Asian and African studies blog

11 posts categorized "Writing"

24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

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In this blogpost, we return to an item discussed last year on the British Library Conservation Care blog in Consider the Cover: Conserving a Chinese Book, when it was being prepared for the exhibition ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (26 April – 27 August 2019). We then learned about the story told by the book’s binding, and now we look closer at its contents and context within the dramatic events of 19th-century China.

A book of Chinese characters open inside a display case
Zi bu ji jie on display in ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (2019). (15344.c.24) (Image credit: © Tony Antoniou)

Aside from being the second American Baptist missionary to set up in China and the first to establish a Protestant mission outside the foreign 'factory' corner  of Canton (Guangzhou), Issachar Roberts was also the religious teacher of Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全. Hong was the man who, in 1851, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and led a 13-year rebellion against the Qing dynasty as ruler of the Taiping tianguo (太平天囯 ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’).

‘An Explanation of Radical Characters’

Zi bu ji jie is a short text which acts as a guide to the pronunciation and general category of meaning associated with each of the 214 Kangxi radicals (the classifiers used most famously in the dictionary completed in 1716, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor). These descriptions seem to be taken, either wholly or in part, from entries in the Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典 Kangxi zidian), which in turn draws upon earlier sources such as the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 and the Guangyun 廣韻.

Each entry gives the pronunciation first in the form of a homophone character, with variations in tone denoted by the position of a small circle, followed by a short definition in classical Chinese. The character 口 ‘mouth’, for example, is described as人所以言食也 “the means by which people speak and eat.”

The text may be classical in origin and formulaic in structure but it still reveals some of the context of its creation. For instance, it would appear that Roberts was unable to source a satisfactory definition of the eighth Kangxi radical 亠 ‘head’ and instead wrote: 亠字冇乜解法 “The character亠 has no explanation”, using local the Cantonese characters 冇乜 (= 沒有什麽 = ‘without any’).

A page of a printed Chinese book with ruled columns containing bold characters
A page from Zi bu ji jie (15344.c.24) containing local character variants.
CC Public Domain Image

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

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

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

A printed Chinese book with yellowing pages and text arranged in vertical columns, beginning with the title on the right
The first page of another of Roberts’ publications, Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
CC Public Domain Image

Wen da su hua is translated as ‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’ and serves as an introduction to Christian doctrine presented in the form of a series of questions and answers. Given its title and more vernacular style, it is not surprising that local characters feature once again. In addition to the frequent use of the character 乜 (= 什麽 = ‘what/any’) in the phrasing of the questions, you can also find the third person pronoun 佢 and the verb 係 ‘to be’, such as:

“Question: What is the name of his [God’s] son? Answer: [He] is called Jesus.”

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

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

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

‘The Chinese Revolutionist’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

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Historical sources

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

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

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


Further reading

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

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

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

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

19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

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

Judaeo-Persian letter discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
The Judaeo-Persian document discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)

The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (National Library of China BH1-19)
The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (BH1-19, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of China)

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

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

Map of Dandan-Uiliq, after Stein Sand-buried ruins of Khotan
Map of Dandan-Uiliq based on M. A. Stein's Map showing portions of Chinese Turkestan, Survey of India 1900-1901, scale 1 : 760,000 (Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, London, 1904)

The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further reading

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


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

05 August 2019

Charles Wilkins as a type designer: hand drawn Modi script

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Today’s guest blogger is Komal Pande, who was the Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at the British Library from February to May 2019. Komal is also the Assistant Curator for Numismatics and Epigraphy at the National Museum in New Delhi.

As part of my research fellowship in the Visual Arts section, I had the opportunity to research and arrange as a set of hand-drawn Modi letters. Modi, is the vernacular script used to write the Marathi language spoken predominantly in Maharashtra, India. The Peshwas, the ruling class of the Maratha empire from the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, used Modi script for administrative purposes ‘as preserved in the many parcels (rumals) of official documents in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai’. Marathi merchants also used the script for their business transactions. In 1917, Modi was replaced with Devanagari. Since few people can read Modi, these hand-drawn letters are important to India’s vernacular cultural past. The orientalist Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) prepared this set of Modi letters in the early 1800s.

