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

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.  

Blood moon or_15760_f025r
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

30 September 2015

An Artist’s Journey: Inspired by Persian Manuscripts

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Today's guest post is by London-based Anita Chowdry, a visual artist, academic researcher and educator, with a long and varied practice that spans three decades. Her current sphere of interests includes an holistic approach to maths, geometry, mechanics and the history of philosophy and technology, and the impact of these disciplines on the development of our aesthetic sensibilities. 

A major area of Anita’s practical research is about painting and illumination in the book arts of the Middle East and India. As a highly skilled practitioner, Anita began her formative training in this genre in 1992 with an hereditary Rajput master in Rajasthan, India, and went on to continue her research at  some of London’s major museum collections. She lectures and runs specialist workshops on the subject at major institutions in Britain and abroad. Alongside her research interests Anita runs a successful creative practice, with disciplines ranging from manuscript illumination techniques to large scale sculptural installations.

Anita's work can be viewed on her website. She also posts regularly on her blog.

Looking at manuscripts in the British Library

My first experience of enjoying an elite manuscript close-up was in 1998, in the conservation studios of what were then the Oriental and India Office Collections at Orbit House Blackfriars, before the collection was moved to its current home at St. Pancras. A senior conservator, the late John Holmes, invited me to the studio to look at the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, Or.12208. I already owned and enjoyed Barbara Brend’s illustrated monograph on the manuscript, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami (British Library, 1995), but nothing can prepare you for the sheer sensuous pleasure of experiencing such a manuscript at first hand. Such was my elation at the time that I wrote extensively about it in my sketchbook: “It is one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I have ever seen... my first reaction is to the quality of the paper... exquisitely fine and tinted brown, burnished till it shines like silk...and the perfect line rulings – lamp-black filled with the palest malachite or shining gold – that divide the columns of beautiful Nastaʻliq script...”.

An illuminated chapter-heading from the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, copied between 1593 and 1595, with two mythical birds (simorghs) (Or.12208, f. 285v)

The manuscript contains some of the finest examples of early Mughal illustration, dense and animated in the distinctive fusion style of Akbar’s workshops, but what caught my imagination most were the supplementary marginal designs, which along with passages of formal illumination have only recently begun to be the subject of serious academic study.

Another comparably sumptuous copy of Nizami's Khamsa, Or.2265, with visionary illustrations that express a vibrant literary heritage, was produced some years earlier in the workshops of the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524-76). Both manuscripts are now freely available as high resolution digital manuscripts (click on the hyperlinks to get to the digitised images), a wonderfully useful resource for artists and researchers because you can zoom in to study their details at leisure.

Detail of “the Prophet’s ascent” attributable to Sultan Muhammad, part of Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami (Or.2265, f. 195r)

In the image above the detail of the exquisitely painted other-worldly entities (peris) amongst swirling clouds exemplifies the qualities that make these manuscripts such an enduring source of inspiration to me.  The illustration is like sublime music or mathematics, in which classic design elements like the Chinese strap-clouds are given free expression without ever compromising their formal structure of expanding and diminishing reciprocal curves. Passages of visionary illustration like this are closely linked to the masterful marginal decorations that enrich every page of both manuscripts.

Detail of marginal design with formalized clouds, simorghs and dragons from Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami  (Or.2265 f. 42r)

Most of the margins are of the Shekari or hunting genre, executed in 24 carat gold pigment, with some details picked out in a greenish-gold alloy, or in silver, which has long since patinated to black. They feature intertwining vignettes of real and fantastic beasts interacting in rocky and jungle landscapes: the Persian Phoenix or Simorgh, a fabulous oversized bird with streaming tail-fathers, engaged in having altercations with dragons; snow-leopards in every conceivable contortion stalking wild goats, flocks of cranes performing aerobatics amongst Chinese strap-clouds, and some rather carnivorous-looking bovines snarling at predators. These enchanted worlds, where myth merges with the real, seem to have been created loosely and spontaneously, with compositions that flow like poetry – later schools of illumination never quite achieved the same fluency, and look stilted by comparison. 

Following my formative years in the early ‘90s as a friend and pupil of a master painter in India, the late “Bannu”, who had generously shown me many of his hereditary secrets in miniature painting and the use and preparation of traditional mineral pigments, my experiences with these great manuscripts inspired me to refine my technique and to develop a light fluid hand and sense of movement in my work. A commission from a passionately creative collector provided me with an opportunity to explore illuminated and border elements as a detached, contemplative composition in the painting below.

Nautilus copy_1500
Nautilus commissioned by Lionel de Rothschild, 2008. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

Geometry is at the core of most illuminated design – and my reference to the Fibonacci spiral in the work is intentionally unequivocal. Taking the concept of natural geometry a step further, it struck me that in Sultan Muhammad’s visionary clouds and in his distinctive treatment of elements such as rocks, flames, and magical beasts, he worked with an intuitive sense of fractal geometry, some four hundred years before Benoit Mandelbrot’s ground-breaking realization of its existence as a mathematical entity. This inspired me to experiment with pure shapes digitally generated in the Mandelbrot and Julia Sets, in the context of classical Persian design. The images below are from a series of brush drawings exploring this concept.

Julia Dragons_1250
Illuminated Julia Dragons
– hand rendered elements from the Julia set masquerading as dragons and strap-clouds. Private collection of Najma Kazi. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

Can I take you there? (Demon on a rickshaw bound for the Mandelbrot set), brush drawing with pigment and gold. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

To my mind, there is an interesting correlation between the ambiguous imagery of fractals, and the many layers of meaning in the verses of Persian literature. Both hover somewhere beyond the realm of everyday experience, hinting at a partial existence in some other dimension. I am particularly drawn towards the mythical entities that punctuate the imagery in Persian manuscripts, because according to tradition, the dragons, demons and angels depicted as adjuncts to the texts exist on elemental planes unseen by humans. They were created by God out of “smokeless fire” (Qur'an, Sura 15:27) to exist in a hidden world parallel to ours. 

My current preoccupation is with another sublime manuscript in the British Library’s oriental collections, Or.11846, created in Shiraz in the fifteenth century for the Turcoman prince Pir Budaq. The opening carpet pages display virtuoso rigour in design and execution which paradoxically creates an overall impression of quirky other-worldliness. The Chinese strap-clouds that undulate around the inner border are fairly restrained, but they do display a certain eccentricity, as does the intricate web of arabesques that covers all available space against a rich lapis lazuli ground. The energy and tension of this work has haunted me since I first saw it.

CanvasDivan of Hafez Saʻd copied for Pir Budaq, 1459 (Or.11846, detail of f. 1v)

My initial approach is to try to understand the underlying structure of the design, and the distinctive “handwriting” with which the elements are drawn. Untitled-2
Sketchbook studies of design structure in opening pages of Or.11846. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

The next stage is to draft out the design, and to start blocking in the gold, followed by the other colours, in what I think is the same sequence as that used by the original master. This process is not about slavish copying, but about learning empirically from the source. Part of the journey is to try to analyse and prepare the mineral colours to a comparable quality, and to gain an intuitive sense of the original intention of the design.

Starting work on the Pir Budaqi illumination. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

I do not know how exactly this work will develop or where this journey will take me. I have a sense that it wants to expand into another dimension, breaking out of the confines of its rigid structure. For me, the whole point of being an artist is to be on a continuous voyage of discovery, and to let the things that inspire you carry you along on their own momentum. I believe that it is through connections such as this that masterpieces of manuscript art transcend their original context and continue to enrich our experience today.

Anita Chowdry, Artist