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

18 December 2014

The London Qazwini Goes Live

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In a previous blog (Fashion in 14th century Mosul) we wrote about three leaves loaned to an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London from the British Library's copy (Or.14140) of the Arabic treatise ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات), an encyclopaedic work on cosmology, generally referred to as Wonders of Creation, by Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī (c. 1203-83). This is the first work to deal with this subject in an exhaustive and systematic way in the Islamic world; it enjoyed great popularity and was translated into Persian and Turkish.

Fabulous giant bird illustrating the story of the how the man from Isfahan was rescued from a desert island and carried to safety by clinging to the bird's leg  (Or.14140, f. 39r)

I am delighted to announce that all 135 folios of Or.14140, containing 368 miniature paintings, have now been uploaded to the Qatar Digital Library, a project of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership to digitise the British Library’s Arabic scientific manuscripts (see Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library).

ʻAmr ibn al-ʻĀs, conqueror of Egypt in AD 640-42, advises on how to restore the waters of the river Nile. The brick structure in the water is a Nilometer, a device for measuring the water flow in the flood season (Or.14140, f. 62v)

There are very few early Arabic copies of this text, and this manuscript is thought to have been produced in Mosul at the very beginning of the 14th century. According to the undated colophon, it was copied from a manuscript copied by the author himself. The British Library purchased it from a London dealer in 1983. Originally, when the manuscript was produced in the 14th century, it was a bound codex. When it came into the library the manuscript had lost its binding, and the leaves were in such a bad condition that each one required extensive conservation. Each leaf was painstakingly conserved, individually encased in plastic sheeting and framed in a card mount. It is now stored in eight boxes. It took a dedicated conservator almost four years to complete this project. Although it is now mounted in separate frames, its original codex format is preserved in the digital version which can be read from beginning to end in one sequence.

Once it was in a fit condition for study, Dr Stefano Carboni was able to conduct exhaustive research of the manuscript’s artistic contents. He identified the subject matter of each painting, and placed the manuscript within the art historical traditions of its age.  His descriptions are available in his thesis and are due to be published as a book in 2015 (see Further reading).

King Solomon sitting on his throne surrounded by Jinns with angels above (Or.14140, f. 100r)

This treasure of the British Library’s Arabic manuscript collection, also known as the London Qazwīnī, is best known for its miniature paintings. Covering a wide range of subjects, including such things as wildlife, plants, legendary beasts, mythical figures and daily life, the illustrations show influence from Byzantine painting traditions and display aspects of fourteenth-century costume and architecture. The manuscript is also a fascinating source for historians of Islamic art, and folios are often requested for exhibitions in the UK and abroad. Now you don’t need to wait for an exhibition to see this fantastic manuscript.


Further reading

Stefano Carboni, “The London Qazwini: An Early 14th Century Copy of the ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt,” Islamic Art: An Annual Dedicated to the Art and Culture of the Muslim World 3, 1988-89, pp. 15-31.
—, “The Wonders of Creation and the Singularities of Ilkhanid Painting: A Study of the London Qazwini British Library Ms. Or. 14140,” Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1992. Download free from British Library Electronic Theses Online Services (ETHoS).
—, The 'Wonders of Creation': a Study of the Ilkhanid 'London Qazwini', Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2015.


Colin F. Baker, Lead Curator, Middle Eastern Studies

16 December 2014

The British Library and Shandong University sign a Memorandum of Understanding

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On Wednesday December the 3rd, a delegation from Shandong University visited the British Library. During a ceremony at the presence of the Director of Collections of the British Library, Caroline Brazier, and the President of Shandong University, Zhang Rong, a Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions was signed.

Zhang Rong (left), President of Shandong University and Caroline Brazier (right), Director of Collections of the British Library, sign the Memorandum of Understanding

Shandong University (山东大学Shandong Da xue) is a public university in the province of Shandong, with one of the largest students’ populations (about 60,000) in China, of which about 1.800 are international students. Shandong University offers master and doctoral degree programs in all major academic disciplines covering the humanities, science, engeneering and medicine. It was officially founded in 1901 in the city of Jinan as the Imperial Shandong University (山东大学堂 Shandong Da xue tang) and nowadays it comprises 8 campuses located in three different cities (Jinan, Qingdao and Weihai). Its notable alumni and professors are many. Among them, we find the German Professor and Nobel Prize for Physics Peter Grünberg and the Chinese novelist Mo Yan, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.