Image showing four examples of Modi script on seperate cards
Cards with the Modi script for vowels, British Libary, Foster 5702

Wilkins, an employee of the East India Company, was assigned as the superintendent of the Company’s factories in Malda (western Bengal) from 1770. Wilkins studied a range of languages and became proficient in Sanskrit, Bengali and Persian. Based on his expertise and knowledge of Bengali, the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings commissioned Wilkins ‘to undertake a set of Bengal types’. Wilkins manufactured a set of metal printing founts or typefaces, that could be used to mechanical print the Bengali language as exemplified in Nathanial Halhed’s instructional volume, A Grammar of the Bengal Language (Hoogly, 1778). Wilkins returned to England in 1786.

The set of sixty-nine hand-drawn Modi letters was prepared after Wilkins returned to England. According to Graham Shaw (formerly, Head of Asian and African Collections, British Library), ‘they may well be associated with [Wilkins] connection to the East India Company’s Haileybury College from 1805, perhaps to be used in printing text-books for the Company’s new recruits to learn the Modi script’.

Each card features one Modi letter: its transliteration in English and Hindi written below it, making the cards bi or trilingual. A card may contain vowels or consonants, along with some variations of half, conjunct and compound consonants. While each card measures approximately 75 x 25mm,  slight variations can be noticed in width of these cards. While the vowels and consonants are of similar size, the half letter cards are written on narrower pieces of card. The cards for the compound consonants are broader to accommodate the form and clarity of the fount.

An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.
An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.

The letters are written in black ink. The calligraphy on these cards is particularly intriguing as its purpose is more utilitarian than ornamental. The stylization of these letters was created to understand the fount in three dimensions, as these cards were prepared as functional typeface that had the potential to be used for creating matrices and punches.

Interestingly, the set also includes some blank, unfinished and cancelled cards. These cards are as important as the complete cards, as they elucidate Wilkins’ method of scribing. On the card, the pencil rules were drawn in the upper centre creating a space for the Modi letter. Since the card was to be bi or trilingual, keeping Modi as the prime script, a Modi letter of 35x25 mm dimensions was drawn in pencil. Once the form of the letter was decided, the outline was made in ink and its transliterations was scribed under the letter. Finally, the outlines of the letter were filled in black ink giving it dimension and volume. Most of the complete cards show, voluminous Modi letter in the centre along with its transliteration in small Devanagari and Roman scripts for the purpose of identification of each letter.

Alongside the process of scribing, it is equally interesting to study the method of corrections carried out by Wilkins. A few of the cards in the set show the process of how the corrections were made on the inscribed Modi letters. These include correcting the form of the letters and reflect how the three dimensionality of the letter was rectified by adjusting angles and curves by scraping off all imperfections. The cancelled signs, the scalpel marks and the pencil ruled lines inform us of Wilkins’ efforts to achieve perfect typefaces.   

According to Graham Shaw, ‘as far as it is known, no work was ever printed using a Wilkins Modi fount. When James Robert Ballantyne published his A grammar of the Mahratta language’ in Edinburgh in 1839 (for use at Haileybury), he noted in the preface “The lithographic press has been employed because no fount of Mahratta [i.e. Modi] types was to be found in London”. The only other early Modi fount cast was at the Serampore Mission Press in Bengal, used in 1808 to print the second edition of the Baptist Missionary William Carey’s A grammar of the Mahratta language’ (after criticism for the use of the Devanagari script in the 1805 first edition.’

Further reading:

Ross, F. and Shaw, G. (2003) 'An unexpected legacy and its contribution to early Indian typography', in: Randle, J. and Berry, J. (eds.) Type and typography: highlights from Matrix. Mark Batty Publisher, New Jersey, pp. 169-181

With thanks to Graham Shaw for his invaluable comments for this blog post.

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

24 June 2019

Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script

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Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art who is completing his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology. Vivek is currently based at the British Library for a research placement on illumination in Persian Manuscripts.

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r)
Fig. 1. Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r). Public domain

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. In the Indian Qur’an manuscript (ca. 1450-1500) shown in Fig. 1, bihārī is in black. Bihārī evidently associates the script with the northeastern Indian region of Bihar[1], but the name remains a mystery, especially as it appears far beyond Bihar in places such as Bengal and the Deccan; by early-modern times it also reached Ethiopia. The British Museum’s catalogue, published in 1879, describes the script in the example here as “large and angular Naskhi” and dates it to the fourteenth century[2]. The name for this script is also unresolved in the catalogue of Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna. The first volume of 1918 describes the script of a bihārī Qur’an as thuluth-i kūfī. The third volume of 1965 calls the script baḥr, which means ‘sea,’ while the fourth volume of 1995 designates it as khaṭṭ-i bihār (bihārī calligraphy)[3].

Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents. In her pioneering research coining naskhī-dīvānī as a calligraphic style, Éloïse Brac de la Perrière describes it as such:

The bar of the kāf often terminates with a small hook, as with the alif that features a lower tail curving left of its vertical line. Some letters like the kāf are almost angular, however the ḥā’ and khā’ in the initial position and the final ligature of the yā’ with letters preceding it have a rounded appearance with a loop; the dāl is large and open[4]

As seen here in red, naskhī-dīvānī is often used in interlinear Persian translations of Qur’ans in bihārī script. It often appears in marginal glosses of such Qur’ans as well. Since it is frequently diminutive or paratextual to the bihārī script, it has a special affinity with bihārī. In many cases, the scribes responsible for both the bihārī text and naskhī-dīvānī paratext would have been the same individual.

One manuscript copied in a naskh script closely resembling a naskhī-dīvānī is an anthology of Persian poetry (Or.4110) assembled during the reign of the Sharqi Sultan Mubarak Shah of Jaunpur (r. 1399-1402). The manuscript is datable to the beginning of the fifteenth century. In these diagrams for reading poetry the script possesses the angularity of the naskhī-dīvānī and distinctive terminating letters (fig. 2). In the spiraling diagrams shown on the right we see a thick black stroke akin to the bihārī script. The orange and red floral decoration and blue roundels also are typical of bihārī Qur’āns. The craftsmen responsible for this manuscript thus were certainly familiar with the calligraphy and decorative programme of a bihārī manuscript.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century
Fig. 2. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or. 4110, ff. 153v-154r). Public domain

Beyond Arabic and Persian manuscripts, naskhī-dīvānī was also the leading script for the earliest Hindavi vernacular premākhyān, or story of love, the Chāndāyan (1379) of Mullāh Dā’ūd. This was a story told in a highly Sanskritized idiom that borrowed from Persian poetics. Although there has been no critical analysis of the paleography of the Chāndāyan manuscripts to date, it is clear that the script of the majority of these manuscripts is a naskhī-dīvānī adapted for the vernacular (fig. 3). Further, the layout of these texts borrows directly from Persian poetry collections (dīvāns). That these manuscripts were produced in a number of regions (Gujarat, Malwa, Delhi-Agra) over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attests to the spread of this script. Here, it is worth questioning whether or not the scribes of these vernacular manuscripts were the scribes of bihārī Qur’ans. If this were the case, this offers evidence of a multilingual literate culture in which trained scribes could produce manuscripts in varying scripts.

The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester
Fig. 3. “The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester

In addition to manuscripts of deluxe quality, naskhī-dīvānī appears in unillustrated and unilluminated books from the sultanate world. For example, a copy of the Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī, the fourteenth-century Persian translation of Varāhamihira’s sixth-century Sanskrit encyclopedia the Bṛhatsaṁhitā, is inscribed in naskhī-dīvānī (fig. 4)[5]. We know the manuscript passed through the Deccan sultanate of Golkonda because it bears a seal of Muhammad Qutb Shah (r.1612-26), so it must date from before the end of his reign.

Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v)
Fig.4. Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v). Public domain

With the substantial and intriguing evidence of naskhī-dīvānī in Qur’ans, Hindavi poetry, and secular works, this script was widespread in a number of languages and genres. This opens up possible lines of inquiry about the scribes’ level of literacy in these languages. For the moment such questions remain unanswered although while it is clear that there are very few cohesive threads in the manuscript culture of sultanate India, naskhī-dīvānī may well prove to be a primary one.

Further reading:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse. “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003, pp. 81-93.
— “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy: Preliminary Remarks on a Little-Known Corpus.” Muqarnas 33 (2016): 63-90.
—, and Burési, Monique, eds. Le Coran de Gwalior: Polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 2016.
Mirza, Sana. “The visual resonances of a Harari Qur’ān: An 18th century Ethiopian manuscript and its Indian connections.” Afriques 08 (2017): 1-25.
Siddiq, Mohammad Yusuf. “An Epigraphical Journey to an Eastern Land.” Muqarnas 7 (1990): 83-108.

