THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

17 August 2018

The Star Lovers

The 7th day of the 7th lunar month has long been the date of the Star Festival 七夕 in East Asia, traditionally known as Tanabata in Japan, and as Qixi - or more recently as the ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’ - in China. It has always been a very popular festival celebrating the summer evening, and evoking the romantic legend of the star lovers who meet each other once a year by crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way.

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Above left is the Dunhuang Star Atlas, the oldest known manuscript of a star chart dating to around AD 700. On the right-hand image the Magpie Bridge, which corresponds to the constellation of Cygnus (= Celestial Ford 天津), has been indicated by a green dotted line, and the Milky Way is indicated by two parallel dotted lines in blue (neither feature is marked on the original Star Atlas). The boy lover, known as Niulang (牛郎) in the Chinese folktale, was identified in his original position as Niu su yi (牛宿一), also known as β Capricorni or Dabih Major in Western astronomy. The girl, Zhinü (織女) has always been and still is associated with Vega since the creation of the Dunhuang Atlas. British Library, Stein Collection Or.8210/S.3326. International Dunhuang Project http://idp.bl.uk/

However, the Star Festival is not only for celebrating romance. We first explored the origins of this festival and related astronomical subjects in two previous blog posts in August 2014: ‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1) and (2). This year we concentrate on how the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month has had a dramatic impact on both the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions.

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A young woman crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way. Grace James, Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Macmillan, 1910). British Library, L.R.26.d.7

One of the most notable references to the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Chinese classical poetry is probably ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret (長恨歌)’ by Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846). The inspiration for Bai Juyi’s poem was the doomed love between Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (唐玄宗帝 685-762) and his imperial consort Yang Guifei (楊貴妃 719-756). On the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, they vowed to be together forever. However, there was to be no happy ending, as Yang Guifei was assassinated.

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Front cover (left) and illustration (centre and right) of the Daoist master meeting with Yang Guifei in the afterworld (right). Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

Despite the passage of many years, Emperor Xuanzong still pines for his dead lover, Yang Guifei. Although he cannot cross the border into the afterlife, he commissions his Daoist master to seek out Yang Guifei, for whom he is still longing but can no longer see, even in his dreams. Eventually the Daoist master manages to meet Yang Guifei in the afterlife, and she asks him to pass her message to Emperor Xuanzong, calling her Imperial lover to a romantic reunion in the stars. Even though there is no explicit mention of the star lovers in the lines below, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month indubitably references the love of the celestial couple.

“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, in the Hall of Longevity,
At midnight, when nobody is around, this is when we will make our secret pact.
In the heavens, we vow to be as two birds flying wingtip to wingtip,
On earth, we vow to be as two intertwined branches of a tree.”

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“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month”. Chinese text with Japanese annotations. Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan for Japanese readers, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’ was already very well known among the Japanese when Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), who was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi in the 11th century, wrote ‘The Tale of Genji (源氏物語)’, and it is clear that she consciously included many direct or indirect references to Bai Juyi’s poetry.

At the opening of the story, the relationship of Genji's parents mirrors that of the Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, as Genji's father is the Emperor Kiritsubo and his mother is the most beloved one in his court. Genji’s mother dies young, leaving the Emperor in deep sorrow. While they were together, their favourite saying was “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch”, from the famous lines in ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’. Day and night, he repeatedly bemoans the shortness of her life, making his own but an empty dream.

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Chapter 41 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century. British Library, Or.1287, f.43

In Chapter 41, Genji is left alone as his wife Lady Murasaki dies. In this chapter, the episode of the night of the 7th day of the 7th month is described as Tanabata, the day of the blessing of the star lovers. Genji is not in the mood for celebrating romance, and he keeps on thinking of his late wife and composes this poem: “They meet, these stars, in a world beyond the clouds. My tears but join the dews of the garden of parting.” Although the symbolic lines “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch” were not quoted explicitly in his poem, they are evoked implicitly through the whole chapter.

