Friday, April 29, 2016

Publication: The Three Hares, A Curiosity Worth Regarding


Hardback, 368 pp., 326 illustrations
ISBN : 9780993103926
England: Skerryvore Productions Ltd, 2016
Price: £30.00
Order online here

From fifteenth-century rural churches in deepest Devon to sixth-century cave temples on the edge of the Gobi desert in China, this book follows its three authors on the tantalising trail of a mysterious medieval motif - three hares running in a circle sharing three ears which form a triangle at the centre of the design.

Along the way, a modern Devon myth is exposed, and the Three Hares in the sacred art of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism are explored, and tentatively explained, before the trail leads into the Islamic world, and the great Mongol Empire.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Conserving a Chinese scroll

Vania Assis is Conservator of the Dunhuang scrolls at the British Library, and works on various projects supporting IDP's activities. Here is a post about one of her latest conservation jobs.

My colleague Wong Wing-hui and I recently worked on the Chinese scroll Or.8210/S.3877. Like other items in the Stein collection, it had been previously treated during its life as a collection item.

In the past, various materials were used to strengthen and repair manuscripts. In the case of our scroll, silk gauze was pasted on both sides with animal glue. There were, sometimes, several layers on top of each other. Heavy and thick paper was also applied to reinforce weak areas, such as edges, tears and missing areas.

Gauze covering the surface of scroll Or.8210/S.3877

As these materials aged, they became more unstable, causing the item to distort and transferring acidity to the paper. Higher acidity meant that the document became discoloured, which when combined with the texture of the gauze meant that it was difficult to perceive the original aspect of the scroll. In addition, a lower pH also made the item more brittle, making safe handling problematic.

Scroll Or.8210/S.3877 before conservation

Removing these materials proved very challenging: first, because they heavily adhered to the most vulnerable areas; second, because the paper used to make this scroll was particularly thin and transparent.

We worked on a section at a time, using hot water to reactivate the animal glue. We then removed the gauze with tweezers, carefully pulling it away from the paper. One of the most time-consuming processes was to remove the residual animal glue, which had been used in very large quantities. We did so by scraping it with a spatula, while it was damp. During this stage, we also removed old repairs, as they easily peeled away from the original material.

To repair the scroll's countless small tears and lacunae, we used Japanese paper, which is not only more sympathetic to the original paper, but also light weight and acid-free.

Detail of scroll Or.8210/S.3877 before conservation
Detail of scroll Or.8210/S.3877 after conservation

After all treatments, the scroll was lightly pressed for a week, to flatten any distortions. Finally, we rolled it onto an archival quality core support, and it is now ready to be digitised and handled!

Scroll Or.8210/S.3877 after conservation

Monday, April 11, 2016

Publication: La fabrique du lisible


Paperback, 420 pp., colour
ISBN : 9782857570738
Paris: Collège de France, Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises
Order online: Editions de Boccard

Until recently, the history of the book in China focused mainly on the printed book. Admittedly, most works date the invention of the book back to inscriptions on turtle shell or Shang and Zhou bronzes, but they tend not to give much attention to manuscripts on bamboo, wood, silk and paper.

The discovery of a large number of early manuscripts in the Mogao cave 17, near Dunhuang, and elsewhere has opened up new perspectives and allowed parallel lines of investigation to be drawn. The emergence of codicology and the development of research on the history of text production applied to Western manuscripts have also provided a model upon which to open a new chapter in the history of Chinese manuscript books.

This publication gathers fifty-one articles from thirteen scholars based at French institutions. Representing a first attempt to write a history of ancient Chinese texts in their context, it examines the production of manuscripts, their utilisation, handling and preservation, as well as their design, the readership for whom they were intended and how they were written and read.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Irene Vincent's photographs: A modern pilgrimage to Dunhuang

Few people may be aware of it, but among the information and images about Dunhuang and other archaeological sites on the eastern Silk Road available on IDP's website, there are also a number of photographs taken by modern-day explorers.

In the twentieth century, as news of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas spread worldwide following their 'rediscovery' by Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, an increasing number of travellers, both from China and overseas, started venturing to the site. Irene Vincent, née Vongehr, was one of the foreign visitors who made it, despite the difficulties of the journey.
Detail of a photograph of Irene Vincent at the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang in 1948. Photo 1231/4(49)
Born in 1919 in Hankou, on the Yangzi River in China, she grew up speaking fluent Mandarin and Cantonese, in addition to English. She went to university in the United States, graduating with a degree in International Relations from Sweet Briar College, Virginia. She married John Benjamin Vincent, and shortly after set up home with him in various parts of Asia. They lived in Shanghai at the beginning of the Second World War, then moved to Calcutta for five years in 1942. They eventually returned to China in 1947, where they settled in Beijing with their two daughters.
Film negative of the Vincent family in 1948: Irene, John, Jamini and Bronwen. Photo 1231/1(90)
In the summer of 1948, Irene left behind husband and children to go on her own pilgrimage to the man-made caves of Dunhuang, a dream that had haunted since her student days:
‘In his secret heart almost everyone carries the name of some place on earth which he hopes to see before he dies... In 1939 I had chosen mine — the Thousand Buddha Caves of Tun Huang. The summer school of the University of Michigan offered that year an excellent course in Chinese art. I had spent three months at this heady banquet ... After this hastily devoured—almost indigestible—feast, the memory of the Thousand Buddha Caves had remained to haunt and tantalize me. I never really expected to see them with my own eyes, however. The only westerners who had this good fortune seemed to be eminent scholars, under the wing of important organizations, who spent weeks travelling there in horse-carts, sacks of bullion concealed in their luggage.’

Extract from Irene Vongehr Vincent, The Sacred Oasis: Caves of the Thousand Buddhas Tun Huang. London: Faber and Faber 1953: 43. Reproduced by courtesy of Bronwen Vincent.

The journey, during which Irene Vincent took numerous photographs, lasted eight long weeks. The region was hardly accessible at the time, and although she had been able to fly from Beijing to Lanzhou, the second half of the trip was not as easy. Irene had to search for a 'motorised camel' for the remaining 800 miles, and she ended up taking not one but two trucks in order to reach Dunhuang. The first one, which belonged to the government-owned oil company, dropped her in Jiuquan, in Gansu province, where she jumped on another dilapidated vehicle bound for Dunhuang.
Irene's truck experiencing some difficulties on its way to Dunhuang. Passengers are waiting on board while it is being fixed. Photo 1231/4(2)
Irene covered the last twelve miles to the Mogao Caves on horseback. She stayed as a guest of the Dunhuang Art Institute for ten days, capturing with her camera as many of the caves as possible in the short amount of time available.
Central portion of Mogao Caves, Dunhuang. Photo 1231/4(6)
West wall of Cave 283. Photo 1231/4(25)
Photograph of a view looking across the river to the Dunhuang Mogao caves with Irene Vincent. Photo 1231/5(31)
On her return, Irene met her husband and their daughters, Jamini and Bronwen, and they returned as a family to Dunhuang. There, John Vincent took the first known colour photographs of the wall paintings of the Mogao caves some of which were published — along with some of Irene's photographs — in Basil Gray's  Buddhist cave Paintings at Tun-huang, in 1959.
Irene Vincent and her two daughters in a truck to Qinghai, during their family trip to Dunhuang in 1948-49. Photo 1231/2(56)
Photograph of Cave 257, taken by John B. Vincent. Photo 1231/6(10)
The Vincent Collection of photographs and negatives by Irene and John was generously donated to the British Library by their daughters and son in memory of their parents. It includes several hundred items, recording their respective visits to Dunhuang Mogao Caves, as well as their time in various places across China right up to the Communist Revolution in 1949.

To see all of the Vincent photographs on IDP search the IDP database for 'Photo 1231'.
See IDP News 42 for more on on 20th century travellers to Dunhuang.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Paul Pelliot: Diaries of a French explorer and sinologist

Paul Eugène Pelliot (28 May 1878 – 26 October 1945) was a French sinologist and philologist. In 1906, he was chosen to lead a government-sponsored archaeological mission to Chinese Turkestan, with Doctor Louis Vaillant and photographer Charles Nouette. At a time of scientific competition between Great Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan, he was the first major western scholar to reach Dunhuang after the initial visit by Marc Aurel Stein in 1907.

Portrait of Paul Pelliot (1878-1945). (C) BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF, NA-238-FT 4

Pelliot acquired numerous manuscripts from the site, as well as works of art such as spectacular silk banners, paintings and rare wood sculptures, which now form the core of the collections of the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris. One of the noteworthy achievements of Pelliot's expedition was also to produce thousands of photographs of the caves, still invaluable for the study of their murals.

Dunhuang, Cave 120F, left wall. (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée Guimet, Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi, 4515353

During his journey along the Silk Road, he wrote very detailed notebooks, which are of particular interest for us as they include fascinating accounts of his time in Dunhuang. Held in the Musée Guimet, these have been transcribed and published in 2008 in Paul Pelliot: Carnets de route 1906-1908. Not only do they give us crucial insight into his travel itinerary, day-to-day life and work, but, because they were never destined to a public use, they are also extremely personal, taking us straight to the deepest recesses of Pelliot's mind.

Extract from one of Pelliot's small notebooks, open on the date of 7 March 1908. (C) Musée Guimet, bibliothèque, Pel. Mi 7

On the 26th of February 1908, exactly 108 years ago today, Paul Pelliot started to explore the caves of the Thousand Buddhas. He had arrived from the nearby town of Daquan at 6 pm the night before, after delays due to the disappearance of his guide's horse. Here is a translation of the extract where he recounted his first day in the caves:

"I spent my day in the first ten caves at Qian Fo Dong. I unearthed a Chinese stele in clay and cob, with white characters inscribed on a black background: but only a few characters on each of the 32 lines are distinguishable; a date is precise concerning the day and month, but the nianhao and number of the years are missing. However, I have already managed to find quite a few names of patrons, plus some Mongolian [language], a bit of Xixia and some 'Phags-pa. Finally, I completed Xu Song’s decipherment of Li Taibin’s inscription as well as the one on the back; I managed to establish that the latter one was dedicated to a certain 李明振 [Li Mingzhen]. I am quite proud of having succeeded where Xu Song had failed.

Tonight, we were to get some straw, but the monk who was supposed to bring carts back could not find any for hire: there is nothing specific to be learned from Ting who is, like every night now, under the influence of alcohol; he is becoming truly unbearable. On top of that, the man who guided me to the Xihu did not show up today to give me news of the horse. Early in the morning I will send Ting to the yamen to try and organise a different means of transport.

(Some Chinese people who came to Qian Fo Dong today were telling me that they came to get some saksaoul (Suosuo chai) which is abundant in the mountains 70 or 80 li from here.)

Small difficulties aside, I am thrilled to practise some of my career here."

Many days followed after this one, when Pelliot meticulously kept examining Dunhuang caves and their content. He notably managed to get access to the Library Cave which contained an important hoard of manuscripts, going through them at an incredible speed thanks to his impressive command of Classical Chinese and other central Asian languages.

Paul Pelliot, shown seated in Cave 17 at Dunhuang in 1908 reading the manuscripts. (C) The Musée Guimet, AP8187

Upon his return to France, Pelliot was criticised for wasting public money and suspected of coming back with forged manuscripts. Ironically, these charges were only proven false with the publication of Ruins of Desert Cathay in 1912 by his greatest rival, the British-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein. In this book, Stein supported Pelliot's account and clearly stated that he had left some manuscripts behind after his visit, clearing Pelliot from all accusations.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Revisiting Kharakhoto

The ancient Tangut city of Kharakhoto lies north-east of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, just inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia. For Colonel Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863-1935), leader of the 1907–1909 Russian Expedition to Mongolia and Sichuan, it was the city of his dreams: 'ever since reading about the ruins in the explorer Potanin's book Kharakhoto has been constantly on my mind'. His discovery of the site in March 1908 was undoubtedly the triumph of Russian activity in Central Asia and heralded the start of Tangut studies.

IDP's photograph of the ruined city, The British Library,
Photo 1187/1(48) Photographer: Rachel Roberts.