Zhang Rong (left), President of Shandong University, presents a gift from China

The British Library and Shandong University aim to cooperate in the future with cataloguing and the digitisation of especially important items held in the Chinese Collections at the British Library. These projects will form part of the Shandong University plan to publish selected titles and catalogues of rare books and manuscript collections of Chinese items in international libraries and institutions. They will be curated by the “Zihai” Editorial Centre of Shandong University in collaboration with the Asian and African Studies Department of the British Library. Prof. Zheng Jiewen and Prof. Liu Xinming, respectively Director and Deputy Director of the “Zihai” Editorial Centre, will work together with the curator of the Chinese section at the British Library in selecting the material for the project.

The delegation from Shandong University, together with the British Library representatives during the signature ceremony


Sara Chiesura, Asian and African Studies

12 December 2014

Early Chinese rhyme dictionary now on display at the British Museum

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The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China runs at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400-1450 when the Chinese empire reached a peak in its cultural and artistic production.  At the same time trade and exchange with other lands also flourished and the impact of Chinese culture was widely felt across Asia. 

By the time of the Ming Dynasty the interaction between China and Japan was already an ancient one.  For more than eight centuries official trade and diplomatic embassies had taken place between the two countries and many aspects of Japanese government, religion, philosophy, art and literature had been influenced by contacts with China.

Among the British Library items loaned to the British Museum’s Ming exhibition is Shūbun inryaku 聚分韻略, a rhyme dictionary to aid in the composition of Chinese poetry.  It was compiled by the celebrated monk-poet Shiren 師錬 (1278-1346), also known as Kokan 虎関, who resided at the Nanzenji 南禅寺 in Kyoto, the leading temple of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism.

The work has a preface by the compiler dated Kagen 4 [1306] and a postscript dated Tokuji 2 [1307].  The British Library’s copy belongs to an edition printed at the Reigen’an 霊源菴, part of the Tōfukuji 東福寺, a Zen temple in Kyoto, in Ōei 19 [1412].  This is the earliest dated edition of the work although copies survive of two undated but possibly earlier editions and a version of the work may have been published during the lifetime of the compiler (ie. pre-1346)[1].

End of preface of Shūbun inryaku , showing the date Kagen 4 嘉元丙午 [1306] and the name of the compiler Kokan Shiren 虎関師錬 (British Library Or.72.g.20 f. 6v-7r)

The use of Chinese characters or kanji 漢字 (literally ‘Han script’) was introduced to Japan in the 5th century and initially the Chinese language was the medium of written communication.  Later, systems were developed for representing the sounds and grammatical structures of the Japanese language:  man’yōgana, hiragana and katakana – all of which were based on Chinese characters.

Composition of Chinese poetry (kanshi 漢詩) was a popular pastime among the Japanese elite and the earliest anthology, the Kaifūsō 懐風藻 ‘Fond Recollections of Poetry’ was compiled in 751. It includes 120 poems by 64 different poets, many of them members of the Imperial Family or high-ranking courtiers.

The Shūbun inryaku is one of the earliest Japanese examples of insho (Chinese:yun shu 韻書, dictionaries of Chinese characters arranged according to rhyme and tone to assist in the composition of classical Chinese poetry.  Standard kanji dictionaries are organised according to a system of radicals reflecting the component parts of the individual character.  In Chinese rhyme dictionaries, the characters were first arranged by tone and then each of the four tones was divided into rhyme groups (Japanese: in, Chinese: yun ), traditionally named after the first character of the group.

The beginning of the Shūbun inryaku showing the first rhyme group headed by the character 東 (east).  The copious handwritten annotations in black and red show that this was a well-used reference work (British Library Or.72.g.20 f. 8v)

The compiler of the Shūbun inryaku, Shiren, entered holy order on Mt Hiei in 1287 at the age of 9.  In addition to Buddhism he also studied Chinese language and classics from the age of 17 and learned calligraphy from the famous Chinese monk Yishan Yining 一山 一寧 (1247-1317).  He rose through the Buddhist hierarchy to become abbot of the Tōfukuji and Nanzenji temples and in 1342 was accorded the eminent title of Kokushi 国師 ‘National Master’ by Emperor Go-Murakami, being subsequently known as Honkaku Kokushi 本覚国師.  In addition to an anthology of poetry called the Saihokushū 済北集, Shiren also wrote the Genkō Shakusho 元亨釈書, a 30-volume work completed in 1322 which is the oldest history of Buddhism in Japan, and Butsugo shinron 仏語心論, a treatise on the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

The growing importance of Zen Buddhism in Japan during the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1333-1573) Eras led to a renewed interest in Chinese culture.  Many Zen monks composed poetry and prose in Chinese and these works have come to be known collectively as Gozan bungaku 五山文学 or ‘Literature of the Five Mountains’.

The term ‘Five Mountains’ refers to the principal Rinzai temples - five in Kyoto and five in Kamakura  -which were both protected and controlled by the shogunate.  The system underwent a number of revisions until 1386 when the designated temples were the Tenryūji 天龍寺, Shōkokuji 相国寺, Kenninji 建仁寺, Tōfukuji 東福寺 and Manjuji 萬壽寺 in Kyoto and the Kenchōji 建長寺, Engakuji 円覚寺, Jufukuji 壽福寺, Jōchiji 浄智寺 and Jōmyōji 浄妙寺 in Kamakura.  The Nanzenji occupied a pre-eminent position above all ten.

The Gozan temples were the focus of printing activity in Japan during the 14th and 15th centuries when many Chinese works were reprinted.  Collectively these books are referred to as Gozan-ban or ‘Five Mountain Editions’.  Over 400 different works have been identified, the majority relating to Zen and other Buddhist sects.  However, 100 are non-Buddhist including Confucian texts and literary works.  They have a distinctly Chinese style since they were often reprints of Song or Yuan Dynasty editions or, in the 14th century at least, because the woodblocks from which they were printed had been carved by Chinese blockcutters who had crossed to Japan.  The British Library has some 30 Gozan-ban in its Japanese collection.  One of these, an edition of the Rongo 論語 or ‘Analects of Confucius’ (British Library ORB.30/171), printed c.1390-1450 is also included in the British Museum’s Ming exhibition.

Title page of Rongo 論語 or ‘Analects of Confucius’, printed c.1390-1450, showing handwritten Japanese glosses and marginal notes as well as the seals of previous owners (British Library ORB.30/171)

ORB 30-196 Kunshin koji
Kunshin koji
君臣故事 ‘Moral stories for sovereigns and subjects’, a guide to Confucian behaviour and one of the few illustrated Gozan-ban. c.1370 (British Library ORB.30/196)

Most of the British Library’s Gozan works, including the Shūbun inryaku, Rongo and Kunshin koji illustrated above, were acquired by the British Museum Library in 1884-1885 as part of the collection of the diplomat and bibliophile Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929).

Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.

Select bibliography

Carpenter Bruce E., 'Priest-Poets of the Five Mountains in Medieval Japan', in Tezukayama Daigaku ronshū, no. 16, 1977, Nara, Japan, pp. 1-11.

Gardner, Kenneth B, Descriptive catalogue of Japanese books in the British Library printed before 1700. London and Tenri, 1993.

Kawase, Kazuma, Kojisho no kenkyū 古辞書の研究. Tokyo 1955, revised edition 2007

Todd, Hamish A., ‘The Satow Collection of Japanese Books in the British Library: its History and Significance’ in Daiei Toshokan shozō Chōsenbon oyobi Nihon kosho no bunkengakuteki gogakuteki kenkyū  大英圖書館所蔵朝鮮本及び日本古書の文獻學的・語學的研究.  Toyama University, 2007)

Ury, Marian, Poems of the Five Mountains: An Introduction to the Literature of the Zen Monasteries, Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, No 10, 1992.


Hamish Todd, Asian and African Studies

[1] For more details see: Kawase, K. Kojisho no kenkyū, p.479.