Friday, February 28, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #17 Irina Popova

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

Dr Irina Popova has been the Director of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Science (RAS), since 2003. She is also Professor of Chinese History and Language at St Petersburg State University, the Faculty of Oriental Studies. She was admitted to Leningrad State University in 1978 in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, History of China Section. In November 1983, she started her doctoral studies at the Leningrad Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Three years later, she joined the staff of the Institute as a junior researcher. In 1988 she received her PhD for the thesis on the Theory of the Rulership in the Early Tang China and received her Habilitation in 2000. Her major research areas are political thought, government and the administrative system of medieval and especially Tang China, as well as the study of Dunhuang and Chinese manuscripts held at the Institute and archival documents on Russian Sinology.

Dr. Popova’s chosen item is F-32/4 from the collections of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts.

Irina Popova writes:

The manuscript of the ‘Library Document’ (F-32/4) was discovered by the Second Russian Turkestan Expedition headed by Sergey Oldenburg in Dunhuang and became part of the collection of The Asiatic Museum (now The Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, RAS) with all the other documents on September 1, 1915. The separate sheet of white paper (30 x 17.2 cm) was registered as a ‘Postscript to Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra’.

The text states that the ruler of Dunhuang Cao Zongshou and his wife Lady Fan issued an order to make cloth wrappers for Buddhist sutras and to supplement the lacunae in the library of Baoen Monastery. The document was dated the 15th day under the sign renyin of the 7th month of the 5th year under the reign of Universal Peace (Xianping) of the Song Dynasty, which corresponds to August 25, 1002. This 4-line document therewith became one of the pearls of Russian collection, for the clear reason that there are not too many documents from the Library Cave bearing a full date. And it is remarkable and even unique, as it represents a long forgotten type of documents that reflects the daily life of Chinese society in a provincial town located close to the state’s frontier.

Moroever, in the course of the research and print and on-line publication of the Dunhuang collections from all over the world no other document with a full date from later than this has come to light, even if there is circumstantial evidence that such documents may exist. So then, this unpretentious short manuscript F-32/4 retains its complete timeless value.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Conservation and Digitisation Studio Open Day

There are still a few places remaining for the IDP Conservation and Digitisation Open Day on 12 March. Places are free but restricted owing to space and so please book your place through the British Library’s What’s On page.

(meet in front hall of British Library 5 mins. before the start time)

In the morning the team from the IDP studio will take visitors through the process from selecting a scroll for photography through to its appearing on the web, including digitisation, post-production and metadata and cataloguing.

Each visit is scheduled for 45 minutes. There are visits available at:

(meet in front hall of British Library 5 mins. before the start)

In the afternoon staff from IDP and conservation will be available to show visitors some of the work that goes on behind the scenes to make the manuscript available both for digitisation and for readers.

Visitors will be shown a range of the manuscript material, from 20 m scrolls on paper to wooden documents, along with the range of conservation and storage solutions used to ensure this material is safe for handling and preserved for future generations. Visitors will also be able to look at the structure of ancient paper through a microscope and learn about some of the scientific projects that take place alongside conservation and cataloguing.

Each visit is scheduled for 30 minutes. There are visits available at:

Make sure not to miss the Diamond Sutra during your visit. The frontispiece will be newly on display from March 8th as part of an 18 month programme to show the whole text for the first time. In the John Ritblat Gallery – admission free.

For full details of IDP’s 20th anniversary events visit our programme page.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Exhibition: ‘The Diamond Sutra and Early Printing’

The Diamond Sutra. Or.8210/P.2.

The whole text of the earliest dated printed book — the Diamond Sutra — will be on display at the British Library for the first time over a period of eighteen months from March 8, 2014.

Following extensive conservation, the Diamond Sutra scroll currently remains in separate panels giving the unique opportunity to show all the panels in turn (see timetable below). Each panel will be on display for two months in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, open to all and with free admission.

The first panel on display (March-April 2014) will be the illustrated frontispiece showing the Buddha with his elderly disciple, Subhūti. The text of the sutra concerns the philosophical discussion between the Buddha and Subhūti.

Each panel will then be shown in turn, remaining on display for two months. The frontispiece will be shown again for the final display in July and August 2015.

The Diamond Sutra was printed in AD 868 as an act of faith and piety. In this period Buddhists took advantage of printing to replicate the words and image of the buddha, but private printers at the time also used the new technology to produce texts for profit. Almanacs were immensely popular, so much so that the Chinese emperor, whose imperial astronomers produced and distributed an imperial almanac, tried to suppress their printing and sale throughout the 9th and 10th centuries.

Printed almanac. Or.8210/P.6.