With thanks to Emily Shovelton and Eleanor Sims

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology

[1] Brac de la Perrière, “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy,” p. 64.
[2] Rieu, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1, p. 7.
[3] These catalogues were published from 1918-1995 and are collectively called Miftāḥ al-Kanūz al-Khafiyah.
[4] Brac de la Perrière, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî,” 89. “La barre du kâf se termine souvent par un petit crochet, de même que l’alif est doté d’une queue inférieure placée à gauche du trait vertical de la lettre. Certaines lettres, comme le kâf sont presque anguleuses; a contrario, leâet le khâà l’intiale et la ligature du yâ final avec les lettres précédentes ont l’aspect arrondi d’une boucle; les dâl sont grands et ouverts.” I thank Hugo Partouche for checking my French translation.
[5] See Orthmann, "Tarjuma-yi kitāb-i Bārāhī (occult sciences),” for a description of this text.

10 June 2019

Zee JLF at the British Library, 14-16th June 2019

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ZEE JLF at The British Library returns to London for its sixth consecutive year from 14th-16th June, 2019, to celebrate books, creativity and dialogue, creative diversity and varied intellectual discourse.


The five-day ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, held annually in the Pink City of Jaipur, is a riot of colour, energy, ideas, and music against a backdrop of readings, dynamic discussions and debates.

This June, the spirit of the festival with its pervasive sense of inclusiveness and infectious camaraderie, will once again be at the heart of London as a caravan of writers and thinkers, poets, balladeers and raconteurs bring alive South Asia’s unique multilingual literary heritage at the British Library. You can book tickets through the British Library's box office.

Asian and African Studies Curators Malini Roy and Michael Erdman will be speaking in two of the panels:

Saturday, 15 June 2019: 13.45 – 14.45

Forgotten Masterpieces of Indian Art for East India Company

Malini Roy, Yuthika Sharma, Katherine Butler Schofield and Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in conversation with William Dalrymple

Reflecting both the beauty of the natural world and the social reality of the time, the Indian artworks commissioned by the East India Company’s officials in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offer a rare glimpse of the cultural fusion between British and Indian artistic styles. South Asian art expert and British Library curator Malini Roy, historian of South Asian art Yuthika Sharma, music historian and author Katherine Butler Schofield, historian on South Asian Art and British scholar and author Rosie Llewellyn Jones discuss this forgotten moment in Anglo-Indian history, with author and historian William Dalrymple.


Sunday, 16 June 2019: 16.15 - 17.15

From Hieroglyphs to Emojis

Irving Finkel, David Levy and Michael Erdman in conversation with Pragya Tiwari, introduced by Namita Gokhale

From carved stone inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and early printed works to beautiful calligraphy, iconic fonts and emojis, the written word has evolved in innumerable ways over the centuries. British Museum curator Irving Finkel, alongside technologist and calligrapher David Levy and scholar of Turkish historiography and one of the curators of the British Library’s exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark Michael Erdman deconstruct the act of writing and consider its future in the digital age, in conversation with journalist and editor Pragya Tiwari. Introduced by Namita Gokhale.

Presented by Bagri Foundation.


The full schedule is now available online:


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,


19 May 2015

A Jawi sourcebook for the study of Malay palaeography and orthography

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, 'The beginning', first word of Kitab pengajaran. MSS Malay B 13, f. 1v (detail)  noc

Malay manuscripts rarely give full details about when and where they were written, and we are often reliant on the biographies of western collectors in order to date a manuscript or gauge its origin. Little such information is available for one Malay manuscript (MSS Malay B 13), entitled blandly Kitab pengajaran pada segala orang sekalian, ‘A book of instruction for everyone’. It contains moral guidance on all aspects of social behaviour, with sections for example on anger (murka, f.31r), hopes and fears (pengharapan dan ketakutan, f.25r) and love and passion (berahi dan asyik, f.35r), on family relations including the role of fathers (pangkat bapak, f.42r) and sons (anak laki-laki, f.44r), and between layers of society, such as masters and servants (orang yang dipertuan serta yang diperhamba, f.52v). The annotation ‘Hastings MS’ indicates it may have been owned by the Marquess of Hastings, who succeeded Lord Minto as Governor-General of Bengal from 1813 to 1823.

Mss_malay_b_13_f001v-2rOpening pages of Bahwa ini kitab pengajaran pada segala orang sekalian; note the very neat handwriting and use of paragraphing. British Library, MSS Malay B 13, ff. 1v-2r  noc

One possible clue to the provenance of this manuscript may lie in the handwriting. The manuscript is written in a clear, neat and precise hand, with carefully spaced words, meticulous diacritical marks, and - very unusually - paragraphs: all hints that the book was probably specifically written for a European patron and thus needed to be very legible. Such a school of scribes was active in Batavia in the early 19th century, associated with the General Secretariat (Algemeene Secretariaat) of the Dutch administration, founded in 1819. Manuscripts by this group of scribes can be seen in Leiden University Library, the National Library of Indonesia and the Berlin Staatsbibliotheek, all distinguished by great care in the writing, and stylish use of rubrication and bold letters for certain significant words. One highly distinctive letter form found in MSS Malay B 13 which is associated with this school is the ‘squashed’ form of medial ha, with the loops above and below both bent to the right, which suggest that the Kitab pengajaran was copied in Batavia in the early 19th century (despite endpapers of English paper watermarked '1794', which may have been added later when the MS was rebound in Calcutta). If it was acquired during the British administration of 1811 to 1816, this would make it one of the earliest known examples of this characteristic 'Batavia' hand.      

Mss_malay_b_13_f005v-syahdan  Kl.7, pp.441-2-syahdan  IMW125GallopIntro-FigVII-Hk Iskandar-syahdan
The word syahdan, 'then', with distinctive 'squashed' medial ha, in three manuscripts. Left: Kitab pengajaran. British Library, MSS Malay B 13, f.5v; Middle: Hikayat Bujangga Indera Maharupa, copied by Muhammad Cing Saidullah, Batavia, 1830. Courtesy of Leiden University Library, Kl.7, p.442;
Right: Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, copied by Muhammad Hasan, probably in Batavia in the early 19th century. Courtesy of Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.1967, vol.2, p.249

Awareness of the importance of palaeography – the study of historical styles of handwriting – for the study of manuscripts was the impetus behind the recent publication of ‘A Jawi Sourcebook for the Study of Malay Palaeography and Orthography’ as a special issue of the journal Indonesia in the Malay World in honour of Professor Ulrich Kratz, who recently retired from SOAS after three decades of teaching Malay and Indonesian literature. The Jawi Sourcebook was compiled with the aim of presenting a body of source material to enable a fresh look at Jawi script, and is modelled on a landmark guide to European palaeography by my former colleague Michelle Brown (1990), despite a complete reversal of theoretical grounding. Brown’s book, A guide to Western historical scripts from Antiquity to 1600, presented photographic facsimiles of manuscripts accompanied by comments on the handwriting, in order to illustrate over 50 acknowledged styles of script in Latin letters. Yet in the absence of any recognized categorization of Malay hands, all that the Jawi  Sourcebook aims to do is to to present, in chronological order, the raw material that could be utilised to advance the study of Malay palaeography and orthography. This has been done by selecting a corpus of 60 securely dated or dateable Malay manuscripts from the late 16th to the early 20th century, each of which can be located in a specific part of the Malay world, from Aceh to Aru and from Melaka to Mindanao. Thanks to the recent Malay manuscripts digitisation project, which has enabled full online access to all the Malay manuscripts in the British Library, many of these were selected by international contributors to the Jawi Sourcebook. A selection of sample lines from British Library manuscripts, accompanied by comments on the handwriting by various scholars, is presented below.

ACEH, 1764
Mirat al-tullab, by Abdul Rauf of Singkel, composed in 1074/1663, this MS copied on 14 Muharam 1178 (14 July 1764) in Aceh. British Library, Or.16035, f.4r.  noc

'In this MS, two dots are connected and look like a short line, while three dots look like ‘one dot and a short line’. Note the unusual appearance of segala, here and elsewhere in this MS, as the ga-lam resembles a capital ‘B’' [at the end of the first and third lines above].   Yumi Sugahara, Osaka University (Jawi Sourcebook, no.17)

Hikayat Raja Pasai, copied in Semarang, central Java, ca. 8 Syaaban 1211 (6 February 1797). British Library, Or. 14350, f. 78r.  noc

'The script is small and neat, and appears to have been written by a professional scribe. The initial sin is in the form of a flowing stroke. In order to preserve a straight left edge, the copyist varies extended and close strokes, resulting e.g. in a relatively long tail of the wau in the pre-final line or in a rather ‘crammed’ way of writing the last words in the final line.' Edwin Wieringa, Cologne University (Jawi Sourcebook, no.21)

PENANG, 1806
Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, copied by Ibrahim ca. 18 Syawal 1220 (9 January 1806), British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f. 40 r.  noc

‘Ibrahim does indeed possess ‘characteristic handwriting’ (Teeuw et al 2004: 16): very upright, inscribed confidently and with considerable brio. The letter forms are very distinct, though he is occasionally somewhat cavalier about the dotting. There are no dots to distinguish ga and kaf.’ Mulaika Hijjas, SOAS (Jawi Sourcebook, no.25)

Kitab ubat-ubat dan azimat, ‘Book on medicine and talismans’. A note on the front cover reads: ‘Tay Segalla obat or The Malay Materia Medica, from the practice of Tama, Physician to the Royal household of His Majesty of Pontiana, copied May 17th 1813’. British Library, MSS Malay B.15, f. 2r.  noc

'The handwriting in this manuscript is neat and clear with a faint slant towards the left. Occasionally letters that follow an alif are raised upwards to link to the top of that alif (e.g. the nga in ‘jangan’). The letter kaf is sometimes written in an elongated form (e.g. ‘manteraku’). Although the hand is legible the spelling is erratic and inconsistent, making it difficult to determine the ingredients and spells used in the treatments. Therefore a comparison with similar texts found in other manuscripts is necessary to determine the correct reading.' Farouk Yahya, SOAS (Jawi Sourcebook, no.28)

Sejarah Melayu, copied by Husin bin Ismail in Tanah Merah, Singapore, on Saturday 16 Rajab [1248] = 8 December 1832. British Library, Or. 16214, f. 2r.  noc

'The writing is neat and regular which is typical of Husin bin Ismail. In contrast to Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi (no. 38), this scribe has no evidently distinct features in his writing. A characteristic which he shares with other scribes is writing kaf for ga ... Interestingly, in our fragment he writes orang besar differently on both occurrences, first conjoined and then separated. Remarkable is the spelling of cucu, using the number ‘2’ (c.w.2).' Roger Tol, KITLV, Jakarta (Jawi Sourcebook, no.35)

BRUNEI, ca.1900
Syair Baginda, concerning Sultan Abdul Mumin of Brunei (r.1852-1885). On the basis of the watermark (‘Superfine 1895’) can be dated to ca.1900. British Library, Or. 14549, f. 3r.  noc

‘The syair is written in black ink in two columns, in a characteristic Brunei literary hand familiar from hikayat and syair manuscripts, notable for its extreme horizontal aspect, and very different from the chancery hands evident in royal Brunei letters over the centuries (Nos. 1 and 5). The orthography too reflects Brunei phonetic norms such as the preference for medial a rather than ĕ pĕpĕt.’  Ampuan Haji Brahim bin Haji Tengah, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Annabel Teh Gallop, British Library (Jawi Sourcebook, no.56)

Further reading

A Jawi sourcebook for the study of Malay palaeography and orthography’. Contributors Wan Ali Wan Mamat, Ali Akbar, Vladimir Braginsky, Ampuan Haji Brahim Haji Tengah, Ian Caldwell, Henri Chambert-Loir, Tatiana Denisova, Farouk Yahya, Annabel Teh Gallop, Hashim Musa, I.R. Katkova, Willem van der Molen, Mulaika Hijjas, Ben Murtagh, Roderick Orlina, Jan van der Putten, Peter G. Riddell, Yumi Sugahara, Roger Tol and E.P. Wieringa; edited and introduced by Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesia and the Malay World, Special Issue in honour of E.U.Kratz, March 2015, 43 (125): 13-171.


Michelle Brown, A guide to Western historical scripts from Antiquity to 1600. London: British Library, 1990.

Teeuw, A., Dumas R., Muhammad Haji Salleh and Van Yperen, M.J.  2004. A merry senhor in the Malay world: Four texts of the Syair Sinyor Kosta. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork