Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Videos of IDP's Xinjiang Field Trip

Over a century ago the Hungarian scholar Marc Aurel Stein set out on what was to be his first of four expeditions to Chinese Central Asia. He was in search of ancient civilisations, almost forgotten to history yet with ruins which could potentially provide archaeological evidence of the rich cultural mix engendered by the opening of the international trade routes across Eurasia – the Silk Road. Stein’s expeditions and finds exceeded his expectations: he uncovered hundreds of archaeological sites, discovering over 50,000 artefacts. He also mapped his journey and the sites and took over 5,000 photographs, recording the sites, people he encountered, everyday life, officials and the changing landscape. In November 2008 members of a joint project between IDP and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in China (XJIA), retraced Stein’s footsteps to retake his site photographs a hundred years on. Read more about IDP's field trip in IDP News Issue 32.

Videos of IDP's field trip are now available on our YouTube channel. Footage is available of sites including Miran and Endere.

The video below shows Mazar Tagh or 'Hill of the shrine'. The Tibetan army built this fort when they occupied the area in the mid-8th century AD. On top of a hill overlooking the Khotan River in otherwise flat land it is in a excellent strategic position, controlling the route from Khotan to the south to the kingdoms of the northern Tarim.

Many of the Tibetan woodslips and other items which survived from Tibetan times were discovered among the piles of rubbish from the stable block which still cover the slope below the fort.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pregnancy taboos in medieval China

Many cultures have restrictions or prohibitions on the behaviour of pregnant women, stemming either from the desire to protect the mother and unborn baby, or from beliefs that see pregnant women as ‘impure’. There are many taboos in Chinese culture surrounding pregnancy, for example pregnant women are advised not to put scissors or anything sharp on their beds that could harm the spirit of the unborn baby, but to keep knives under their beds to ward off evil spirits.

I recently came across an article published in July 2009 (1) containing some interesting information about medieval Chinese prohibitions surrounding pregnancy from an analysis of the verso of Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.4433 (see image above) in the British Library Stein collection. The manuscript advises women who are three months pregnant not to face south or east while bathing. Author Liu Yanhong 刘艳红 argues that this seems strange as both directions are usually positively associated with reproduction and vitality. According to Liu, the southern wind is associated with growth in classical Chinese sources, and the east wind is associated with spring. In ancient China the spring (east) wind was considered the ‘offspring’ of the interaction between heaven and earth, and thus the east wind was also known as the ‘joining wind’. Therefore Liu is perplexed by the cultural admonition against pregnant women from bathing facing the south or east.

A clue to this can be found, argues Liu, in the importance the ancient Chinese attached to spirit or ancestor worship. Heaven and earth were the most important spirits, and events such as lunar or solar eclipses were interpreted as portending disaster. Thus, pregnant women, as they were considered impure, could not take part in the ceremonies or eat the sacrificial food. Liu then wonders whether the taboo on pregnant women bathing facing south or east was also due to their perceived impurity. As the sun rises in the east and shines longest in the south, Liu thinks the prohibition on bathing facing those directions is linked to the sun god. The life-sustaining properties of the sun meant that the sun god was highly respected by ordinary people in medieval China. Two other spirits of the natural world were also associated with those two directions, the thunder god with the east and the fire god with the south, showing the fear and respect inspired by thunder and fire. According to Liu, the prohibition of facing the east or south while bathing seems therefore to stop pregnant women from offending the sun, thunder and fire gods. While this conclusion is backed up with citations from classical sources, Liu is perhaps making some large assumptions in linking prohibitions facing certain directions while bathing to offending deities.

Liu points out that another aspect of the prohibition could be to protect pregnant women and their unborn babies. In medieval China people believed that before the end of the third month of pregnancy the spirit of the unborn baby was not yet completely formed, and the sex of the baby was not decided. People thought the baby could be damaged by the sun, thunder or fire, which is possibly another reason for the prohibition.

Another Dunhuang manuscript (see image below) dealing with birth is Or.8210/S.6983 (ff.9V-10R), and has paintings of a couple praying to the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokoteśvara (Guanyin), on one panel, and the woman giving birth next to a midwife on the following panel showing her prayers were answered. The text under the painting reads (2):

‘If a woman wishes to give birth to a boy, she should offer obeisance and alms to Avalokiteśvara and she will bear a son blessed with merit, virtue and wisdom … and a daughter, she will bear one with all the masks of comeliness, one who in the past planted the roots of virtue and is loved and respected by many persons.’

These two examples show the typical mingling of folk beliefs with prayers to Buddhist deities in medieval China. There is more information on this manuscript in the catalogue entry next to the item on the IDP database (type Or.8210/S.6983 into the search box on the left hand side of the IDP homepage, and on the education resource of the British Library 2004 Silk Road exhibition, available from the Education pages on the IDP website.

1.The information in this post comes from the following article by Liu Yanhong 刘艳红, ‘Dunhuang wenxian S.4433 zhong jinzhi yunfu mianxiang “dong” “nan” jiaomu xisu tanmi’ 敦煌文献S.4433中禁止孕妇面向“东”“南”浇沐习俗探秘 (A Study on the prohibition of pregnant women facing east or south while bathing in Dunhuang manuscript S.4433). Journal of Qinghai Nationalities Institute, vol. 35, no. 3, 2009: 39-42.
2.This English translation is from Watson, Burton, The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993: 300.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Teaching Chinese Astronomy

For many thousands of years, man has attempted to make sense of the sky by naming and grouping stars into recognisable patterns. At the turn of the twentieth century, Marc Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born, British archaeologist uncovered the world’s oldest existing star chart in a Buddhist cave complex in Dunhuang, China. The chart, now known as the Dunhuang Star Atlas and probably dating from before AD 700, was just one of a large number of important manuscripts, printed documents and paintings which were found at the site, and which tell us much about social, religious and political issues in medieval China and Central Asia. But the Star Atlas – now held at the British Library in London – is also proving important for our current understanding of astronomical history due to the accuracy and detail it provides about the sky seen from China from such an early period.

Visit the IDP website to download a free classroom wallchart on the Chinese Sky, view educational material on many Silk Road themes, and view our new resource on Chinese Astronomy which aims to :

• Introduce the Dunhuang Star Atlas and explain its importance as a historical and scientific document
• Offer an introduction to astronomy and explain the place it has occupied in Chinese history and culture.
• Introduce the most important Chinese constellations and the myths associated with them.
• Look at the links between Chinese astronomy and astrology and explore the Chinese ‘zodiac’.
• Offer ideas for classroom activities and downloadable resources for teachers.
• Link to related websites and other sources of information.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

IDP Website Down

The IDP UK site will be down for approximately one hour. Thank you for your patience.

Work on Website

IDP is working on updating its content management system and website on its servers worldwide. This is a major update requiring considerable testing and verification of data. At the moment we are resolving the issues with catalogues and bibliography search and display. We will let you know when this is fully functioning again.
Thank you for your patience.