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The celestial lovers - Kengyū (Niulang in Chinese) and Orihime (Zhinü in Chinese). Ikeda, Touri 池田東籬. Amanogawa sōshi 銀河草子. Tenpō 6 [1835.] British Library, ORB.30/3377

Konparu Zenchiku (金春善竹 1405-1470) composed a Noh play, ‘Yōkihi (楊貴妃)’, based on the latter part of ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’. The key motifs in his Noh play were the tragic separations and broken promises as the lovers believed that nothing could force them to be parted. The lines about the 7th day of the 7th month, the star lovers, tree branches and birds are repeated at the close of the Noh play, leaving the audience filled with sorrow.

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Yōkihi (楊貴妃) from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Sōfū Matsuno松野奏風. Nōga taikan : nōga nihyakuban ōzoroe 能畫大鑑 : 能畫貮百番大揃. Tōkyō: Seibi Shoin 東京 : 精美書院, 1936. Revised edition of the work originally published in 1934. British Library, ORB.45/153

Lovers in classical literature were aware that they could not thwart fate and that human life is full of uncertainty, but perhaps they admired the star lovers in the night sky as a symbol of eternal love, unobtainable in the real world.

References

Song of Everlasting Regret (Chinese & English translation)

The Tale of Genji (full English translation)

源氏物語と長恨歌

The Dunhuang Chinese sky: a comprehensive study of the oldest known star atlas

With special thanks to Professor Roberto Soria, University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, for identifying positions of the key constellations and the Milky Way on the Dunhuang Star Atlas.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections

 

10 August 2018

Testimonial presented to Sir Henry Lawrence

One of the most unusual objects held in the British Library’s Visual Arts collection is an oversized silver candelabra that was presented to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-57) as a ‘Testimonial’ from the ‘Friends of the Panjab’ in 1856. Lawrence was appointed as the British Resident in Lahore in 1846 and was the President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab. The Testimonial is currently on loan and featured at the exhibition Empire of the Sikhs at the Brunei Gallery, London which runs from 12 July – 23 September 2018.

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The Lawrence Testimonial, by Hunt and Roskell after the design and model of Alfred Brown, 1853-56. British Library, Foster 1075 Noc

Henry Lawrence started his career as an army officer of the East India Company. He was trained at the Company’s Addiscombe College in south London and travelled to India when he was 16 to join the Bengal Artillery. Lawrence was in fact born in Ceylon and would spend the majority of his life in the subcontinent. From the onset of his career, he was keen to develop his linguistic skills and would become fluent in Persian, Hindi and Urdu. His language skills would prove to become useful and he was appointed as an assistant revenue surveyor for the revenue survey of India in the north-western provinces based in Moradabad from 1833. From the 1840s, Lawrence’s career shifted to a more political nature. In 1840, Lawrence was formally appointed as Assistant to the Governor-General's Agent for the Affairs of the Panjab and the North-West Frontier. In 1843, Lawrence became the Resident at the court of Nepal. Following the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46, Lord Hardinge appointed Lawrence as Agent at Lahore and subsequently the British Resident. Following the annexation of the Panjab in 1849, he served as President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab.

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Portrait of Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence painted by Delhi artist Ghulam Husain Khan, c. 1847.
British Library, Add Or 2409 Noc

According to the Illustrated London News (Feb 16, 1856), ‘this magnificent testimonial was projected in the year 1853 for presentation to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence K.C.B. … upon the occasion of his voluntary relinquishing of the above appointment [President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab] for the no less honourable and important post of Governor-General’s Agent in Rajpootana.’ The Testimonial was in the Lawrence family’s collection until 1949, when it was deposited as part of the wider Lawrence archive to the India Office Records and Private Papers collection by Sir John Lawrence; shortly after the acquisition, the Testimonial was sent on long term loan to the National Army Museum and only returned to the Library in 2015. Tarnjeet Singh Padam, Leading Library Assistant at the British Library, volunteer for the UK Panjab Heritage Association, and a contributing curator for Empire of the Sikhs, located the Illustrated London News article which now provides the documentation regarding the circumstances of production and the symbolic significance of the multiple vignettes presented in this elaborate testimonial.

According to the Illustrated London News: ‘The figure on the summit represents India; beneath, in bassi rellievi, are five reclining Deities, representing the rivers of India. The branches, ornamented in the Indian style, carry twelve lights. The palm, plaintain, and the fig-tree encircle the shaft. On the base is a grand composition of figures, divided into three groups. The first is typical of the state of anarchy which existed in the Punjab previously to the introduction of British rule. One of Runjeet Singh’s body guard is attacked by a hill man-a dismounted irregular horseman lies dead on the ground, and above him is a wounded Akalie. The second group represents the conflict between the British and the Sikh forces which resulted in the conquest of the country by the former. The figures introduced are a Sikh irregular horseman mounted, opposed to by a British foot solider, and a Sikh artilleryman contending with a dismounted trooper. The third group represents the pacification of the Punjaub. Sir Henry Lawrence is represented in the act of receiving from an Afghan villager and a Sikh Chief their arms; in exchange for which he is about to present them with different implements of husbandry, held by Industry and Peace, which are represented by two female figures.’

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Detail showing Henry Lawrence receiving an Afghan villager Noc

‘The entablatures on the three sides of the Testimonial contain respective representations; - firstly, of the sacred Tank at Amritsar (the Pool of Immortality), with the Sikh temple in the centre; secondly, of Sir Henry Lawrence, with the Maharajah of the Punjaub and Chieftains seated in Durbar at Lahore, arranging for the payment of the troops, who were in a state of mutiny; and, thirdly, the establishment of the Lawrence Asylum in the Himalaya, for the children of European soldiers – allegorically represented by Benevolence under the guidance of Wisdom-removing the children from the plains to the salubrious regions of the Himalaya. At the angles are the Brahmin Bull, the Cashmere Goat and the Camel.’

In 2000, the descendants of Henry Lawrence donated to the British Library the Lawrence Album, which contained 66 drawings, prints and cut-outs, along with 35 photographs connected with the life of Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-1857) and Honoria Lawrence, née Marshall (1810-54), presented to their daughter Honoria Letitia (1850-1923) in 1859 by her aunt and godmother Charlotte Frances Lawrence (1814-1885). The album includes further information regarding the design of the testimonial, including a set of illustrations showing the original design by Alfred Brown which was manufactured by the silversmith Hunt and Roskell.

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Illustration from the Lawrence Album, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc


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Illustration from the Lawrence Album with the vignette of the Golden Temple at Amritsar on the base, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc

Further reading:
Susan Stronge (ed.), The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom, London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999.
Davindar Toor, In Pursuit of Empire: Treasures from the Toor Collection of Sikh Art, London: Kashi House, 2018.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts  ccownwork

 

18 July 2018

Traditional games in Burma

Manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar) in the form of folding books (parabaik) often contain depictions of traditional games and sports such boxing, martial arts, cock-fighting and chinlone, reflecting popular activities in daily life.

One of the national games of Burma is chinlone, or the cane-ball game, played with a ball made of six hoops of interwoven smoothly-cut cane or rattan. The idea of the game is to try to keep the chinlone up in the air for as long as possible by foot-work, and to not let it drop to the ground. The chinlone can be kicked by the instep, outer and inner sides of the foot, sole, heel and knee, but may not be touched with the hand. It can be played indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and by all ages, and is often played barefoot. Burmese people regard this traditional game as good for exercising leg muscles, building strength and developing body flexibility.

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The illustration depicts a professional solo player playing chinlone in a court yard, while the king and queen in the pavilion watch the game. In the painting, the player has heavily tattoed legs, and his longyi (waist-cloth) is tucked up close round the middle, so that his legs may be quite free to play. In the game, the player sends the chinlone into the air again and again with decreasing force till he allows it to alight in the hollow of his shoulder, and he then rolls it down the back of the arm and jerks the chinlone off at his elbow to catch it on his knee. Up to seven chinlone may be tossed by master players; in this painting the player is playing with three chinlone. In the bottom right, musicians perform with a traditional orchestra and drum. British Library, Or 13291, f. 13 Noc

The game of chinlone can be played solo, but it more enjoyable with teams of six players. The team stands in a circle, the players standing three or four feet apart from one another and the chinlone is passed from one to another, by flipping it in the air using a succession of thirty techniques. There are rules for chinlone competitions between teams. The game exercises the body in a way that restores elasticity to the back and limbs, but it is believed that the game is good not only for physical exercise but also for mental control.

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The above scene shows a chinlone tournament. Court musicians play in a traditional Burmese orchestra while the king and queen under the white umbrellas watch a chinlone game. Four players each toss a chinlone with their feet, without touching it with their hands, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. They may also touch or flip the chinlones with their knees, ankles, soles and shoulders. British Library, Or 14551, f. 8 Noc

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Four players play chinlone in the monastery compound, watched by a group of monks. Photograph of the national Burmese game of chinlone, taken by Watts and Skeen in the 1890s, British Library, Photo 430/15(63) Noc

Other games depicted in Burmese parabaik include polo, javelin throwing, horse racing and cock fighting. Illustrations in parabaiks show that historically, Burmese royals were very fond of watching polo.

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The above scene shows nine military men on horseback playing polo in a courtyard. According to  Burmese historical sources, this game was probably brought to Burma from Manipur in northeast India. British Library, Or. 6779, f. 8 Noc

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This painting depicts Burmese courtiers on horseback playing a game of polo, watched by the king and queen in the pavilion. The teams of four players on horseback try to hit the ball through the goal posts in order to score. In the illustration, the team wearing green (on the left) is competing against the team wearing red (on the right). British Library, Or 14963 f. 9 Noc

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Shown here are two large long legged fowls fighting each other, and people betting. Cock fighting was a favourite game of village people in the past, and despite being condemned by religion, people still bet heavily on their birds. British Library, Or 13291, f. 15 Noc

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The above painting shows the traditional Burmese form of boxing. The two boxers have their longyis gathered up over their groins to their waists, in order to move their knees and legs easily. Tattoos can be seen on their legs, but other parts of their bodies are left bare. No gloves are worn in Burmese boxing; instead, the skill in this game lies in leaping into the air and kicking each other with their bare feet. On the left, the royals watch the boxing tournament, while to the right, musicians  entertain them. British Library, Or 16761, f. 31 Noc

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An equestrian competition. This painting shows the king and queen watching a competition in martial skills. The competitors are princes, officials of ranks, and officers of the army, who are throwing spears from horseback at a gallop at targets placed on poles ranging from 15 to 50 or 100 cubits in height, standing at intervals one after the other. Under the monarchy, kings held equestrian competitions to select the best soldiers for the cavalry. British Library, Or 14963, f. 10 Noc

All the scenes of games in these Burmese folding books are painted in water colours and enclosed in yellow panels with a single line or a few words of explanatory text in Burmese script along the bottom border.

In Burma today, the game of chinlone can still be seen being played everywhere, by players young or old, male or damile, in fields and yards or in tournaments. Young girls play hop scotch at school or in playgrounds. Some seasonal festivals in Burma involve athletic competitions, with games such as climbing a greased pole, tugs of war, pulling a rope and pillow fights. In the mid-nineteenth century, western sports such as football, badminton, tennis, volleyball and golf were introduced to Burma.

Further reading:
'Chinlone: the Burmese Cane-ball game', by U Ah Yein. Guardian magazine, August 1960.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork