Friday, April 25, 2014

Patron Profile: Dr Abraham S-T Lue

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library was founded in 1993. Dr Abraham Sek-Tong Lue MBE, CMG talks about the start of IDP and his role as Chairman of the IDP Patrons. Dr Abraham Lue was interviewed at the British Library on 15th of May 2013.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

IDP News Issue No. 43

IDP News Issue No. 43, Spring 2014 is now available to read online or download in PDF format (1 MB).

This enlarged edition of IDP News celebrates our 20th anniverary. In it we remember the beginnings and international growth of IDP and celebrate our many collaborations illustrated with pictures from the archives. IDP’s partners and friends have selected a few of their favourite items and have met together for celebratory events over the past six months. This is also an opportunity to thank our many supporters who have made our success possible.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Some sources for silk in the Stein collection

To celebrate 20 years of the International Dunhuang Project, IDP has arranged an extensive programme of events including a half-day of lectures on 11 April ‘Silk on the Silk Road’. In this post I thought I would highlight two sources on silk in the Stein collection, one well-known and the second, a bit more obscure, but equally important for its reference to the silk trade in the fourth century AD.

Wooden panel from Dandan Uilik (Stein collection D.X.4: BM OA 1907.11-11.73), The British Museum.
This wooden panel dating from ca. seventh century from Dandan Uilik was discovered by Aurel Stein on his first expedition to Khotan in 1900-1901. The scene is thought to depict a story related by the seventh century Chinese traveller Xuanzang of how silkworms were smuggled out of China westwards into Khotan – present day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. A Chinese princess (second from the left), about to be married to the king of Khotan, has smuggled silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress. She carries a basket of cocoons. On the far right, a figure holding a comb stands in front of a loom with a reel of thread behind. The four-armed deity (second right) has been identified as the patron of weaving.

Among the oldest manuscripts in the Stein collection are eight letters forming the contents of a postbag lost in transit from China to Central Asia and discovered by Stein in the watch tower T.XII.a on the Dunhuang Limes. Known as the ‘Ancient Letters’, they date from the beginning of the fourth century AD and are among the earliest documents written in Sogdian, an Eastern Middle Iranian language formerly spoken in the region around Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan (see previous posts ‘A Few of our Favourite Things #7: Hans van Roon and #14: Nicholas Sims-Williams’). The letters are mostly commercial and mention many commodities, including musk, gold, pepper, camphor, wheat and perhaps white lead, as well as cloth made of linen or of hair.

Until recently the word for silk was not thought to have been mentioned in the Ancient Letters although there is no doubt that silk played an important role in the east-west trade at this period. However it has now been identified as occurring twice in letter 6, T.XII.a.ii.8g (BL Or.8212/97).
[You] said to me: [If] you go out (from China) to Loulan you should buy silk (pyrcyk) for me (in exchange) for it, and if [you do not find(?) any] silk you should buy camphor (in exchange) for [it] and bring it to me.

Ancient letter 6, a commercial document. Silk (pyrcyk) occurs twice in the fifth line: in the middle and at the end on the left (Stein collection T.XII.a.ii.8g: BL Or.8212/97)

The word for silk (pyrcyk) is formed from an otherwise unattested Sogdian word for silkworm (it occurs in Khotanese as pira‑, which means ‘worm’, especially ‘silkworm’) with the addition of the adjectival suffix ‑čīk, thus giving it the meaning ‘derived from the silkworm’, or ‘silk thread or cloth’. A different derivative of the same word, pyryk, is attested in Choresmian, another related middle Iranian language, with the meaning ‘cocoon’.

  • Nicholas Sims-Williams. ‘Towards a New Edition of the Sogdian Ancient Letters: Ancient Letter 1.’In E. De La Vaissière and E. Trombert (eds). Les Sogdiens en Chine. Paris 2005, pp. 181-93.
  • R.E. Emmerick and P.O. Skjærvø. Studies in the Vocabulary of Khotanese III. Wien 1997, pp. 91-3. 
  • Duan Qing. ‘于闐文的蠶字、繭字、絲字 (Khotanese words for silkworm, cocoon and silk).’In 季羨林教授八十華誕紀念論文集 [Festschrift for Professor Ji Xianlin on the occasion of his 80th birthday]. Nanchang, 1991.
  • Duan Qing. ‘Were Textiles Used as Money in Khotan in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries?’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 23 (2013), pp. 307-25.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Photographs of Samye Monastery in 1935–36

Photo 1285/8, Samye Monastery in 1936

We have just digitised a series of photographs of Samye monastery taken in 1935–36. These prints are from the papers of F.W. Thomas, Tibetologist and librarian at the India Office Library. They were sent to him by Hugh Richardson, another Tibetologist who was stationed in Tibet as the British Trade Agent for several years. There are two different sets of photos. Richardson posted the first set of thirteen to Thomas in August 1938, explaining that they were taken at a consecration ceremony held at Samye after recent restoration works. Here is the text of Richardson's letter:

via India
22nd August 1938

Dear Dr. Thomas,
I am sending some pictures of Samye which I got from a friend — a Lhasa Depön — who accompanied the Regent when he went there in 1936 to perform the re-dedication ceremony after extensive repairs. Some of the photographs contain pictures of part of the ceremony. I had them enlarged from very small negatives and I hope they will be of some use to you. There is a general view which should help to identify photos of individual buildings. If there is any particular detail of which you want a photo please let me know in case I can get an opportunity of visiting Samye. I am trying to get pictures of the monastery before repair but have not succeeded so far. I believe there is one photograph in Sir Charles Bell's "The People of Tibet" or it may be in his "Religions of Tibet".

The negatives of the pictures I have sent you are not my property but if you should desire to reproduce any of the pictures I could ask the owner if he has any objection.

I hope you had a pleasant journey home. I have no definite news yet whether I shall be going to Lhasa this autumn or not, but it is still quite possible.

I believe there is a Tibetan m.s [sic] containing the text of the Doring but can't trace its exact title. I shall enquire about it if I get to Lhasa.

Yours sincerely,
Hugh Richardson

The prints sent with this letter are now digitised and on the IDP website. They can be found under the the pressmarks Photo 1285/6 to Photo 1285/18. One of the photographs (Photo 1285/15) is very similar to the one that appears on p.37 of Charles Bell's The Religions of Tibet but it is not the same photograph, despite showing the same long-distance view of the temple complex.

As well as discussing the photographs, which were not taken by him, but by a Depön, an official in the Lhasa government, Richardson also mentions the text of the Doring, the inscribed pillars that were made during the Tibetan empire. The particular Doring he refers to here may be the one at Samye, and the Tibetan manuscript containing its text is probably the one by Kathok Tsewang Norbu, which Richardson did acquire later, and is now among his papers at the Bodleian.

The second letter was written by Richardson just a couple of weeks later, after he had found three photographs of Samye before the recent reconstruction:

via India
3rd September 1938

Dear Dr Thomas,
I have secured, and send herewith these photos of Samye taken in 1935 before the repairs. The negatives are the property of Capt. Battye of the Political Dept.

There does not appear to be any obvious change in the buildings so perhaps the batch of later photographs which I have already sent may prove useful.

Yours sincerely,
H. Richardson

These three prints are now available on the IDP website under the pressmarks Photo 1285/3 to Photo 1285/5. As Richardson says, they don't appear to show any significant differences prior to the restoration work, which was probably limited to repairs, regilding, and the like.

Portrait of Frederick William Thomas and Giuseppe Tucci, Rome in 1955. Photo 1285/1

Finally, this collection of photographs also includes two pictures of F.W. Thomas with Giuseppe Tucci, which were sent to Thomas from Italy by Tucci's photographer Francesca Bonardi. On these, see this blogpost on To see all of this collection, go to and type ‘Photo 1285’ in the database search box.

Charles Manson and Nathan W. Hill, forthcoming, "A Gter ma of Negatives: H.E. Richardson’s Photographic Negatives of Manuscript Copies of Tibetan Imperial Inscriptions Possibly Collected by Rig ’dzin Tshe dbang nor bu in the 18th Century CE, Recently Found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford." In Kurt Tropper (ed), Epigraphic Evidence in the Pre-modern Buddhist World edited by Kurt Tropper. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde.