Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wang Xudong: Digital Caves of Dunhuang


Liu Bo is Manager of IDP China at the National Library of China, and currently a visiting fellow at Harvard-Yenching Library at Harvard University cataloguing their collection of Chinese local histories.

Dr. Xudong Wang, Associate Director of Dunhuang Academy, delivered a lecture at Sackler Museum, Harvard University on Friday, 11 April 2014. The topic was Digital Caves of Dunhuang: Present and Future, which is just what I am interested in. Dr. Wang introduced the Digital Caves of Dunhuang Project, showed us how they digitize the murals, statues and caves.

It is difficult to digitize murals, because the surface of the wall is not a smooth one, and statues and caves are much more difficult. Their work is very different from IDP. IDP mainly digitizes manuscripts, which are flat or can be flattened with a glass plate if they are not. So Dunhuang Academy uses specially-made equipment to work, and spends more time to manipulate and join the images. Now they can take photographs of twenty caves a year, but can only manipulate four or five of them. As we know, there are 735 caves at Mogao near Dunhuang, and more than 400 of them with murals! It is really a large job. They also face some challenges, such as the metadata schema which is still being studied. Actually, people cannot manage images well without metadata.

Dunhuang Academy will build a large database to show murals and statues in the Mogao Caves. Dr. Wang showed some images and digital caves, all the pictures were wonderful, all details were displayed very, very clearly. I have visited the Mogao Caves two times in the last five years, but I am still astonished by the quality of digital caves, it was a different and nice experience. I thought we could get more information from the digital images than watching murals in the caves with the help of a torch. Fortunately, some scholars have already benefited from digital caves, as Dr. Wang explained.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Diamond Sutra on display: Text panel 1

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 Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library, open to all and with free admission. 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 display also includes a copy of a Chinese almanac printed just a decade later, in AD 877, and 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. See this earlier post for more information on these.

The first text panel of the Diamond Sutra on display (May–June 2014) contains the opening six sections of the Diamond Sutra.

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

The following English translation of the first panel (by Lapiz Lazuli Texts) is based on Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the original Sanskrit:

1. The cause of the Dharma assembly
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was in Śrāvastī, residing in the Jeta Grove, in Anāthapiṇḍada’s park, along with a great saṃgha of bhikṣus, twelve hundred and fifty in all. At mealtime, the Bhagavān put on his robe, picked up his bowl, and made his way into the great city of Śrāvastī to beg for food within the city walls. After he had finished begging sequentially from door to door, he returned and ate his meal. Then he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down.

2. Elder Subhūti opens the question
From the midst of the great multitude, Elder Subhūti then arose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, and knelt with his right knee to the ground. With his hands joined together in respect, he addressed the Buddha, saying, “How extraordinary, Bhagavān, is the manner in which the Tathāgata is skillfully mindful of the bodhisattvas, and skillfully instructs and cares for the bodhisattvas! Bhagavān, when good men and good women wish to develop the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi, how should their minds dwell? How should they pacify their minds?” The Buddha replied, “Excellent, excellent, Subhūti, for it is just as you have said: the Tathāgata is skillfully mindful of the bodhisattvas, and skillfully instructs and cares for the bodhisattvas. Now listen carefully, because your question will be answered. Good men and good women who wish to develop the mind of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi should dwell thusly, and should pacify their minds thusly.” “Just so, Bhagavān. We are joyfully wishing to hear it.”

3. The true way of the Great Vehicle
The Buddha told Subhūti, “Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should pacify their minds thusly: ‘All different types of sentient beings, whether born from eggs, born from wombs, born from moisture, or born from transformation; having form or no form; having thought, no thought, or neither thought nor no thought—I will cause them all to become liberated and enter Remainderless Nirvāṇa.’ Thusly sentient beings are liberated without measure, without number, and to no end; however, truly no sentient beings obtain liberation. Why? Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has a notion of a self, a notion of a person, a notion of a being, or a notion of a life, he is not a bodhisattva.

4. The wondrous practice of non-abiding
“Moreover, Subhūti, bodhisattvas should not abide in dharmas when practicing giving. This is called ‘giving without abiding in form.’ This giving does not abide in sounds, scents, tastes, sensations, or dharmas. Subhūti, bodhisattvas should practice giving thusly, not abiding in characteristics. Why? If bodhisattvas do not abide in characteristics in their practice of giving, then the merits of this are inconceivable in measure. Subhūti, what do you think? Is the space to the east conceivable in measure?” “Certainly not, Bhagavān.” “Subhūti, what do you think? Is the space to the south, west, north, the four intermediary directions, or the zenith or nadir, conceivable in measure?” “Certainly not, Bhagavān.” “Subhūti, for bodhisattvas who do not abide when practicing giving, the merits are also such as this: inconceivable in measure. Subhūti, bodhisattvas should only dwell in what is taught thusly.

5. The principle for true perception
“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be perceived by means of bodily marks?” “Certainly not, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata cannot be perceived by means of the bodily marks. Why? The bodily marks that the Tathāgata speaks of are not bodily marks.” The Buddha told Subhūti, “Everything that has marks is deceptive and false. If all marks are not seen as marks, then this is perceiving the Tathāgata.”

6. The rarity of true belief
Subhūti addressed the Buddha, saying, “Bhagavān, will there be sentient beings who are able to hear these words thusly, giving rise to true belief?” The Buddha told to Subhūti, “Do not speak that way. After the extinction of the Tathāgata, in the next five hundred years, there will be those who maintain the precepts and cultivate merit, who will be able to hear these words and give rise to a mind of belief. Such beings have not just planted good roots with one buddha, or with two buddhas, or with three, four, or five buddhas. They have already planted good roots with measureless millions of buddhas, to be able to hear these words and give rise to even a single thought of clean, clear belief. Subhūti, the Tathāgata in each case knows this, and in each case perceives this, and these sentient beings thus attain immeasurable merit. Why? This is because these beings are holding no further notions of a self, notions of a person, notions of a being, or notions of a life. They are holding no notions of dharmas and no notions of non-dharmas. Why? If the minds of sentient beings grasp after appearances, then this is attachment to a self, a person, a being, and a life. If they grasp after notions of dharmas, that is certainly attachment to a self, a person, a being, and a life. Why? When one grasps at non-dharmas, then that is immediate attachment to a self, a person, a being, and a life. Therefore, you should neither grasp at dharmas, nor should you grasp at non-dharmas. Regarding this principle, the Tathāgata frequently says, ‘You bhikṣus should know that the dharma I speak is like a raft. Even dharmas should be relinquished, so how much more so the non-dharmas?’

‘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

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, May 9, 2014

Video: The Dunhuang Star Chart

This film from features the medieval Chinese manuscript Or.8210/S.3326 discovered in 1907 by the archaeologist Aurel Stein at the Silk Road town of Dunhuang and now housed in the British Library. This set of sky maps displaying the full sky visible from the Northern Hemisphere, is up to now the oldest complete preserved star atlas known from any civilisation. It is also the earliest known pictorial representation of the quasi-totality of Chinese constellations.

Director : BLUMBERG Jérôme
Scientific direction : BONNET-BIDAUD Jean-Marc
Producer : CNRS Images (2009)
Duration [20'00]

Further reading on IDP:
The Dunhuang Chinese Sky: A Comprehensive Study of the Oldest Known Star Atlas by Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud, Dr Françoise Praderie and Susan Whitfield.
Star Atlas: Translation by Imre Galambos.
Chinese Astronomy, an educational resource by Abby Baker.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

‘Wonders of the East’: Stein Exhibition in the British Museum Extension

A century ago, on 7 May 1914, the British Museum welcomed King George V and Queen Mary to open the new north wing of the Museum, the King Edward VII Galleries. Their visit was captured by Pathe News and also reported in The Times.1

Stein Photo 28/7(4), Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Staff had been busy for months preparing the opening exhibitions for the royal couple, and Thomas Humphrey Ward (1845–1926), Leader Writer for The Times, considered that ‘the most exciting part of the display’ were ‘the selected examples, several hundreds in number, of the paintings, embroideries, books, stucco relief, &c., which compose the amazing collections made in his last journey of exploration by Sir Aurel Stein’.2

The Stein exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue, Guide to an Exhibition of Paintings, Manuscripts and other Archaeological Objects collected by Sir Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., in Chinese Turkestan. (London: The Trustees of the British Museum 1914). The introduction is reproduced below.


The present Exhibition is designed to show the most valuable results of the second journey of archaeological and geographical investigation carried out by Sir Marc Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E, in Chinese Turkestan and the adjoining western border of China, under the joint auspices of the Government of India and the Trustees of the British Museum. A previous journey made by Sir Aurel Stein in 1900-1901, of which the most important proceeds are exhibited elsewhere in the British Museum, had disinterred from the sands of the deserts of Turkestan abundant relics of a rich ancient civilisation deriving its chief inspiration from India. The included MSS. in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and a hitherto unknown local language, containing texts of Buddhist religious works, official documents in a Sanskritic dialect, statuary, paintings on panels, frescoes and a large number of miscellaneous objects for the uses of public and private life. So much interest was aroused by these discoveries that several expeditions were sent out by Continental Governments, which excavated a number of buried sites in Turkestan with signal success. Sir Aurel Stein then proceeded to make preparations for a second journey on a larger scale. He set out in April 1906 from Kashmir, and passed northwards through Chitral, Mastuj, the Taghdumbash Pamir, and Tashkurghan to Kashgar. From Kashgar he started on June 23rd for Yakrand, whence he went on, still following the route towards the south-east, to Khotan. After some exploration of the mountain of south Khotan, he set out eastwards, and at Khadalik, near Domoko, and other sites in the neighbourhood unearthed some buried temples which proved to be rich in archaeological and literary treasures. Thence marching eastwards through Keriya to Niya, he opened up some ruins north of the Niya River, probably abandoned in the third century A.D., from which he extracted a surprising wealth of official documents and domestic miscellanea. From Niya his route led him in a north-east direction to Miran, where the remains of a Tibetan fort of the eighth or ninth century yielded an immense hoard of Tibetan documents and various other objects.

From Miran he advanced northwards through Abdal, across the Lop Desert, excavating on the way several sites, and returned to Miran, where he found in the ruined Buddhist sanctuaries some singularly attractive and interesting frescoes of purely Indo-Hellenistic type, probably not later than the fourth century. Thence he returned to Abdal, and set out in a north-easterly direction for Tun-huang. In the course of this stage of the journey he made the important discovery of remain of a very ancient Chinese frontier-wall, strengthened at interval by towers and guard-houses, which ran west and south-west from the region of An-hsi. Tun-huang (Sha-chou) was reached on March 12th, 1907, and almost immediately a visit was paid to the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ (Ch’ien-fo-tung) to the south-east of the town. These caves consist of a large number of grottos, some of large size, cut in irregular tiers on the face of a rock, with walls adorned by ancient Buddhist frescoes executed by local artists in a style which is an offshoot of the Indo-Hellenistic school of Gandhara modified by Chinese influences. After this preliminary visit Sir Aurel Stein returned to the investigation of the frontier-wall which he had observed on his way from Miran to Tun-huang. It proved to date from the second century B.C., and to be identical with the lines running from Chiu-ch’üan (Su-chou) to the ‘Jade Gate’ or Yü-mên, thus forming a barrier securing the district south of the Su-lo River, which was the base for the political and military expansion of the Chinese Empire westwards. In tracing the course of this wall he discovered numerous Chinese documents dating from 99 B.C. downwards, large quantities of articles of military and domestic equipment, etc. This exploration completed, he returned to Tun-huang, and then to the ‘Thousand Buddhas.’ In the latter place, in a cell which had until recently been walled up for many centuries, and was now in the custody of a Taoist priest, was discovered an extensive library comprising many thousands of Buddhist and other MSS. and books, chiefly in Chinese, but also including many works in Sanskrit, Sogdian, Turki, Uighur, Tibetan, etc., together with hundreds of silk banners painted with hieratic scenes and figures, often of very high artistic merit. Negotiations with the guardian of this hoard were brought to a satisfactory issue, and in consequence an immense addition was made to the collections of the party.

After investigation of some other matters of local interest – among them the fine old frescoes in the Buddhist caves of Wang-of-hsia – Sir Aurel Stein proceeded across the Nan-shan mountains eastwards to Kan-chou, completing the survey of the wall, and then turned towards the north-west. After a short stay at Turfan, of which the ruins have yielded rich treasures to German and Russian archaeologists, he advanced in a south-westerly and westerly direction to Karashahr, and began excavations some fifteen miles south-west of the town on the site of some Buddhist shrines known as Ming-oi. The search was very successful, the site proving especially rich in beautiful stucco heads and wood-carvings. A march westward to Kuchar, followed by a bold dash southward across the Taklamakan Desert – which nearly ended in disaster – brought the travellers in February 1908 to Karadong, where they found considerable numbers of painted panels, inscribed tablets, and Sanskrit MSS. Some supplementary investigations having then been made in the neighbourhood, they arrived at Khotan early in April, and then again turned northwards through the Taklamakan. After a halt at the ruined Tibetan fort at Mazartagh, probably dating from the eighth or ninth century, which yielded hundreds of Tibetan, Chinese and other documents, they proceeded to Aksu, thence journeyed westwards and southwards to Yarkand and Khotan, and from Khotan made a toilsome march over the mountains southwards to Leh, which was reached on October 12th 1908.

Some idea of the great quantity and importance of the materials obtained in this journey may be formed from the following figures, which naturally are only approximate.

From the various sites excavated there were collected

  • about 8,000 pieces of stucco ornament, pieces of carved wood, metal and wooden implements, fragments of fabrics and wearing apparel, coins, and intaglios;
  • 50 large fresco panels;
  • about 500 fragments of frescoes;
  • about 4,500 manuscripts on paper, wood, etc., in Sanskrit, local Prakrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese, and Kuchean.

From the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ near Tun-huang were obtained

  • about 500 paintings on silk, linen, and paper, with prints and drawings on paper;
  • about 150 pieces of textiles, embroidery, brocade, damask, and gauze, etc.;
  • about 6500 manuscripts and printed books in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese, Kuchean, Sogdian, Uighur, and Turki.

A full account of his travels have been published by Sir Aurel Stein in Ruins of Desert Cathay (Macmillian, 2 vols., 1912). His official report and inventory of the objects discovered is still in course of preparation.

The present Exhibition is designed to put before the public characteristic examples of the various classes of objects before they are allotted to their final destinations. At present they are the joint property of the Trustees of the British Museum and the India Office, and it is with the assent of the Secretary of State for India in Council that the Exhibition takes place. The Exhibition is necessarily a temporary one, since the gallery in which it is held will shortly be required for other purposes. In arranging it the officers of the British Museum have had the constant co-operation of Sir A. Stein’s assistants, Mr. F. H. Andrews and Miss F. Lorimer.

The arrangement of the Exhibition commences at the eastern end of the gallery. The paintings, to which the first section of the Guide (pp. 5–24) is devoted, occupy the cases along the entire northern side. Returning along the southern side the visitor will find, first, the miscellaneous archaeological objects (pp. 24–38), and finally the manuscripts.

Over the next few months, we will post further extracts from the catalogue as well as the correspondence and reports in the British Museum and Aurel Stein archives (the latter at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford) to trace the progress of this important exhibition and to highlight some of the objects on display. The complete exhibition catalogue with links to images of the exhibits will be published online on IDP at the end of this period.

Many thanks to Helen Wang, Marjorie Caygill and Sophie Arp for their invaluable research and generous help which has been used to prepare these posts.

1 See Helen Wang 2002. Sir Aurel Stein the Times. London: Saffron Books: 41
2 The Times, 7th May 1914, 5c; in Wang 2002: 65

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

IDP Lectures: Silk on the Silk Road

Silk on the Silk Road was an afternoon of lectures by scholars, curators and conservators held on the 11 April 2004 as part of IDP’s 20th anniversary celebrations at the British Library, London. Intended for a general audience, the talks introduced the Silk Road and the textiles collections held in London and worldwide. All the presentations and audio recordings are available to download below.

Silk for Books and Buddhism: the British Library and British Museum Collections
Susan Whitfield, Director, IDP, The British Library
Download the audio file MP3 40.4MB
Download the presentation PDF 63.3MB

Silk in Shoes and Clothing: V&A and British Museum Collections
Helen Persson, Curator Chinese Textiles and Dress, V&A
Download the audio file MP3 41.4MB
Download the presentation PDF 86.9MB

Silk as Money
Helen Wang, Curator, East Asian Money, The British Museum
Download the audio file MP3 30.4MB
Download the presentation PDF 11.2MB

Silks from the Silk Road
Zhao Feng, Director, The National Silk Museum, China
Download the audio file MP3 58.1MB
Download the presentation PDF 16.6MB

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Phrasebooks for Silk Route Travellers

Phrasebooks still seem to sell quite well, judging by their presence on bookshop shelves. If translation apps do eventually make them redundant, it will be the end of a tradition that goes back a long way. The Central Asian manuscript collections provide plenty of evidence that phrasebooks were popular with travellers on the Silk Routes in the first millennium AD. For example, Pelliot chinois 5538 is a scroll with a series of phrases in Sanskrit and Khotanese, on the general theme of pilgrimage. Some of the phrases form conversations, like the following:
And where are you going now?
I am going to China.
What business do you have in China?
I'm going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.
When are you coming back?
I'm going to China, then I'll return.
The conversations also cover practical matters:
Do you have any provisions for the road?
I do not like my provisions.
I'll go with one or two horses.

We don't know whether this particular scroll (which dates from the late 10th century) was actually used as a phrasebook – it might have just been copied out as an exercise – but most of the phrases in it are relevant to the needs of a Buddhist pilgrim travelling from India to China.

Other phrasebooks are clearly for different sorts of travellers. The Tibeto-Chinese phrasebook, found in Or.8210/S.1000 and S.2736 (not yet digitized) was obviously compiled for merchants. The phrasebook gives the Tibetan word, followed by the Chinese equivalent, all in the Tibetan script. Thus it was clearly written for travellers who knew the Tibetan language but little or nothing of Chinese. In this phrasebook, the names of goods including food, clothes, tools, weapons and armour predominate. Phrases concerning buying and selling are also here, including 'last price' – a phrase familiar to those who have haggled in an Asian marketplace. There is also the polite 'thanks for letting me look'.

Also here are words and phrases helpful to visitors to a strange town looking for food and a bed for night, and moving on to the next destination. The phrasebook is also there for travellers who encounter problems such as illness, being robbed, or being accused of being a thief. They can use it to invoke the authority of the Tibetan emperor or a local official, or seek the help of a ritual specialist (bon po).

These are only two examples of the many phrasebooks and glossaries from Dunhuang and other Silk Route sites, but they cover two of the most important actvities on the Silk Routes in the first millennium: pilgrimage and trading. The Sanskrit-Khotanese phrasebook also has some revealing snippets of conversation that suggest another interest for travellers. After some phrases regarding the arrival of a Tibetan teacher, the conversation goes in this direction:

He is dear to many women.
He goes about a lot.
He makes love.

Which suggests that gossip was also a popular activity among Silk Route travellers over a thousand years ago!

Further reading
  • Bailey, H.W. 1964. 'Śrī Viśa Śūra and the Ta-uang'. Asia Major (New Series) 11.1: 17–26.
  • KUMAMOTO Hiroshi. 1988. 'Saiiki ryokōsha yō Sansukuritto-Kōtango kaiwa renshūchō' 西域旅行者用サンスクリット=コ一タン語 會話練習帳. Seinan Ajia Kenkyū 西南アジア研究 28: 53–82.
  • van Schaik, Sam and Imre Galambos, Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012.
  • Thomas, F.W. and Giles, Lionel. 1948. 'A Tibeto-Chinese Word-and-Phrase Book'. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12.2–3: 753–769. JSTOR.