Kharakhoto was a major city of the thriving Tangut state of Xia (known in China as Western Xia: Xixia) and many documents written in Tangut were found by Kozlov. The city was one of the first to be overthrown by the Mongols when they invaded in 1226. They later established a Tangut province within their empire and the city continued to be known by its Tangut name, Edzina or Etsina, as attested by Marco Polo:

'When the traveller leaves this city of Ganzhou, he rides for twelve days until he reaches a city called Edzina, which lies on the northern edge of the desert of sand. This is still in the province of Tangut. The inhabitants are idolators. They have camels and cattle in plenty. The country breeds lanner and saker falcons, and very good ones. The people live by agriculture and stock-rearing; they are not traders.' (after Yule 1903: 223)

Kozlov sent ten chests of manuscripts and Buddhist objects to St. Petersburg after this initial visit in 1908 and acquired more material, including Buddhist paintings, on his return journey in May 1909. The artefacts he discovered reflect the cultural richness of the Tangut Xia State. The paintings and other pieces (3,500 items) are now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg while the manuscripts and printed documents (8,000 items) are with those from Dunhuang at the Institute of Oriental Studies (some are on IDP, ms. prefix=Tang.). Kozlov was leading an exploratory rather than an archaeological expedition and the site was too large for a complete excavation. Several years later when Sir Aurel Stein arrived he found many more artefacts and manuscripts. Stein recorded his first view of the city in 1914:

'It was a striking site, the most impressive perhaps that I had seen on true desert ground, this dead town, with massive walls and bastions for the most part still in fair preservation, rising above the bare gravel flat which stretches towards it from the river bank ... There was nothing in the surroundings of the dead town to impair the imposing effect created by the massive strength of the town walls and the utter desolation which reigned within.' (Stein 1928: 437)

Stein's photograph of the ruined city, The British Library,
Photo 392/29(95)

In the field Stein excavated several parts of the ancient city. Whenever he found remains of manuscripts he marked them according to their find site with a site id. (K.K. for Kharakhoto) and site feature number (given in roman numerals, I, II etc.,). Most of the manuscripts collected by Stein were fragments, the more complete material having been removed by Kozlov. In many cases the manuscripts were found too fragmentary and compressed conditions to separate. These he carefully collected and placed inside sheets of local paper, inscribing the wrapper with the find site. The wrappers were often secured with pins.

Some of the unconserved bundles, The British Library, December 2015. Photographer: Alexis Matilla.

Stein's Third Expedition material was first sent to Srinigar, arriving there in October 1915. As Stein remarked, 'war risks would have made its temporary transmission to London, as originally contemplated, a very unwise course.'(Innermost Asia: 981). Here Fred Andrewes, Principal of the Technical Institute of the Kashmir State, was entrusted with their sorting and numbering: he had worked with Stein on material from his previous expeditions. He was joined in early 1919 by Miss Lorimer, who had being working with the Stein collections in London since 1909: they had worked together on these until 1913 when Andrewes had left for Kashmir (Wang 1998). However, it appears that little was done on the Tangut manuscripts. Miss Lorimer completed her contract and returned to England in 1922. By this time Andrewes was in new Delhi working on the collections from Stein's first and second expeditions, a portion of which had been sent to India.

In January 1924 Stein asked the British Museum for space to store and work on this Third Expedition material while he completed his detailed report (Or.15495). 44 boxes arrived at the Museum in May 1924.

In 1925 there was an exhibition at the British Museum of a selection of material from Stein's third expedition (I will report separately on this). Most of the Tangut illustrated material, described by Stein in Innermost Asia, was sent to India (now in the collections of the National Museum of India in New Delhi). While the artefacts from the Third Expedition were given Museum registration numbers in 1928 (the number prefixed with 1928), the manuscript material was treated separately. Chinese and other languages material was appended onto existing sequences, Or.8211 and Or.8212 (both sequences were assigned in 1919). The former was originally for material mainly in Chinese catalogued by Chavannes, and the second sequence originally for other language material from Stein's first and second expeditions). The third expedition material was later added to these.

We have to assume, however, that the Tangut material remained unsorted for several decades as it was not assigned a manuscript number until 1959. This work was probably prompted by two factors: first the completion and publication of the catalogue of Chinese manuscripts from Dunhuang by the former Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts, Lionel Giles (1875-1958). Giles had retired in 1940 but continued work on the catalogue. The second was the appointment of Eric Grinstead (1921-2008) as Assistant Keeper. Grinstead took an interest in Tangut and probably led work on the sorting of this material.

In 1959 the manuscript prefixes Or.12380-85 were assigned to the Tangut material. It must have been at this time that the first 1839 fragments were conserved and encapsulated within glass: they remain in glass today (Or.12380/1-1839). (The prefixes Or.12381-5 do not seem to have been used, a point noted by in the Register of Oriental Manuscripts, March 19 1970.) Grinstead wrote a short article for the British Museum Quarterly introducing the material in 1961 (Grinstead 1961).

A few more complete items, such as the scroll Or.12380/1840, were lined — a typical treatment for this type of material at the time. In 1962, in another article for the British Museum Quarterly, Grinstead discussed the text on the scroll Or.12380/1840, 'The General's Garden', describing it as 'a twist of paper when first studied, is now mounted in its original form as a roll, 230 x 20 cm, containing 115 columns, complete at the top, but most unfortunately incomplete at the bottom and lacking the first third of the work altogether.'(Grinstead 1963: 36).

The General's Garden The British Library,

It is clear that other material started to be sorted, possibly by Grinstead, but was then deemed too fragmentary or delicate for conservation. Some material, for example, was removed from the original wrappers used by Stein and sorted into envelopes — often recycled standard issue British Museum brown ones, as seen below.

The image below shows such an envelope originally addressed to Grinstead containing several fragments. Grinstead's name has been crossed out and the site id. inscribed instead.'K.K.II.0284.a.xxii.' and the description 'Debris inscrit.'The postmark is dated 29 January 1959.

Other material was placed inside new paper sleeves (see below). But, judging from the comments on the envelopes and papers, when sent to the conservators (then the British Museum Bindery) they deemed much 'impossible' to conserve. They were returned to Grinstead and thence to storage.

Grinstead continued his research, publishing another article in 1967. However, by this time he had left the Museum to join the Central Nordic Institute for Asiatic Studies in Copenhagen. More activity was started when Professor Nishida visited the British Library to work on the collections. His first visit was in 1963. Professor Nishida identified fragments belonging to the same texts and these were conserved in codex format. However, the mass of unconserved material remained undisturbed.

In 2001 Ksenia Kepping from the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg, visited the Library and some funds were found for her to compile a new catalogue. Unfortunately, Dr Kepping died before this work could be completed. However, during this period some of the material in plastic was reencapsulated into Melinex and preliminary records added to IDP.

Now, thanks to the support of the Ningxia Archives in China, the British Library has now been able to employ a new conservator to work on this material and for the production of 8000 images in the initial funded stages (up to summer 2016). The first step has been to make an inventory of all the remaining unconserved bundles and this revealed some of the working practices outlined above. We hope to learn more as we do more on this material.

IDP Conservator, Vania Assis, and IDP intern, Feichi Gao, preparing the inventory of unconserved bundles.
Photographer: Alexis Matilla


Galambos, Imre. 2015. Translating Chinese Tradition and Teaching Tangut Culture. Berlin: de Gruyter. Open Access.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1961. 'Tangut Fragments in the British Museum.' The British Museum Quarterly 24.3/4: 82–87.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1962. 'The General's Garden: A Twelfth Century Military Work.' The British Museum Quarterly 26.1/2: 35–37.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1967. 'The Dragon King of the Sea.' The British Museum Quarterly 31.3/4: 96-100.
Stein, M. Aurel. 1928. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Iran. London.
Wang, Helen. 1998. 'Stein's Recording Angel: Miss F. M. G. Lorimer.'Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 8.2: 207–228.
Yule, Henry. 1903. The Book of Ser Marco Polo. (3rd ed.). London: John Murray.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

IDP News Issue No 46

Professor Zhao Feng, Director of the National Silk Museum, showing visitors around the exhibition, 'Silks from the Silk Road: Origin, Transmission and Exchange' at the West Lake Museum. They are viewing the clothes of the Yingpan burial.
Issue no. 46 of IDP News is now available to read online. It covers the several events on Silk Road textiles organised by the China National Silk Museum, including an exhibition, an international symposium and the founding of a new research association. The opening article is one of the papers given at the symposium, on the discovery of textiles to be used for the paper-making industry near Jericho.
Download IDP News Issue 46 as a PDF (2.1MB)