Asian and African studies blog

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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

31 July 2014

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1)

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It has long been a tradition for Japanese to celebrate the night sky and the romance between Orihime (織姫 meaning ‘The Weaver Princess’) and Kengyū (牽牛 meaning ‘The Cowherd’) on the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. Since the Gregorian (solar) calendar was implemented as the official calendar in 1873, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month became the 7th of July.

Although Tanabata on the 7th of July has become increasingly commercialised, and events which heavily promote it as an especially romantic night for couples have proliferated in recent years, major popular star festivals tend to be celebrated around the 7th of August, i.e. one month later than the 7th of July. This is a compromise to keep regular annual events on the same date every year but bring the date as close as possible to the traditional night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month.  Strictly speaking, in the solar calendar the equivalent of this lunar date would change each year – in 2014 it would fall on the 2nd August. In this first part of a two-part post, we are going to explore the cultural side of the story of Tanabata, while in the second part we will take a scientific approach to identify the reasons for celebrating the festival on the date based on the traditional lunar calendar.

The festival as we know it today has evolved from three different cultural strands. The first is the Japanese old tradition of Tanabatatsume (棚機津女meaning ‘Weaving girl’); the second is the star story from China; and the third is Kikkōden (乞巧奠 meaning the ‘Festival of Wishing for Skills’), which was also introduced from China to Japan.

First of all, Tanabatatsume were specially chosen shrine maidens who dedicated themselves to weaving a holy cloth for Shintō deities in ancient Japan. It was possible to identify their prototype in Japanese mythology as the legend of virgins who served the Sun Goddess by weaving for her.

Kimono patterns with zodiac symbols. Shinsen o-hinagata (新撰御ひいながた New selection of fashionable patterns) [1667]. British Library,  noc

Secondly, the original Chinese star story reached Japan sometime during the 7th century. According to the legend, there was a boy and a girl who fell in love so deeply that they became blind to everything else such as their weaving and herding work. Unfortunately, there was no happy-ever-after for them. When they became separated by the Milky Way as a punishment for their negligence, they were sorry for their careless attitude, but it was far too late. However, the separated couple could not stop longing for each other. Eventually, they were allowed to meet each other once a year, reunited by crossing a bridge over the Milky Way made for them by magpies. Although the Weaver-Girl and Cowherd-Boy story has many variations, the basic plot is ‘boy meets girl’ and the origin goes back to the 6th century in China. Their names in Chinese are Zhinü (織女 literally ‘The weaver girl’) and Niulang (牛郎, literally ‘The cowman’), and the Star Festival is Qi xi (七夕).

Map of the stars in the Eastern sky. Shi jing zhuan shuo (詩經傳說), detail from a Qing dynasty illustrated version of the Classic of Poetry, 1727. Woodblock printed. British Library, 15266.a.2, vol. 1.  noc

Finally, the Kikkōden was believed to have been introduced from China to Japan before the star story. On the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, women prayed for improvement in their weaving and sewing abilities. Needlework and related skills were women’s work and accomplishments. After the legend of the stars was introduced into Japan, the two weaving girls, namely Tanabatatsume and Zhinü, were gradually merged together to become Orihime, and Kikkōden was transformed into the day for wishing on the Orihime star for better skills like hers.

In the next instalment of this blog post , we will examine why keeping the traditional (lunar) date for the festival makes more sense from the scientific point of view.

Star map © 2000-2005 Kym Thalassoudis. All rights reserved.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese collections


28 July 2014

Malay thoughts on the afterlife

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Several posts on the Asian and African Studies blog have highlighted a variety of perceptions of worlds to come, from Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell to Thai Buddhist depictions of future lives in manuscripts of the story of the monk Phra Malai. Reminders of the next world, dunia akhirat, are also found in Malay Islamic manuscripts, but painted with words rather than pigments, for there is no established tradition of illustration in Malay manuscripts.

Two Malay manuscripts in the British Library, Add. 12390 and Or. 6899, which have just been fully digitised, contain slightly variant versions of the Syair Makrifat, ‘Poem on Gnostic Knowledge’, concerning the need to strive in this life in order to reap rewards in the next. The Syair Makrifat is widely thought to be the work of the famous 17th-century Sufi writer and theologian Abdul Rauf from Singkil in north Sumatra, who studied in Mecca for many years before returning to Aceh to serve as Syaikh al-Islam to Sultanah Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah, the first queen of Aceh (r.1641-1675). However, Edwin Wieringa (2009: 19) has cautioned that Abdul Rauf never mentioned this poem as his own composition in his many other works of confirmed authorship, all of which are in prose.  

Syair Makrifat, a narrative poem on Islamic doctrine and the transience of worldly goods. The colophon shown above gives the date of copying as 24 Zulhijah, without specifying the year, and the name of the scribe and owner as Da’ut (wa-katibuhu Da'ut yang empunnya syair ini), with instructions to borrowers to take good care of the manuscript and to return it promptly. A scribbled note on f.1r has the date 1222 (AD 1807/8). British Library, Add. 12390, ff.22v-23r.  noc

The version of Syair Makrifat in Or. 6899 ends on f.24r, exhorting borrowers to take care of the book:
‘Mister Umar is the owner of this book / anyone may borrow it
please treat it gently / and don’t let the pages come loose from the stitching’
Encik Umar yang empunya / sekalian orang boleh meminjamnya /
baik-baik sedikit menaruhnya / jangan diberi bercerai akan jaitannya
This manuscript also contains a second poem, Syair Dagang, ‘Ballad of the Wanderer’, which uses the itinerant trader of this life as a metaphor for preparations for the next life.  As Wieringa points out, the two poems are good stablemates as both concern the need to eschew wordly goods and instead look towards the afterlife.  The copy of Syair Dagang in Or.6899, said to have been composed by a man of Melaka, is incomplete, ending abruptly on f.28r on a salutory note:
‘Gold is a formidable material / very dangerous to hoard
if we just relax our guard for just a minute / it can inflict pain worse than a poisonous snake’
Emas itu sangat berbangsa / menaruh dia sangatlah bisa
jikalau lengah kita semena / sakitnya terlebih ular yang bisa

Malay manuscript containing two poems, Syair Makrifat on ff.1v-24r, and Syair Dagang on ff.24r-28r. British Library, Or. 6899, ff.1v-2r.  noc

Although Malay manuscripts are not generally illustrated, manuscripts on Islamic mysticism and prayerbooks from Southeast Asia do sometimes have charts or drawings of the attributes of the next world.  A manuscript from Ambon in the Moluccas shown below, recently digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme, is in the form of a long scroll with detailed depictions of the stages of heaven, and similar Islamic manuscripts have been found in the southern Philippines. One manuscript from Mindanao annoted in Maranao portrays on one page the palatial mansion in heaven awaiting the woman patient enough to accept her husband’s taking another wife, while the facing page depicts the hovel in hell awaiting the woman who could not accept her husband’s second marriage  (Kawashima 2012: Fig.30).

Detail from a pictorial scroll depicting the heavens, from the collection of Said Manilet, Ambon.  Captions written vertically in the left margin give the name of each of seven gates (pintu), while a caption in the lower right margin describes these as the gates of heaven (ini pintu syurga). British Library, EAP276/9/17.

Further reading

Edwin Wieringa, ‘Syair berupa rintihan seorang penyalin tentang nasib malangnya: beberapa catatan mengenai BL Or. 6899 (Syair Makrifat dan Syair Dagang)’.  Kearifan lokal yang terkandung dalam manuskrip lama, penyunting Ding Choo Ming, Henri Chambert-Loir, Titik Pudjiastuti.  Bangi: Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu (ATMA), 2009; pp.15-30.

Kawashima Midori (ed.), The Qur'an and Islamic manuscripts of Mindanao.  Contributors Tirmizy E. Abdullah ... [et al].  Tokyo: Institute of Asian Cultures, Sophia University, 2012. (Monograph series; 10).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


23 July 2014

Malay letters from Bengkulu

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From the late 17th to the early 19th century, the most enduring British trading base in Southeast Asia was on the west coast of Sumatra at Bengkulu, referred to in contemporary English accounts as ‘Bencoolen’ and in Malay as ‘Bengkahulu’. After being ousted by the Dutch from Banten in west Java in 1682, the English East India Company established a ‘factory’ or trading post at Bengkulu in 1684, which lasted for nearly 150 years until it was exchanged for Melaka under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London in 1824.  

The history of the British presence in Bengkulu is recorded in 162 thick red leather-bound volumes of ‘Sumatra Factory Records’, held today in the India Office Records in the British Library. The story is a desultory one, for the hoped-for fat profits from pepper never materialised and the factory suffered from poor crop yields and even worse administration. Events are almost entirely reported from the English point of view, but very occasionally original Malay sources have survived, which help to give us a local perspective.  

Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, showing the Government House and Council House.  Coloured aquatint with etching; drawn by Andrews, ca.1794-98; engraved by Joseph Stadler; published by William Marsden, 1799. British Library, P 329.  noc

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library recently digitised is a letter (Add.2828*) sent to the commander of the 'Company' in Bengkulu, at the time Richard Farmer. Although the letter is undated and written in the name of Datuk Raja Kuasa, it is annotated in a contemporary English hand From Sultan Cutchell / No.213 / Janry 14. 1718, identifying the sender as Sultan Kecil Muhammad Syah of Anak Sungai (r.1716-1728) (Kathirithamby-Wells 1977: 37). The writer assures the English of his good will and acknowledges the glue of the relationship – a shared interest in trade – but also refers to the slanderous rumours swirling round on all sides. As the letter is quite short, it will be reproduced in full below, with the Malay text followed by an English translation. In line with Malay epistolographic conventions, the letter starts with a religious invocation or heading (kepala surat).  

