Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

09 October 2015

Chinese collections opened up by Libcrowds

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The Chinese collections at the British Library consist of more than 100,000 printed books and 2,500 periodical titles. The material has been acquired or donated to the British Library since the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum was founded in 1753, the year of the foundation of the Museum itself. The earliest acquisitions of Chinese material were from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, and nowadays we continue to acquire both rare books and contemporary publications on topics such as the humanities and social sciences from the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

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Card catalogues cabinets in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room (photo ©Jon Ellis)

During more than 250 years of collection history, the library’s librarians and curators have been working extensively to catalogue and document the Chinese language material, in order to make it available to readers. Before the era of computers and the internet, the collection was catalogued on cards that provided essential information for each book, such as the title, the author, the physical description (dimensions, number of pages, images and so on), the subject and a “shelfmark”, which linked to the location of the item. This data is still the basis of the electronic records produced and used today in libraries and archives around the world.

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Shelves of recently acquired material in Chinese, kept in the Chinese section for cataloguing and processing

The catalogues for Chinese material which entered the British Library before 1993 are divided into two main categories. Firstly, acquisitions made before 1966 were catalogued using the Wade-Giles transliteration system for Chinese, and they are available in microfiche format in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. A project focussing on their conversion from microfiche to electronic format is ongoing.

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Example of a catalogue card in Wade-Giles transliteration with its corresponding collection item

After 1966, the Pinyin transliteration system was introduced, and has been used for Romanising Chinese metadata ever since. Material acquired continued to be catalogued on cards until 1993, when records started to be input electronically. The cards include records for about 50,000 items held in the Chinese collections which were acquired between 1966 and 1993.

In association with British Library Labs we recently launched LibCrowds, a platform that hosts experimental crowd-sourcing projects focused on enhancing access to British Library collections. The first project series, Convert-a-Card, is dedicated to the retro-conversion of Chinese and Indonesian printed card catalogues into electronic records, in order to make them available to a worldwide audience via our ExploreBL catalogue. This means that our readers will no longer need to come to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room to search holdings of Chinese items using the card catalogue and will instead be able to pre-order items online. We are currently using LibCrowds to derive metadata for printed material published after 1949 and catalogued using Pinyin Romanisation. You can read more about how the platform  works here. 4a pinyin card example4b pinyin corresponding item
Example of scanned card in Pinyin drawer 1 of Libcrowds, and the cover page of the corresponding collection item

At the time of writing, Convert-a-card has received 18,434 contributions by volunteers based in 27 different countries. However, there is still a long way to go and new contributors are always welcome, whether they are anonymous, or registered members of the LibCrowds community!

You can help us to uncover more and more Chinese items by contributing here.

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Example of  Convert-a-Card project on Libcrowds for the retroconversion of Pinyin drawer number 3


Sara Chiesura with Emma Goodliffe, Curators, Chinese collection

With thanks to Alex Mendes and Nora McGregor for developing LibCrowds
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06 October 2015

Women and the Vietnam War

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Surprisingly, a large number of women were directly engaged in the Vietnam War. On the American side, there is no precise figure for how many women were involved but it is estimated that between 5,000 and 11,000 took part in the war. The majority worked as nurses, whilst the rest had mostly clerical roles, or were involved in war journalism. However Vietnamese women took a much more active role in the war than their American counterparts and a good number were members of armed units and engaged in direct action against their enemy.

Traditionally, Vietnamese women were supposed to follow Confucian teachings. They were expected to observe chastity, to practise three submissions and obey three masters, namely their father, their husband and their eldest son. These obligations were followed by a long list of feminine ‘do’s and don’ts’. In work, they were expected to master cookery, sewing and embroidery but would not normally engage in reading and writing. In their physical appearance they were expected to dress in such a way that made them attractive to their husbands but not enticing to others ( Marr 1984: 192) – not an easy balance to strike.

The Girl and the Lotus Flower, 1943, oil painting by Tô Ngọc Văn (1906-1954).  The artist, who trained during the French colonial period, was the director of the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi under the Vietnamese Communist Party’s regime after 1945. He subsequently trained artists during the war against the French before he was killed by the French bombing in 1954. Việt Nam, 4(43), 1961, p.[12]. British Library, SU216

Mother and Son, 1957, silk painting by Nguyễn Phan Chanh. Nguyễn Phan Chanh abandoned silk painting during the Resistance War against the French and produced posters to support war efforts. He returned to his traditional painting after the Resistance War. Việt Nam, 7(46), 1961, p.[12]. British Library, SU216

However, these traditional dogmas for women were challenged from the beginning of the twentieth century. During this period women were recognised as part of the national polity, at least in theory, and concrete proposals were made for expanding their educational opportunities (Marr 1984: 200). From the 1920s women’s organisations were formed, and debates on women’s roles - both traditional and modern aspects - were discussed in the media and in literature. While the Vietnamese struggle against French colonialism increased in the 1930s, Nhat Linh, one of the leading intelligentsia and progressives, gave a new definition of filial piety. It no longer needed to signify blind obedience to one’s elders or the self-pursuit of family interests; it was more reasoned and noble and could serve as the wellspring of patriotism. (Ho Tai 1992: 254). On the other hand, non-Marxist attitudes toward women moved even further towards the right, and they glorified the ‘Heaven-determined function’ of women within the family (Marr 1984: 233).

Caught between these controversial arguments, the efforts of the Vietnamese Communist Party to reach out to women and recruit them into its auxiliary groups continued to be hampered by women’s dual burden at home and in society (Ho Tai 1992: 253). Nevertheless, they were successful in recruiting women to join the Party. As Mary Ann Tétreault (1996: 39) points out, ‘… Vietnamese revolutionaries did more than use gender as a code through which to discuss the penetration of their society by the French. They appealed directly to women to participate in the struggle to liberate their country, promising them in return equal political, social, and economic rights and status under a new regime. These appeals attracted women who felt oppressed by the old regime….  Vietnamese women seeking equality found revolutionaries to be the only group in their society willing to commit themselves to achieving it. It is not surprising that so many responded by joining the movement.’

During the Vietnam War years, Vietnamese women had to perform both traditional and new wartime roles as required by the Party. Hô Chí Minh himself encouraged Vietnamese women to extend their roles during wartime. He encouraged and praised women in the South who fought  against the US-supported regime and the US. Meanwhile, he urged women in the North to take part in fighting against the US  in order to save the country and to build socialism (Dương Thoa 1982: 38).

Produce and prepare to fight the war (Sản xuất và sẵn sàng chiến đầu) by Huy Oánh. Việt Nam, 101 (2), 1966, p[13]. British Library, SU216(2)

Reports war victory to the North (Báo tin chiến thắng ra mền Bắc). Việt Nam,  95(8), 1965, p[10]. British Library, SU216(2)

When the war was intensified after direct American involvement in the 1960s, Hanoi adopted the “three readies” policy  (ba  sẵn sàng) and asked the entire population to be ready to fight, to join the army and to go anywhere required by the Fatherland (60 years 2005: 149). Women actively took part in this policy and the “three undertakings movement” (Ba đảm đang). According to official figures, by the end of May, 1965, over 1.7 million women had signed up for the title of “Three Undertakings Woman” (60 years 2005: 151). They took up a wide range of tasks, from domestic roles to working in production in farming and in factories, in order to allow men to go to fight at the front line. They also took part in fighting as armed guerrillas or in the self-defence militia. Hô Chí Minh personally sent commendations to mothers who lost their sons in the war or made awards to women who fought the enemies.

After patrolling in the alert unit (Sau giờ trực chiến) by Phạm Văn Đôn. Việt Nam,  124 (1), 1968, 124 [18]. British Library, SU216(2)

Protect the Fatherland’s Sky (Bảo vệ bầu trơi tổ quốc) by Quang Phòng and Mai Văn Hiến. Việt Nam,  114 (3), 1967, p.9. British Library, SU216(2)

By the 1960s, Vietnamese women were shouldering a dual burden, at home and for the fatherland. They were commended by Hô Chí Minh on 20 October 1966 on the occasion of the anniversary of Women’s Association: “Vietnamese women bravely fight against the US ... from past to present, from the South to the North, from young to old, Vietnamese women are genuine heroes” (Dương Thoa 1982: 38).

Heart and barrel (Trái tim và nòng súng) by Huỳnh Văn. Việt Nam,  100 (1), 1966, [pp.15-16]. British Library, SU216(2)

Comrade Nguyễn Thị Định (Đồng chĩ Nguyễn Thị Định) by Huỳnh Phương Đông. Nguyễn Thị Định (15 March 1920-26 August 1992) arguably epitomised Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War. She was born into a peasant family in southern Vietnam. She joined the Viet Minh and was involved in the revolutionary movement and the fight against French colonialism in the 1940s. She was a founder member of the National Liberation Front, the first female major general to serve in the Vietnam’s People Army and one of the Deputy Chairmen of the Council of State from 1987 until her death. Việt Nam, 130 (7), 1968, front cover. British Library, SU216(2)

Further reading:

Việt Nam. Hanoi: Thông tấn xã, BL shelf mark: SU216, SU216(2)
Dương Thoa. Bác Hồ với phong trào phụ nữ Việt Nam. Hà Nội :Phụ nữ, 1982. (BL shelf mark:16651.e.24)
David G Marr. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945. Berkley: University of California Press, 1984.
60 years of the Vietnamese government 1945-2005.  Hanoi: VNA Publishing House, 2005. (BL shelf mark: OIJ 59704).
Hue Tam Ho Tai. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Mary Ann Tétreault. ‘Women and Revolution in Vietnam’ in Kathleen Barry, ed. Vietnam’s Women in Transition. London: Macmillan Press, 1996.

Sud Chonchirdsin, curator for Vietnamese   ccownwork

02 October 2015

The ‘Blood Moon’ in a Thai manuscript

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On Monday 28 September the media was full of reports and images of the so-called ‘blood moon’ seen in the early hours, caused by a full lunar eclipse.

This phenomenon was also described in a nineteenth-century Thai manuscript held in the British Library, Or.15760, probably dating from the time of King Rama IV (also known as King Mongkut) of Siam, who reigned from 1851 to 1868.  Rama IV was a passionate astronomer and astrologer, who actually died after catching malaria during an excursion to southern Thailand to watch a total solar eclipse that he had accurately predicted. In 2003, a newly discovered asteroid, 151834 Mongkut, was named in honour of King Rama IV and his contributions to astronomy.

In our manuscript, two types of ‘red moons’ are illustrated at the top of folio 25, together with a warning that following the occurrence of such a moon three bad things might happen: the price of rice may increase, robberies may take place, and there is even the prospect of war! The entire population, including governors and Brahmins (learned men) could suffer great hardship.

The manuscript, which contains illustrations together with astrological interpretations of various shapes of the sun, moon, planets, and clouds, has been fully digitised and can be viewed online here.  

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Illustrations of possible appearances of the moon. Tamra phichai songkhram (Divination manual for the prediction of wars and conflicts). British Library, Or.15760, f.25  noc

Further reading

Pattaratorn Chiraprawati, Divination au Royaume de Siam – le corps, la guerre, le destin. Paris and Geneva: Presses Universitaires de France, Fondation Martin Bodmer, 2011

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork
With thanks to Thanyarat Apiwong for help with the translation