravong and his wife Maly. After attending Dong Dok Teachers’ Training College in Vientiane from 1964 to 1968, she went on to study Physics and Chemistry at the University of Amiens and the University of Poitiers, France, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 1974. She began to write while she was still a student in 1966. Her late husband, Outhine Bounyavong, was one of Laos' leading writers, and together they worked on various publications like Lao language textbooks, dictionaries, juvenile books and literary epics of national significance like Thao Hung Thao Chueang (British Library YP.2006.b.575) and Sang Sinxay.

Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.
Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.

While running a small publishing company named Dokked that specialized in juvenile and women's literature, Douangdeuane Bounyavong wrote eight novels, about forty short stories and over sixty poems, some of which are held in the British Library collections. Following in the footsteps of her father, she transcribed numerous folk tales and works of classical literature from old into modern Lao to make them accessible to younger generations. Her groundbreaking research on the national epic Thao Hung Thao Chuang (Vientiane, 1991, British Library YP.2013.a.2225) was re-published in Thailand in 1997 (British Library YP.2016.a.9036).

In addition to writing poetry and prose she also carried out research on Lao weaving traditions, which resulted in three books on textiles including a comprehensive study of the textile collection at Ho Moune Thaentaeng Heritage Preservation Center in Vientiane with the title Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles (Vientiane, 2015). As co-founder of the Group for the Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles (1990) Douangdeuane Bounyavong was actively involved in projects for the preservation of traditional Lao textile techniques, and initiatives to raise awareness and to improve the social status of weavers and women in general, and to promote handwoven Lao textiles abroad. Currently she is Managing Director of the "Land of Bamboo Textile Museum and Medicinal Herbs and Plants Garden" as well as editor-in-chief at Dokked Publishing House. She was awarded the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes in 2005 and was also a recipient of the prestigious Southeast Asia Write Award in 2006 for her novel The Charm of the Forest (Vientiane, 2005).

Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Among Douangdeuane Bounyavong's best-known books is her mother's narrative biography with the title When Mother was in Prison, published in 2004. The story of the girl Maly, who never had the chance to attend school and was bullied because of her mixed Lao-French heritage, is truly touching as she becomes a confident and intelligent young woman who, aged seventeen, divorces an obsessively controlling husband - something unthinkable in traditional Lao society. In 1939 she married Maha Sila Viravong, with whom she had fourteen children (in addition to a son from her first marriage). When her husband, a member of the anti-colonial liberation movement Lao Issara, had to flee to Thailand in 1940, her utmost priority was to protect her children through the precarious and violent time of WWII and later the Vietnam War, and to give them the best educational opportunities possible. The book encourages women to stand up for their personal rights and to not give in to coercive control, authoritarian behaviour and male violence.

Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

In the next installment of this blog post, I will introduce two more inspiring Lao writers: Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna.

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

Further reading
ASEAN 20th Century Literatures, Selected Poems and Short Stories from Lao PDR (accessed 15/11/2020)
Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize 2005 [16th] Douangdeuane Bounyavong (accessed 20/11/2020) 
Lao Literature, Dara Kanlaya (aka Douang Champa) (accessed 12/11/2020)
Peace Women Across the Globe, Douangdeuane Bounyavong (Lao Peoples Dem. Republic) (accessed 20/11/2020)
Red Lotus (Bao Deng) by Som Ock Southiponh, Laos (accessed 29/11/2020)

Asian and African studies blog recent posts

Other British Library blogs