Displayed alongside the Diamond Sutra will be a copy of a Chinese almanac printed just a decade later, in AD 877. It is a very different style of printing with the document split into registers showing immense detail. They include the animals of the Chinese zodiac, a diary of lucky and unlucky days, fengshui diagrams, magic charms and much more.

Sanskrit Heart Sutra with Chinese transcription. Or.12380/3500.

The display also includes two pages from a printed copy of the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit with a phonetic transcription in Chinese, an early example of Korean printing using moveable type and the earliest examples of Japanese printing, the Million Charms of Empress Shotoku.

‘The Diamond Sutra and Early Printing’

MARCH 2014 – AUGUST 2015

Monday 09.30 - 20.00
Tuesday 09.30 - 20.00
Wednesday 09.30 - 20.00
Thursday 09.30 - 20.00
Friday 09.30 - 18.00
Saturday 09.30 - 17.00
Sunday 11.00 - 17.00
Public holidays 11.00 - 17.00

Sir John Ritblat Gallery
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB

March – April 2014


May – June 2014

1st panel printed text

July – August 2014

2nd panel printed text

September – October 2014

3rd panel printed text

November – December 2014

4th panel printed text

January – February 2015

5th panel printed text

March – April 2015

6th panel printed text

May – June 2015


July – August 2015


Friday, February 21, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #16 Oktor Skjærvø

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

Prods Oktor Skjærvø, a former Norwegian, is now an American citizen. During his Sanskrit studies in Oslo, he acquired an interest in Old Iranian languages in general and Khotanese in particular, following in the footsteps of his compatriot Sten Konow, one of the pioneers of Indic epigraphy and Khotanese language. His work on the Khotanese collections in India Office Library and the British Library (now both in the British Library) from the early 1980s onward culminated in an edition of the Khotanese Suvarṇabhāsottama-sūtra and a complete Catalogue of the British Library collection (which will be online in 2014). He later began concentrating on the eighth-century secular documents in their social and political context, housed mainly in the British Library, Hedin collection (Stockholm), and the Petrovsky collection (St Petersburg), a work that is now being continued, he is happy to say, by his students Zhang Zhan and Wen Xin. His chosen item is IOL Khot W 1, a wooden tablet from Dandān-Uiliq.

Oktor Skjærvø writes:

This is a double wooden tablet ‘envelope’ consisting of a bottom with three raised edges and a top (cover) with a handle that slides into the bottom part. The top has a raised middle part in which a square hole has been carved out, in which there is a hole piercing both tablets through which a string was drawn. The square hole was then filled with clay on which a seal impression was made. The clay, seal impression, and a piece of the string are still extant. On the inside surfaces of the closed tablet is recording of a legal case dated in year one of ‘the gracious lord, great king of kings of Khotan, Viśya Sīhya’, formerly unknown. The case concerns the sale (lease) of a man’s brother to do state work on behalf of the villagers of Birgaṃdara to help pay their debt. The cover contains a summary of the legal decision, as the complete decision could only be read by breaking the seal. This tablet was reused, however, to record another legal decision on its underside.

There are two other similar double wooden tablets in the British Library collection, that had been long known and published, but this object had been stored away and was brought to my attention by Michael O’Keefe during one of my visits. It turned out to herald a new era of discoveries of such objects. About the same time, one was published in China Pictorial 1981 that was also dated in the year of Viśya Sīhya and concerning the sale of a brother’s son (published by R.E. Emmerick). A few years later, on a visit to Urumqi and Turfan, I was told of a tablet in the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Urumqi (no. WBH 01), which I was kindly allowed to inspect. This tablet recorded the sale by a monastery of a woman and her son (published by Professor Duan Qing).

Since then, a number of such tablets have come to light in China (now being published by Professor Duan Qing), which are shedding welcome new light on the history of Khotan in the late seventh to early eighth centuries.

To me, however, it seems like IOL Khot W 1 was what started this new spate of discoveries. That is why I choose it as my favourite object.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tibetan Seals

The Tibetan manuscripts from the Dunhuang cave and other Central Asian sites contain a variety of different kinds of seal. The seals were stamped on official or legal documents, some of which were produced locally in Dunhuang, while others arrived from further afield in the Tibetan empire. The most impressive seals are those that were stamped on the documents of the offical responsible for the Central Asia regions of the Tibetan empire, known as Dekham (bde khams). The example here, from Pelliot tibetain 1111, is from the accounts office of the Tibetan official in charge of this region, the Delon (bde blon). This seal shows two figures, one on a high seat probably representing the Delon, and another who is in a suppliant position. Perhaps it represents the payment of duties. Individuals carried seals as well, and these were used to stamp their own documents, which involved sales, loans or hiring agreements. These individual seals, known as sug rgya, are less impressive than the official ones, and are always round rather than square. This seal is on a letter found in the Tibetan fort of Mazar Tagh (Or.15000/204). The fragmentary text mentions measures of flour, so it was probably an order or a demand for payment. Finally, for those without the means to have their own personal seal, it was possible to sign documents using a "finger seal" (mdzub tshad). This involved drawing a box around the finger, sometimes adding lines for the joints, and writing the person's name inside the box. This document (Pelliot tibétain 1101) records a loan by a Tibetan official to local Chinese people. Three of these have added their finger seals to the document. All of these types of early Tibetan seals are quite different from Chinese and Khotanese seals, and there is more work to be done on how they were used, and by whom.


Stein, R.A. 2010. Rolf Stein's Tibetica Antiqua. Trans. A.P. McKeown. Leiden: Brill. 97-115.
Takeuchi, Tsuguhito. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts From Central Asia. Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Aurel Stein: a hundred years on — Final Week

Aurel Stein: a hundred years on, an exhibition by the British Library, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the University of Nottingham runs until Monday 24th February at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

If you can't make it to the exhibition you can visit our online version and all the images are now available as a full catalogue on the IDP website.

Miran, colossal Buddha head from stupa M.II. in original position, January 1907. Photo 392/26(239)

Between 1900 and 1916 the archaeologist and scholar, Aurel Stein, led three expeditions to the Taklamakan and Lop Deserts of western China in search of the sand-buried settlements of the Silk Road. He excavated scores of sites and took over 5000 photographs. These photographs of ancient Silk Road settlements, stupas and forts in the Taklamakan Desert are shown alongside modern images and video taken on recent British Library expeditions to record the changes of the past century.

The exhibition is possible because of the support of:
The Arts and Humanities Research Council
Hahnemühle FineArt (UK)

Download the press release.

Monday 6 January – Monday 24 February
Weekdays: 10.00am–5.00pm
Saturdays: 10:00am–4:30pm
Admission Free

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
1 Kensington Gore
London SW7 2AR, UK

Details of IDP’s 20th Anniversary activities and events can be found on our programme page or downloaded as a PDF.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #15 Hans-Ulrich Seidt

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

Hans-Ulrich Seidt is currently Director-General for Culture and Communication in the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. His interest in Central Asia goes back to the late 1980s when he was working as a young diplomat at the West German embassy in Moscow. At that time he had the opportunity to visit the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. It was a fascinating experience and he has returned to Central Asia many times.

His chosen item is the wallpainting MIK III 8426 from the collections of the Museum of Asian Art, Berlin.

Hans-Ulrich Seidt writes:

The object I have chosen for the webpage of the International Dunhuang Project is not from the area of the former Soviet Union. It comes from China and is today part of the collections of the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin-Dahlem. The mural was brought to Berlin during the first decade of the twentieth century by the German expedition to Turfan. In my eyes this unique piece of art not only demonstrates the general wealth and prosperity along the ancient silk roads but also the multi-ethnic character of their urban trade centres.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #14 Nicholas Sims-Williams

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

After studying Old and Middle Iranian languages and related subjects at Cambridge, Nicholas Sims-Williams has spent his whole career at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where his teaching has covered seven Iranian languages (Avestan, Old Persian, Middle Persian, Parthian, Choresmian, Bactrian, Sogdian and Khotanese) and occasionally Syriac. Although he has published on all of these languages, he has concentrated on the Middle Iranian languages of Eastern Iran and Central Asia, in particular Sogdian and Bactrian. He is equally interested in the languages themselves, with their Indo-European roots, and in their Central Asian setting, with its stimulating mixture of languages, cultures and religions. In addition to a two-volume edition of Sogdian inscriptions from Northern Pakistan and a three-volume edition of Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, his books include studies of many manuscripts in the IDP, such as documents in mixed Sogdian and Old Turkish from the London and Paris collections and Christian Sogdian and New Persian manuscripts in the Berlin Turfan collection.

His chosen item is Sogdian Letter No. 2 Or.8212/95, Stein site id. T.XII.a.ii.2.

Nicholas Sims-Williams writes:

In 1907 Aurel Stein discovered a cache of early paper documents at the site T.XII.a to the west of Dunhuang, a guard-post on the wall protecting the western border of China. These are known as the ‘Ancient Letters’ because they are among the earliest documents written in Sogdian, a language of the Iranian family formerly spoken in Sogdiana, the region around Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan, and in the numerous trading colonies established by the Sogdians along the route to central China. The Ancient Letters represent the contents of a postbag lost in transit from China to the west, perhaps confiscated by the Chinese authorities. Written by Sogdians in Xinjiang and Gansu and addressed to their compatriots in Sogdiana or Loulan, the letters provide a unique glimpse into the lives of the Sogdian merchants on the so-called ‘Silk Road’.

