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

24 July 2017

Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts

The Southeast Asia exhibition case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at St Pancras is currently showing a selection of images of animals in manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The delightful depictions of animals can be appreciated as exquisite works of art, but certain animals were also important as religious, political and cultural symbols in Southeast Asian societies, none more so than elephants.

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Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts, on display in 2017.

In pride of place on the top shelf is a 19th-century Burmese folding book or parabaik (MSS Burmese 204) containing 22 coloured illustrations of elephants, showing the elephant king Chaddanta, who was the Bodhisatta or previous incarnation of Gautama Buddha, and his queen Mahathubadda. In Burma white elephants are regarded as sacred and a source of blessings, as they play a major role in Buddhist tales. In the story of the ‘Life of the Buddha’, Queen Maya dreamed that a celestial white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her side, to be reborn as Gautama Buddha, while in the last Birth Story of the Buddha, Vessantara Jataka, the white elephant appears as a rain maker. Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant, a symbol of power and sovereignty.

Next to the Burmese book is a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma dated 1805 (MSS Jav 68), with drawings of an elephant, tiger, banteng, wild boar and two deer. This tale is one of many versions of the adventures of Prince Panji in his search for his beloved Princess Candrakirana. Stories of Prince Panji date back to the 13th century, and mark the beginnings of a truly Javanese literature no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Panji tales are found not only in Java but were also translated into Malay, Balinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese.

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Drawings of forest animals in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. xr.

On the lower shelf is a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924, adorned on the back with a gilded turtle (Or 14632). The turtle (rùa) has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese fight against Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After the defeat of the Chinese, the sacred sword was returned to the king by a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, 82 stone turtles carry on their backs steles inscribed with the names of scholars, signifying the importance of education in society.

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Turtle, on the back of a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924. British Library, Or. 14632.

The final item in the case is a 19th-century Thai Phrommachat or horoscope manual in folding book format (Or. 13650). The twelve-year Chinese zodiac cycle was widely used in Thailand, and the manual contains coloured drawings depicting the zodiac in two series, together with detailed explanations for fortune telling and divination. 2017 is the year of the Rooster, and on display are drawings related to this year, with each rooster shown representing one particular quarter of the year. There is also a number diagram for people born in the year of the rooster, and the male avatar and plant for this year. These are accompanied by drawings used for predicting the future and to explain dreams and omens.

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Thai horoscope manual, open at the page for the year of the Rooster (the present year, 2017). British Library, Or. 13650, f.5v

Or. 13650 has been fully digitised, and shown below are some other pages from this beautiful manuscript, which can be accessed through the hyperlinks beneath the images.

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 11v

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 13r

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma & Sud Chonchirdsin, Southeast Asia section

Other blog posts about animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts:

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia, by Sud Chonchirdsin

Elephants in all shapes and sizes

The year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective, by Jana Igunma

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: deer in Thai manuscript art, by Jana Igunma

21 July 2017

Chinese shuttlecock: a game for all

Ching Yuet Tang is a cataloguer on secondment from the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She is currently assisting with the retro-conversion of catalogue records relating to Chinese collections at the British Library.

When I started work on the cataloguing project on early printed Chinese materials in September 2016, little did I know that it would include an early twentieth century guide to a game that I used to play at school in my small village in Hong Kong.

‘Shuttlecock’, or, jianzi 毽子, is a favourite pastime in China, enjoyed for centuries by adults and children, both rich and poor. It can be played just about anywhere, at any time, and whether you are on your own, in a pair or part of a group. The aim of the game is to try to keep the shuttlecock in the air using only the feet, and to get as many kicks in as possible without dropping it. The item I encountered – Le Volant Chinois, written by Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy in 1910 – is a helpful illustrated manual providing detailed instructions for a total of 38 techniques, ranging from simple tricks to spectacular acrobatic displays!

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The book starts with simple techniques, such as kicking using the left or right foot. British Library, 15235.b.1

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It continues with the sideways kick. British Library, 15235.b.1

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And then moves on to more advanced techniques, such as the crab-style kick. British Library, 15235.b.1

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And even demonstrates jumping with both feet! British Library, 15235.b.1

Although jianzi can be bought from shops, they are incredibly easy to assemble at home too. It requires no more than a few feathers, some rubber bands, an old exercise book (preferably with a hardback cover for strength) and a pair of scissors. A jianzi is light-weight and pocket-sized, making it a perfect form of instant mobile entertainment in pre-digital times. It is easy to make, simple to play and, most of all, it is fun!

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Cheap and cheerful: examples of shop-bought jianzi

Jianzi has a long history of over two thousand years. According to the International Shuttlecock Association (ISF) website, jianzi (or a version of it), can be traced to at least the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) if not earlier. It is believed to have evolved from an activity called cuju 蹴鞠 undertaken by military troops for relaxation and exercise. Over the years, its popularity grew and extended to people from all walks of life. This can be seen clearly in a nineteenth-century Chinese export album, in which two men can be seen having a go at kicking a jianzi made of chicken feathers. According to the description, they managed to score over 1000 points in a row.

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A common street scene. The caption describes the basic components for making a jianzi, namely a small coin about the size of a halfpenny, some feathers and a piece of string. British Library, Or 11539

Another historical reference to jianzi is given at the beginning of Le Volant Chinois, which reads:

楊柳兒青放空鐘 « Quand le saule verdit, on lâche le diabolo :
楊柳兒死踢毽子 Quand le saule se flétrit, on lance le Volant. »

This is a quote from another early printed book also held in the British Library, Di jing jing wu lüe 帝京景物略 by Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng, an account of Beijing in the early seventeenth century. It discusses seasonal leisure activities pursued by ordinary people, and mentions jianzi as a typical winter pastime enjoyed by many.

In recent years, jianzi has been transformed from a folk leisure activity to a formal competitive sport on a national and international scale. It not only has well-established official rules but also strict specifications about the components of a standard jianzi, from its weight and dimensions down to the number of feathers and the texture of its plastic base. It is now played over a net and deploys some of the goal-shooting techniques of football. The shuttlecock is kicked towards the other side and points are scored when the opposing team is unable to return it, as in the case of volleyball or badminton. The game has singles and doubles tournaments for men, women and mixed teams.

According to the ISF, jianzi entered the international spotlight when a Chinese athlete from Jiangxu demonstrated it at the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936. The sport has since gained great recognition and has spread to many countries around the world. Since the foundation of the ISF in 1999, the list of official members has expanded to include England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Laos, Vietnam, Greece, France, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. Members take turns to organise their own championships and I am thrilled to hear that the 9th World Shuttlecock Championships 2017 will be coming home to Hong Kong.

Do not despair if you are not yet at competitive or championship level, as you can still enjoy a simple game of jianzi as a much-needed break from a busy modern lifestyle, while also keeping fit and active. So if you are looking for a new hobby, why not get inspired by the manual of Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy? You might just find yourself tapping into a hidden talent, and may soon be showing off your dexterity and endurance.

Further reading:
Chu Minyi and Louis Laloy, “Le Volant Chinois”, Bulletin de L’Association Amicale Franco-Chinoise. Vol. 2, no. 4 (October 1910): 319-35.
International Shuttlecock Association (ISF), “History of shuttlecock sport”.
Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng, Di jing jing wu lüe. (Published in China by an unknown publisher, between 1766 and 1795.)

Ching Yuet Tang, Cataloguer, Chinese Collections

17 July 2017

Some bindings from Tipu Sultan's court

In recent weeks I have been examining bindings of the British Library’s manuscripts which formerly belonged to Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799). The British Library collection probably constitutes about 25% of the original Library as it was in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. The manuscripts originate ultimately from a number of different, largely unspecified, locations, but fortunately there is a distinct corpus (23 out of 242 so far examined) which can easily be identified as belonging to Tipu Sultan's court. These are works bound in his own individualistic style of binding or else were copied or composed at Seringapatam.

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Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an with flap showing inscriptions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 below. This binding is unusual of Tipu bindings for its use of gilt decoration. Note also the diced patterned background which is a feature of several other manuscripts. (IO Islamic 3562
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One of the most lavish is Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (IO Islamic 3562), illustrated above (more on this in a future blog). Decorated heavily in gilt on a diced patterned background, the binding also includes a number of inscriptions. These were described in general terms by Charles Stewart in A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, (Cambridge, 1809), p.v.

All the volumes that had been rebound at Seringapatam have the names of God, Mohammed, his daughter Fatimah, and her sons, Hassen and Hussein, stamped in a medallion on the middle of the cover; and the names of the Four first Khalifs, Abu Beker, Omar, Osman, and Aly, on the four corners. At the top is “Sirkari Khodādad,” (the government given by God); and at the bottom, “Allah Kāfy,” (God is sufficient).”

I thought it would be helpful to expand on these inscriptions which are stamped on the outside of the bindings. Typically, but not always, they consist of:

  1. Front top: Sarkār-i Khudādādī ‘God-given government’
  2. Front central medallion: Allāh, Muḥammad, ʻAlī, Fāṭimah, Ḥasan, Ḥusayn
  3. Back central medallion: Qur’an Surah 2:32: Subḥānaka lā ‘ilma lanā illā mā ‘allamtanā innaka anta al-‘alīm al-ḥakīm ‘Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.’
  4. Four corners: Ḥaz̤rat Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUmar al-Fārūq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUsmān ibn ʻAffān; Ḥaz̤rat ʻAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
  5. Pendants hanging from central medallion: Allāh kāfī ‘God is sufficient’
  6. Cartouches: Lā ilāha illā Allāh Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger’
  7. Spine: Qur'an Surah 56:79: Lā yamassuhu illā al-muṭahharūn ‘None may touch it except the purified’

I_o_islamic_3562_fbrig copy  I_o_islamic_3562_fbrigr copy
Left: back board with inscriptions 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6; right: doublure; below: flap with inscription 7 which currently, perhaps as a result of restoration, lies on the outside of the front board. (IO Islamic 3562)
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I_o_islamic_3562_fbspi_a copy

A similar binding occurs on IO Islamic 3351, a less ambitiously decorated Qur’an, possibly dating from the 17th century but rebound at Seringapatam. Its small size (16.5 x 10cm) accounts for it only being inscribed in the central medallion, on the spine and with the usual sarkar-i khudādādī. Unlike many of Tipu's bindings, which have been altered during subsequent restoration, this one has been preserved in its original state with the flap designed to go inside the outer cover.

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Back board and flap showing inscriptions 3 and 7. (IO Islamic 3351)
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Less ambitious Tipu bindings show considerable variation and demonstrate that the inscriptions could be stamped quite carelessly as illustrated in the examples below.

IO Islamic 695_binding copy   IO Islamic 491
Left: IO Islamic 695, a late 18th century copy of works by Gīsū Darāz and ʻAṭṭār, with inscriptions 1, 2, 4 and 5 stamped somewhat inexactly on the binding; right: IO Islamic 491, Javāhir al-qur'ān, an index to bowing places (rukūʻ) copied for Tipu in 1225 of the Mauludi era (1797/98) with only inscription 1 at the head.
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Not all of Tipu Sultan's bindings included his characteristic inscriptions. Two examples of comparitively simple bindings are illustrated below.

IO Islamic 464 binding1 IO Islamic 464doublure
This manuscript is a translation into Persian from Dakhni by Ḥasan ʻAlī ʻIzzat of the love story of Lal and Gohar which was commissioned by Tipu Sultan in 1778. The binding is contemporary and still carries the Prize Agentsʼ label dating from when they were first examining the collection in 1799. (IO Islamic 464)
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IO Islamic 713 IO Islamic 713doublure
Another work commissioned by Tipu, his army regulations Fatḥ al-mujāhidīn by Zayn al-Dīn Shūshtarī. The scalloped flap is the only example I have found in the collection and unlike IO Islamic 3351 above, it was designed to lie on the outside. Note also the hole, presumably for ties. (IO Islamic 713)
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Altogether I estimate that the British Library has about 600 volumes from Tipu Sultan's collection. These consist of 197 volumes of Arabic and Persian manuscripts deposited in the Library on 16 July 1806, further volumes deposited in 1807 (204 vols) and April 1808 (68 vols) and a proportion of the 308 manuscripts sent to London in 1837 after the closure of Fort William College in Calcutta and the dispersal of its collections. For more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah. I'm hoping that by examining the whole collection I may be able to discover more about the provenance of each volume and establish certain regional binding styles, but this is very much work in progress, so watch this space!


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian
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