Qawluhu al-haqq
Bahawa ini alamat surat tulus dan fu(ad) ikhlas serta putih hati sel(agi) ada peridar cakrawala bulan dan matahari akan menerangi malam dan siang {dan siang} tiada berubah kepada Kompeni, iaitu dari pada Datuk Raja Kuasa, barang sampailah kiranya kepada Orang Kaya Komandar Bengkahulu. Adapun seperti hal mengatakan surat Orang Kaya sudah sampai kepada hamba, mengeratilah hamba seperti dalam surat Orang Kaya Komandar itu kata pada hamba jangan mendangar feritnah [i.e. fitnah] itupun hamba tiada bercarai dangan Kompeni, bicara hamba dan setia hamba tiada berubah pada Kompeni, karena Kompeni dagang kami pun Melayu dagang sama2, kita malu juga jikalau dibuwang kita sama2 malu dagang kita itupun jikalau kerja raja2 tiada hamba tahu dan tiada hamba peduli pada bicara raja itu, jangan Komandar mendangar feritnah orang lain kata surat hamba yang di{a}dangar oleh Orang Kaya.  Lagi kata Komandar dahu(lu) kepada hamba berkirim surat pada hamba juru tulis hamba diberi belanja empat rial sebulan sekarang satu pun tiada malu hamba kepada kata itu yang menyurat itu dari Bengkahu(lu) juru tulis anak hamba Encik Beruruk.  Jikalau kan diberi belanja suruh hantar pada m.l.l.a.d.w k.a.t.a.h.n pada hamba ke Pangatang tamat, jikalau ada tiada suruh tamat.

His Word is The Truth
This is an honest letter from a sincere and pure heart, and as long as the moon and sun revolve and light up night and day never shall it waver towards the Company, from Datuk Raja Kuasa, may it be conveyed to the Noble Commander at Bengkahulu.  I have received your letter and understood its contents, whereby you advise me not to pay any attention to the slander, and I assure you I will never be parted from the Company, my word and my loyalty remains firmly pledged to the Company, for the Company is for trade and we Malays too are equally for trade, we would be ashamed to break off relations, for our trade would equally suffer; if that is the decision of the princes then I know nothing of it, and neither will I heed it, so I beg the Commander not to listen to the slander in the letter said to have been written by me which has come to your attention.  Furthermore the Commander had previously informed me in writing that my scribe would be paid four rial per month, and I find nothing to be ashamed of in that, the one who wrote the news from Bengkulu was my scribe Mister Beruruk.  If you are planning to send the payment please send it to …. to me at Pangatang; the end.  But if not, not; the end.

Malay letter from Datuk Raja Kuasa (Sultan Kecil of Anak Sungai) to Richard Farmer, Deputy Governor of Bengkulu, recd. 14 January 1718. British Library, Add. 4828*, f.2v.  noc

The letter was not placed in an envelope, but was folded with the address written on the outer side (Bahawa ini alamat surat dari pada Datuk Raja Kuasa barang sampailah kiranya kepada Orang Kaya Komandar Bengkahulu), and closed with a red wax seal. The letter was presented to the British Museum in 1767 by Mrs Rust, daughter of Governor Farmer. British Library, Add. 4828*, f.1r (detail)   noc

A number of early Malay letters from Bengkulu are known, scattered through the  Sumatra Factory Records or held in other institutions; none of the others  have yet been digitised, but all are listed below for reference.

Malay letters from Bengkulu to the East India Company (up to 1763)

1.     Letter from Tunku Baginda Raja Makota of Anak Sungai to the Orang Kaya Jenderal [Joseph Collett] in Bengkulu, [ca.1712-16]. Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk Record Office, 613/841. (Gallop 1994: 121).
2.     Letter from Datuk Raja Kuasa [Sultan Kecil] to Orang Kaya Komandar [Richard Farmer] in Bengkulu, [recd. 14 Jan 1718]. British Library, Add.4824*
3.    Letter from Pangiran Mangku Raja and Pangiran Sungai Hitam to the East India Company in Bengkulu, 17 April 1724. British Library, IOR: G/35/8, f.568A. (Bastin 1965: 57).
4.    Letter from Sultan Gandam Syah of Muko-Muko to the East India Company, [Sept. 1733]. British Library, IOR: G/25/8, f.577. (Gallop 1994: 129).
5.     Letter from Pangiran Mangku Raja and Pangiran Khalifah Raja to the East India Company at Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, Nov 1733. British Library, IOR: G/35/8, f.369. (Bastin 1965: 59-60).
6.     Letter from Raja Mengkuta and Raja Gelumat and the 59 perbatin (perbatin yang kurang esa enam puluh) to the Governor of Bengkulu, [early 18th c]. Cambridge University Library, Add.285, no. 63.
7.    Letter from Pangiran [Makota] Raja of Silebar to Governor Roger Carter, 6 June 1763. British Library, IOR: G/35/13, f.58

Further reading

John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra.  Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965.
A.T. Gallop, The Legacy of the Malay Letter / Warisan Warkah Melayu.  London: British Library, 1994.
J. Kathirithamby-Wells, The British West Sumatran Presidency (1760-85): problems of early colonial enterprise.  Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit University Malaya, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia