Friday, March 28, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: The Complete Series

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection is available as an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News. A Pinterest board featuring all twenty of the ‘favourite’ items is also available. For full details of all our anniversary events and activities please see our 20th anniversary programme page.

IDP would like to thank all of the contributors for their selections and for taking part in our 20th anniversary celebrations. Below is a full list of their posts.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

#MuseumMastermind and #MuseumWeek

This week IDP UK has been taking part in Twitter’s #MuseumWeek event and today for the ‘Test Your Knowledge’ #MuseumMastermind day we prepared two quizzes and a bonus question. For the first quiz we asked our followers to identify the languages and scripts of manuscripts, and for the second we asked them to name the pictured buddha or bodhisattva. The bonus question was to tell us the printing date of the Diamond Sutra currently on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library. The answers to all our questions are shown below.

Find out more about #MuseumWeek on Twitter or follow IDP UK to hear about all our activities and events.

Languages and Scripts

Question 1/13: Or.8211/1393
Gandhārī (lang.), Kharoṣṭhi (script)

Question 2/13: PEALD 6a
Old Turkic (lang.), Uygur (script)

Question 3/6: Or.8212/98
Sogdian (lang and script.)

Question 4/13: IOL Tib J 120.1
Tibetan (lang. and script)

Question 5/13: IOL Toch 1
Tocharian B (lang.), Brāhmī (script)

Question 6/13: IOL Khot W 1
Khotanese (lang.), Brāhmī (script)

Question 7/13: Or.13873/2
Forgery (see here for more information).

Question 8/13: Or.8212/166
Judaeo-Persian (lang.), Hebrew (script)

Question 9/13: Or.8212/161
Old Turkic (lang.), Kok Turkic (script)

Question 10/13: Or.8212/1872(d)
Middle Persian (lang.), Pahlavi (script)

Question 11/13: Or.12380/3500
Sanskrit (lang.), Brāhmī (script), Chinese (lang. and script)

Question 12/13: Or.12380/1840
Tangut (lang. and script)

Question 13/13: Or.8210/S.5662
Chinese (lang. and script)

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Question 1/6: 1919,0101,0.31
Tejaprabhā Buddha

Question 2/6: Or.8210/S.6983
Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)

Question 3/6: 1919,0101,0.15
Avalokiteśvara (Water Moon Guanyin)

Question 4/6: 1919,0101,0.34

Question 5/6: 1919,0101,0.10
Avalokiteśvara (Cintāmānicakra)

Question 6/6: 1919,0101,0.4

The Diamond Sutra

Bonus Question: The Diamond Sutra Or.8210/P.2
Printed in AD 868.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #20 John Cayley

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

John Cayley — now teaching at Brown University in the guise of a pioneering practitioner and theorist of digital language arts — was once, in the late 1980s, a curator in the Chinese Section of the British Library. There, he had experience with research relating to items in the Dunhuang collection and, moreover, had the high privilege, occasionally, of examining some of this material firsthand. Chinese calligraphy remains a research interest for Cayley. The calligraphy of the major part of the Dunhuang collection is a wonder of calligraphic art on a global scale, but this ‘major part’ chiefly represents the art of the religiously motivated scribe rather than that of the scholar-artist, the Chinese person (usually man) of letters. Nonetheless, the collection — as we will see from the item Cayley has sponsored and which is also one of his very ‘favourite things’ — does contain uniquely precious evidence for the high art of calligraphy, China’s finest visual art, still its most dearly and commercially valued traditional art form.

Besides aspiring, some day, to a significant connoisseurship of Chinese calligraphy, John Cayley is also a poet and a translator of poetry and has been a small publisher of these complementary language arts. He has published translations from Gu Cheng, Yang Lian, Bing Xin, and others, and assembled a book-length study of the well-known contemporary artist Xu Bing. Links to his experimental writing in what he calls networked and programmable media are at Recent and ongoing projects include imposition, riverIsland, what we will, and The Readers Project. His last printed book of poems, adaptations and translations was Ink Bamboo (Agenda & Belew, 1996).