Several of these letters could easily have qualified as my favourite item — no. 6 (Or.8212/97), the only one which actually mentions silk, or nos. 1 (Or.8212/92.1) and 3 (Or.8212/98), two letters written by a woman abandoned in Dunhuang by her husband — but I have finally chosen Letter no. 2 (Or.8212/95). This letter was written by Nanai-vandak, a Sogdian agent stationed somewhere in Gansu, possibly in Jincheng, and addressed to his partners in Samarkand, the capital of Sogdiana, over 2,000 miles to the west. Perhaps because of the distance it had to travel, it was protected by an inner wrapper of brown silk and an outer envelope of coarse fabric which bears instructions for the delivery of the letter. The letter, which was probably written in June or July 313 AD contains news of momentous events in China: a severe famine in the capital Luoyang; fighting between the Huns (Xiongnu) and the Chinese; the flight of the emperor; and the sack of the cities of Ye (in 307) and Luoyang (in 311).

While the main importance of this letter lies in the historical data it contains, what I find particularly affecting are the paragraphs with which it ends, a poignant last will and testament. Nanai-vandak regards the events described as bringing to an end the world as he knows it and foresees nothing but ruin and death for himself and the other Sogdian merchants in China. Since he does not expect to return home, he asks his correspondents in Samarkand to look after a large sum of money which he had left on deposit there, to invest it on behalf of the orphan Takhsich-vandak, presumably his son, who is still a minor, and to find him a wife when he comes of age. But of course his letter never reached its destination, so it is unlikely that its provisions were ever carried out. We can only speculate as to what became of the father and his son: did Nanai-vandak survive and return home? and did his partners find a wife for Takhsich-vandak and hand over his inheritance?

Why dedicate your life to deciphering 4,000-year-old tax returns? published in the Sunday Times on 2 February 2014 by John Preston about long-lost languages features Nicholas Sims-Williams discussing his work on Sogdian translation. It is available to read online or download in PDF format (5.1MB).

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Public Lectures at Stanford University

IDP Director Susan Whitfield will give two public lectures at Stanford University this week.

Transmissions of Buddhist Architecture in the Tarim Basin and China
Friday, February 7, 2014, 18:00–19:00.
Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center.
Full details.

Understanding Buddhist Art: Buddhism and Trade on the Eastern Silk Road
Saturday, February 8, 2014, 13:00–16:00.
Annenberg Auditorium, Cummings Art Building.
Full details.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Chinese New Year Almanac and an Early Publication Ordinance

This is one of my favourite items among the manuscripts found at Dunhuang even though only a small fragment of the original remains. It is a almanac or calendar dated to the ninth century and printed by the Dadao Family. It tells us that they were in the East Market in the capital of China, Chang'an (now Xian). The East Market was next to the imperial palace and mansions of high-ranking officials (merchants coming to Chang'an from the Silk Road traded in the West Market). Yet at the time the private printing of almanacs, such as this, was forbidden by law.

The New Year in China, which this year started on 31 January 2014, was traditionally the time for a new almanac to be calculated by the Imperial Astronomy Bureau and presented to the emperor before the official version was distributed. Almanacs were powerful documents in China as they could be used to predict political change. But they were also very popular and the law against private production was probably as much for economic as for political reasons. In either case, it seems to have been unsuccessful and there are a series of memorials throughout the next century reiterating the ban.

The memorial of AD 835 which led to the law mentions almanacs for sale in the south of China far from the centre of power:

'In the provinces of Sichuan and Huainan, printed almanacs are on sale in the market. Every year, before the Imperial Astronomy Bureau has submitted the new calendar for approval and had it officially promulgated, printed almanacs have flooded the market. This violates the principle that the calendar is a gift of His Imperial Majesty.'

Yet this almanac was produced under the noses of the officials who were meant to be enforcing a ban on such activities. The evidence of this fragment and the reiteration of the ban suggests that the private printing of almanacs continued, presumably because there was a profit to be made.

Under the Censor’s Eye: Printed Almanacs and Censorship in Ninth-Century China by Susan Whitfield is available to download as a PDF (12MB).

Note: A more complete printed Chinese almanac from Dunhuang dating from AD 877 will be on display in the British Library Treasures Gallery from 8 March 2014.