In 2001 Cayley was the winner of the Electronic Literature Organization’s Award for Poetry ( Currently he is a Professor in the Department of Literary Arts at Brown University, with a brief to teach and develop writing in digital media. His most recent work explores ambient poetics in programmable media, writing in immersive artificial audiovisual environments, and aestheticized vectors of reading. He also publishes theory about these new modes of writing, essays on subjects such as the role of code in new writing, the temporal properties of text, and something he calls ‘writing to be found’ both with and against the ‘services’ that threaten us with overwhelming statistical models of language.

His chosen item is Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.3753.

John Cayley writes:

Or.8210/S.3753 is not a sutra, nor a scroll. It is a relative small fragment of distinctively tinted, ‘fancy’, paper with traces of cursive characters. These traces would be immediately recognisable to any student of Chinese calligraphy and likely also to anyone more generally educated in the Chinese cultural sphere, extending beyond the mainland, throughout East Asia and now, the globe. This vastly more numerous group would not only see that the calligraphy was good, they would be likely to know the name of the artist who wrote these characters and is responsible for their aesthetic form, Wang Xizhi (303–361), China’s most famous calligrapher. Strangely, in terms of a Eurocentric understanding of high art, nearly all of these amateurs of calligraphy would also know, without having to be told, that these traces of ink on the paper of Or.8210/S.3753 were not actually put there by Wang Xizhi. The true students of calligraphy amongst them would be aware that the current state of scholarship suggests to us that there are no actual traces of Wang Xizhi’s brushwork extant. As the eminent art historian, Robert E. Harrist, puts it in the title of a highly relevant article, we have nothing but ‘copies, all the way down.’ How then do we understand the significance and value of this treasure? We say that Or.8210/S.3753 is a fragment of a fatie or ‘model (of) calligraphy’. We can say further that the art of Chinese calligraphy is a complex practice that has embraced many forms of what, from a Eurocentric perspective, we would regard — and tend to denigrate — as ‘copying’.

In the Chinese cultural sphere, these practices of ‘copying’ are understood as authentic and generative, and many of them are able to preserve, more or less intact, the aesthetic and cultural value of fine artistic works. In all their instantiations and despite their variously mediated transmission, such works of aesthetic writing may be definitively associated with a first author, with a single, named and often famous calligrapher. Or.8210/S.3753 is a freehand copy (Chinese: lin) and is dated, by its inclusion in the Dunhuang collection, to the Tang dynasty. The personal notes and courtesy letters written by Wang Xizhi were preserved and copied due to the beauty of his writing. Once his calligraphy had achieved the status of fine art treasure — within his lifetime — rare originals and more widely disseminated copies immediately became models for all calligraphy students and remain so right down to the present day. Or.8210/S.3753 is a remarkably early copy of one of these models. The most prized collected copies of Wang Xizhi’s writing (such as Xingrang tie or Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest in the John B. Elliott Collection) are tracing copies, although these tracing copies were done, probably under imperial patronage, with a finesse that somehow preserves even the spontaneity of the first artist’s cursive gestures.

Successful copies of all kinds may capture the shenyun or ‘spirit resonance’ of Wang’s writing. Whenever performed by a calligraphic master, a freehand copy — most often written with some earlier ‘model’ or fatie at the calligrapher’s side — may capture the shenyun of the first writer and become itself a model. For Or.8210/S.3753, we have no indication of its contemporary calligrapher’s name, but we can see for ourselves that the characters are good and the early date of this copy renders it all but uniquely precious. There is another fragment, in the Pelliot collection in Paris (Pelliot chinois 4642), likely from the same set of model copies and based on the same series of Wang Xizhi models, the Shiqi tie or ’17 model calligraphies.’ The majority of Or.8210/S.3753 comprises the lower remains of a brief eight-line note known to calligraphers and connoisseurs as the Zhanjin tie.

For still wider dissemination, model calligraphy might be traced and transferred onto the surface of prepared tablets or monumental stones. The character forms, no matter how cursive and gestural, were then carefully carved in intaglio. Finally, models could be ‘published’ from these inscriptions by making ink rubbings on sheets of paper tamped into the carved incisions — a slow process, but one that allowed for multiple ‘prints’ to be reproduced from the same model. Rubbings from the earliest carved inscriptions — think of all the mediating steps in this complex tradition of reproduction! — might themselves come to be esteemed for their preservation of a calligrapher’s writing and its shenyun. If the stones were later lost or destroyed, a rubbing might be all that was left. There are, in fact, a few treasured early rubbings in the Dunhuang collection, including Or.8210/S.5791 with the calligraphy of Ouyang Xun (557-641). Some time ago, as an experiment, I took a digital image of the main part of Or.8210/S.3753, and overlaid it on a scan from the publication of a much later rubbing based on the ‘same’ work. The white character forms of the rubbing are still, in principle, traceable back to the initial brush strokes of Wang Xizhi, but there can have been no direct connection — other than through artistry and shenyun — with Or.8210/S.3753’s anonymous freehand traces of ink on Tang dynasty paper. The way in which the two images align is not perfect but it is extraordinarily close — perceptible evidence, in a sense, of the preservation of shenyun across centuries and despite many and various processes of transmission by generative reproduction.

How valuable to wealthy collectors over time? In his essay 'The Cost of Living and the Cost of Art in Late Ming China’, Craig Clunas quotes a Chinese source giving evidence that some version — necessarily a reproduction — of this very piece of calligraphy, the Zhanjin tie, changed hands in the late Ming for almost twice what it would cost to buy the equivalent of a Park Avenue or Mayfair mansion. In 2010, four lines of Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy — probably Tang tracing copies — sold at auction for £29m. A fragment of silk with nine lines on it had been torn in half and the first four lines were disposed of for this fabulous sum.

Clunas, Craig. ‘The Cost of Living and the Cost of Art in Late Ming China’. Association of Art Historians. Sheffield, 1988.
Giles, Lionel. Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Manuscripts from Tunhuang in the British Museum. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1957.
Harrist Jr., Robert E. ‘Copies, All the Way Down: Notes on the Early Transmission of Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi’. The East Asian Library Journal X.1 (2002): 176-96.
‘Rare Chinese calligraphy scroll fetches $46m at auction’. BBC News Asia-Pacific, 22 Nov. 2010.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

@idp_uk on #MuseumWeek

The staff of the International Dunhuang Project in the UK will take part in #MuseumWeek on Twitter from 24–30 March. Our aim is to give a behind-the-scenes perspective of working on a virtual museum to encourage people to work with us and the collections. If you would like to join in, please follow us @idp_uk.

The #MuseumWeek themes for each day are as follows:

Day 1 - A day in the life (#DayInTheLife)
Day 2 - Test your knowledge (#MuseumMastermind)
Day 3 - Your story (#MuseumMemories)
Day 4 - Buildings behind the art (#BehindTheArt)
Day 5 - Ask the expert (#AskTheCurator)
Day 6 - Museum selfies (#MuseumSelfies)
Day 7 - Constraint drives creativity (#GetCreative)

If you have a question that you'd like to #AskTheCurator, please go ahead and start tweeting your questions. IDP curators Susan Whitfield and Sam Van Schaik will do their best to answer on Day 5 (Friday 28).

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Twitter blog.

IDP 20 Event: Public Lectures and Reception

To celebrate IDP’s 20th anniversary we have been organising a series of events and activities. Full details can be found on our programme page. From November 1 2014 the IDP blog has also featured A Few of Our Favourite Things, a weekly post showcasing IDP collection items selected by twenty of IDP’s partners, supporters and users.

Lectures and Reception: ‘Silk on the Silk Road’

11 April 2014
14.00 – 20.00
£12 (£8 Concessions)

Conference Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB


Patched squares of woven and dyed silks.
MAS.856, The British Museum.

Over a century of archaeology on the eastern Silk Road has resulted in thousands of textile finds, preserved by the dry desert air. In their variety — of material, dyes, designs and weaves — they demonstrate the richness of cultural and technical exchanges among the peoples of the Silk Road. This afternoon of lectures by scholars, curators and conservators is intended for a general audience, and will introduce the Silk Road and the textiles collections held in London and worldwide. The lecture will be followed by a reception with drinks.


Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation, The British Library


Silk for Books and Buddhism: the British Library and British Museum Collections
Susan Whitfield, Director, IDP, The British Library


Silk in Shoes and Clothing: V&A and British Museum Collections
Helen Persson, Curator Chinese Textiles and Dress, V&A



Tea & Coffee


Silk as Money
Helen Wang, Curator, East Asian Money, The British Museum


Silks from the Silk Road
Zhao Feng, Director, The National Silk Museum, China




Friday, March 14, 2014

A Few of our Favourite Things: #19 John Falconer

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

John Falconer at Karadong, November 2011. Photo 1187/2(368).

John Falconer is Lead Curator of Visual Arts at the British Library. This includes the Library's photographic collections, which are particularly strong on historical collections of India, his specialism. However, he has also been working on the Stein and other Central Asian photographic collections for over twenty years, having catalogued those at the British Library and the Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He has also travelled and worked in the field, including on IDP Field Trips to the Taklamakan: many of his own photographs are now in the Library's collections and were on display at the IDP20 photographic exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society. He has also curated photographic exhibitions in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China and elsewhere. His chosen item is a photograph taken by Robert Byron.

Tomb in front of the eastern iwan of the Abdullah Ansari shrine complex at Gazar Gah, near Herat. Neg 1240(90).

John Falconer writes:

In the decade before his untimely death in the early days of the Second World War, Robert Byron (1905–41) established an enduring reputation as an art and architectural historian. His travels through Iran and Afghanistan in search of the purest examples of Islamic architecture in the early 1930s are described in his best-known work, The Road to Oxiana (1937). While frequently displaying the casual racism and snobbery common to so many upper-middle class Englishmen of his generation, the book remains a perceptive and often hilarious account of a difficult and sometime dangerous journey. Despite radically personal and often idiosyncratic opinions on architecture — he notes approvingly of the Gumbad-i-Alaviyan at Hamadan that it wipes the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal out of one’s mouth … I came to Persia to get rid of that taste — he was a passionate devotee of the arts of Central Asia.

His extensive collection of photographs (British Library shelfmark: Neg 1240) is among the most enduring and valuable of his legacies, providing a unique record of the buildings encountered and described on his travels, many of them now inaccessible, altered or entirely destroyed. The image selected here is rare in including a human presence: in contrast to his prose, Byron was not significantly concerned in his photographs with evoking atmosphere or creating artistic images. His purpose was to provide an accurate visual record for his own writings and for future historians of architectural form. In his wanderings around the monuments of Herat, a city that has seen massive damage to its historic fabric in recent decades, he writes of feeling as one who has lighted on the lost books of Livy, or an unknown Botticelli. His photographs preserve, however inadequately, something of this heritage.

Coincidentally, the Byron collection forms a further link with another important archive of photographs in the British Library. Byron nursed an unrequited passion for the traveller and writer Desmond Parsons until the latter’s death in 1937, and had lived with him in Peking in 1934. Parsons’ own photographs recording his visit to the Dunhuang Caves in 1935 (BL shelfmark: Photo 1275), were recently presented to the British Library and are also available for study on the IDP website.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Diamond Sutra on display: Frontispiece

From today 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 between March 2014 – August 2015.

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) is 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.

See the whole of the Diamond Sutra online on the IDP website.

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, March 7, 2014

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #18 Dan Waugh

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

Professor Dan Waugh and Aurel Stein, Jimsar County Museum, 2009.

Daniel C. Waugh is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington (Seattle, USA), where in the mid-1990s, his interests shifted from his original specialization, pre-modern Russia, to Central Asia. The watershed from which has flowed ‘the rest of his life’ was his commitment in 1998 to start teaching a course on the Silk Roads, in preparation for which he enrolled in a summer program at the Mogao Caves, co-sponsored by the Silkroad Foundation and the Dunhuang Academy. In subsequent years, he was the founding director of Silk Road Seattle, which sponsored a series of educational programs and created an extensive set of Internet resources. In 2003 he became editor of the Silkroad Foundation’s journal, which has now grown from a thin newsletter to a substantial annual. Projects to develop and share educational resources on the Silk Roads with the IDP are ongoing. His chosen object is the Dunhuang silk banner 1919,0101,0.139.

Dan Waugh writes:

In 2009, I was in London examining the objects in the British Museum which had been donated by C. P. Skrine after he had served as British Consul General in Kashgar in the early 1920s. Skrine’s modest collection included fragments of early Buddhist paintings and manuscripts which he had acquired in Khotan. The article I co-authored with Ursula Sims-Williams on the Skrine material and the antiquities market in Khotan then appeared in my journal The Silk Road, Vol. 8 (PDF), and has since been published in Chinese translation.

On that trip to London, I was fortunate to be included in a private viewing of some of the Dunhuang banners, which Roderick Whitfield had organized for a colleague. When asked there in the storage rooms of the British Museum whether there were any of the banners from Mogao Cave 17 that I particularly wanted to see, with little hesitation I chose 1919,0101,0.139, a late ninth-century painting on silk depicting a bodhisattva holding a glass bowl. Why that painting? In the first instance for the bowl, which to my mind embodies much of what the ‘Silk Roads’ are all about. It is one of the Middle Eastern cut glass bowls (numerous in the Sassanian period) which traveled along the Silk Roads all the way to Japan where one is in the collection of the Shōsō-in at Nara. When found in archaeological contexts these bowls usually have a rough patina and no longer are transparent, but here one can see through the bowl the hand that is holding it. In a recent addition to its display of such Sassanian glass, the British Museum has included a replica (2007.6004.1) made by Japanese glass artist Tami Ishida to give a sense of how their facets would have sparkled when new.

Replica Sassanian glass bowl, by Tami Ishida (British Museum 2007.6004.1). Photograph by Daniel C. Waugh 2012.

That Dunhuang banner also evokes memories for me. When at the Mogao Caves for the first time in 1998, I was particularly struck by Cave 196, dated to 893-4, that is, approximately the same time as the banner. Cave 196 is distinctive in that, unlike most of the other Mogao caves, it has preserved its original entrance hall and also some of its statues in their original position on the large U-shaped altar platform of the main hall. The best known of these is a bodhisattva of great beauty in the position of 'royal ease', whose features remind us of the bodhisattva depicted on the banner.

Cave 196 is an early example of the the design of some of the largest and most impressive of the Mogao caves, best known from the ones commissioned by the Cao family in the tenth century. Among them is Cave 61, constructed about half a century after Cave 196, which contains the famous depiction of Mount Wutai on the west wall and the numerous donor images of the Cao family in the lower register at the east side of the room. The imposing, larger-than-life statuary, which would have occupied the central altar platform in those caves, is no longer extant. Cave 196 thus offers a rare sense of what the devotee of the ninth or tenth century might actually have experienced upon entering such a cave, as though re-born in Paradise in the actual presence of the Buddhist divinities. The devotee of my imagination might well have earned merit by commissioning a banner whose elaborately garbed subject bears what would have been considered a most precious offering.

When we contemplate Dunhuang, our gaze tends to be directed inward, to the treasure trove of manuscripts, banners, murals and statuary which have so transformed our understanding of the Silk Roads. It is easy to get lost in the details. For many over the centuries down to the present, to visit the Mogao Caves has been a life-changing experience, with some of the most vivid memories the result of turning the gaze outwards. Remember that the founding of the caves is associated with a vision experienced at sunrise over the Sanwei Mountain to the east: Mogao is special not in the least for its extraordinary natural setting. Too few visitors today climb the hills to see the fragile strip of green below in its starkly beautiful desert setting and experience the landscape turning purple at sunset. Even fewer would spend a night (as I did in 1998) at the temple on the top of Sanwei Mountain with its curious ‘folk’ image of Guanyin, watching the moon rise and awakening next morning to a rosy-fingered dawn.

The Guanyin temple at the top of Sanwei Mountain and the rising moon. Photograph by Daniel C. Waugh 1998.

Sunset over Dunhuang. Photograph by Daniel C. Waugh, 2008