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

03 February 2016

Exploring Thai art: James Low

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James Low was one of the first Europeans to visit the Andaman sea coast of Thailand, stretching from Phuket to the Malaysian border, which is nowadays one of the great tourist destinations of the world. Low’s mission took place in his line of duty as an officer of the English East India Company based at Penang.

Detail from a drawing depicting the reception of James Low by the son of the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat) in 1824. Drawing attributed to “Boon Khon”. The use of a Western perspective as in the depiction of the chairs was unusual in Thai art of the early 19th century. British Library, Add. 27370, f.18  Noc

Born on 4 April 1791 at Causland in Scotland to Alexander Low and his wife Anne Thompson, Low graduated from Edinburgh College and was then nominated for a cadetship in the East India Company’s Madras Army in 1812. He was accepted and embarked from Portsmouth on the East Indiaman Astell, which reached Madras in July 1812. During the first five years, Low acquired military competencies and language skills. The Company’s policy was that their officers had to be capable of basic communication with the Indian soldiers under their command. In May 1817 Low was appointed Adjudant, and then promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in August of the same year. In January 1819 Low moved to the East India Company’s settlement in Penang and spent the rest of his career in and around the Straits of Malacca. In 1820 he was given command of the Penang Local Corps until the corps was disbanded in 1827.

Since Low had received a mathematical and philosophical education at Edinburgh College, he nurtured an interest in the study of languages. The posting to Penang offered the opportunity to acquire language skills in both Malay and Thai. The knowledge of Thai was particularly important in the light of events on the Malay peninsula, to which the Burmese had sent their last military expedition against Siam, directed at its west coast territories. Subsequently, the British at Penang found themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Siamese Governor, known as the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat), and the Sultan of Kedah, who had fled to Penang instead of providing the support which had been requested from him by the Raja of Ligor.

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Drawing by James Low of a village with pagodas in Martaban (Mottama in Mon State, Burma) 1825. RAS 027.012. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Charley, Royal Asiatic Society

Low’s was the second mission to Siam, following John Crawfurd’s first mission that was mainly concerned with resolving the legal status of Penang. The second mission of 1824 under Low’s command was prompted by the British declaration of war on Burma. Its aim was to enlist the support of the Raja of Ligor, who was in command of most of the Siamese territories on the west coast of the peninsula including Kedah, for the planned British move up the Irrawaddy river. Low described the events of the mission in a report on his Public Mission to His Highness the Rajah of Ligor, and in more detail in his Journal of a Public Mission to the Rajah of Ligor. Low also produced a map of Siam, Cambodia and Laos. After his mission to Ligor, he was posted to Tenasserim where he produced more maps and landscape drawings. In 1826, Low was promoted to Captain and was sent on other missions to the Malay state of Perak. Shortly after, he was appointed Superintendent of Lands in Province Wellesley in Penang, a post he held until 1840 when he was made Assistant Resident of Singapore. He finally retired in 1845 but returned to Edinburgh only in 1850, where he died just two years later.

Although Low's main responsibility as an officer of the East India Company was to settle disputes with local chiefs in the interests of the British – a task he did not always succeed in fulfilling – he was also a pioneer in the study of Thai language, literature and art by Westerners. The lack of textbooks inspired him to produce a Grammar of the Thai or Siamese language (1828), and he published a collection of works On the government, the literature, and the mythology of the Siamese (1831-36) as well as articles on Thai Buddhist art, Buddhist law, local histories and ethnic minorities of the Malay peninsula. He also studied inscriptions and translated parts of Thai Buddhist scriptures, and the Malay historical text from Kedah, Merong Mahawangsa. Low’s ability to observe and then describe in detail a variety of aspects of Thai art and culture helped to make his mission journal an interesting source for the study of everyday life and cultural practices in 19th century Siam.

Copy of a Thai zodiac in Thai manuscript painting style of the 19th century. Artist unknown. British Library, Add. 27370, f.14 Noc

Another version of the Thai zodiac shown above this one, with added background landscapes in Chinese watercolour technique. Probably by the artist “Boon Khon”. British Library, Add. 27370, f.15 Noc
Low clearly had a strong interest in Thai art, and amassed an impressive collection of fine paintings and drawings from southern Thailand. These included rare copies from a Thai Buddhist cosmology associated with a Thai text, Traiphum, which is thought to date back to the 14th century. Other subjects of these artworks are the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, illustrations from Thai divination manuals and zodiacs, as well as depictions of Low’s reception in Ligor, genre scenes, and of religious artefacts. Several of the drawings contain a note in English in Low’s handwriting that they are copies by a Siamese artist from original manuscripts, and to one pencil sketch of three Chinese gods Low had added in ink the note “Boon Khon delint” (copied by Boon Khon). On another pencil drawing of a vase, the artist is named as Sayid Nuh, his title indicating a person of Arabic origin, a descendant of the Prophet.

Impression of a Rajamukha wheel, which is used in Thai and Malay divination. Attributed to “Boon Khon”. British Library, Or.14179 Noc

Unfortunately, not all of the artworks bear the name of an artist, but it is believed that most of these are copies from Thai manuscripts by the artist “Boon Khon”, who Low said was “a Siamese”. However, the fact that chairs, musical instruments and round objects are shown in Western perspective – something unusual in Thai art of the first half of the 19th century – and that certain features of plants, landscapes, architectural ornaments and faces of the figures appear rather Chinese in style than Thai, suggest that the artist mentioned as “Boon Khon” was probably a Chinese painter who may have acquired some drawing skills from Low himself. A comparison of pencil drawings by Low, now held at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, and works attributed to “Boon Khon” show some striking similarities, especially when it comes to details like plant features. Some of the coloured drawings showing the same motif were made in different styles and techniques, suggesting that artists copied from each other. There may actually have been a third artist - one who was skilled in Thai painting techniques - who worked for Low or who trained “Boon Khon” to copy paintings from Thai manuscripts.

Part of a painting of Buddha’s Last Ten Birth Tales, probably by the artist “Boon Khon”, depicts scenes from the Candakumara Jataka and Bhuridatta Jataka. The faces and breasts of the Naga princesses at the bottom, but also the gable and roof of the building at the top, are untypical for Thai manuscript painting. Some trees and tufts of grass have similarities with plants in pencil drawings made by Low. The lotus plants at the bottom are similar to lotuses drawn by “Boon Khon” as part of a Buddha footprint, reprinted in Low’s article “On Buddha and the Prabat” (1835). British Library, Add. 27370, f.12 Noc

Part of Low’s collection of Thai drawings and paintings was acquired by the British Museum in 1866 from Alan White Esquire, and is now held in the British Library. Most of the artworks have been digitised and are available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer (Add MS 27370). Another part of Low’s art collection, including several of his own drawings, is held in the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Although not much research has been done on Low’s art collection, it is a popular source of inspiration for Thai designers.

Some designs for children’s shirts marketed in the early 2000s by Ayodhya, a Bangkok-based home decorative brand, used paintings from Low’s collection for inspiration. British Library, ORB.Misc/171

Further reading

Charley, Nancy. James Low in Thailand and Burma.
Farouk Yahya. Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden, 2015 (see pp. 128/9 on the Rajamukha wheel)
Farrington, Anthony (ed.). Low’s mission to Southern Siam 1824. Bangkok, 2007
Ginsburg, Henry. Low in Thailand. The James Low album of paintings. FMR (Franco Maria Ricci) No. 13, 1985, pp. 125-140
Ginsburg, Henry. Thai manuscript painting. London, 1989 (see pp. 15 and 25 on Low’s collection)
Low, James. Extracts from the Journal of a Political Mission to the Raja of Ligor in Siam. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal No. 79, July 1838.
Low, James. On Buddha and the Prabat. Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society No. 3, London 1835, pp. 57-124

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

My thanks to Nancy Charley for providing photographs of artworks in the Low collection at the Royal Asiatic Society, and to Annabel Gallop and Farouk Yahya for their advice on Malay manuscript painting.

29 January 2016

‘Spying’ on 100 Black Men of London: A Ceremony of Learning

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Spying? Not really. Let me explain. I am one of a team of educators at the British Library who deliver workshops for school and community groups. Shortly before Christmas, The 100 Black Men of London - a community-based charity - brought a large group of black youths to the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. They had organised their own workshop and were using the British Library’s Learning Centre to feedback and share their learning.

This is what I suddenly glimpsed through the glass sections of the connecting doors between the learning rooms: boys taking turns to stand before their peers, to present and share their new knowledge gleaned from the exhibition.
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The group from 100 Black Men of London in the British Library’s Learning Centre.

I was transfixed, for it seemed to me they were reclaiming ground, making the newly-acquired knowledge about their ancestral place of origin their own. They spoke with pride and developing confidence and were clapped each in turn. I was deeply moved.

Olu Alake, of 100 Black Men of London, writes about the visit: ‘Our group of almost 60 young people and some of their parents found the exhibition very enlightening and empowering. It was for instance very gratifying that by the end of that very day, one of our youth groups had changed their WhatsApp group image to one of the adinkra symbols for leadership which they had seen in the exhibition!’ This, for me, is essential use of a brilliant exhibition, and an opportunity for the British Library to build community.

Section of a hand-stamped textile on display in the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, showing adinkra symbols from Ghana. Some panels show the King’s symbol (adinkrahene) composed of three concentric circles, signifying leadership and greatness. Ghana, 1960s. British Library.

The education workshops we have delivered to varying school groups, as part of the West Africa exhibition programme, have been well received. We engage students through creative research, critical thinking, art, discussion and even song-making. We offer a unique opportunity for students to learn from the wide range of artefacts, written material, textiles, films and music that relate to West Africa in ‘word, symbol and song’.

DSC01864 (Credit Tony Antoniou)
View of the first section of the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, which illustrates the Mali empire, founded in the 13th century. © Tony Antoniou

West Africa historically, and today, plays an integral role in understanding the forces that shaped and continue to shape the world we live in, yet many of the students we have worked with appear to have little knowledge of the topic. At the start of one session recently, eight-year-old children came out with statements such as ‘All Africans are poor’ and ‘They were all slaves’. The exhibition workshops provide a really important platform for open and honest discussions to explore and challenge stereotypes.

The group lined up for a photo with the mega-exhibition poster behind them.

In my view, the importance of this inspiring exhibition as a source of learning for children and adults of all ages cannot be overstated. It is expansive as well as beautifully detailed, celebratory in history and culture, and a joy to work with. My thanks to the curators and all The 100 Black Men of London who gladdened my heart and brought tears to my eyes, even though they did not know I was watching them.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song continues until 16 February 2016. For more information on the British Library’s learning programme and workshops accompanying the exhibition, visit

Visit to gain insights into West Africa’s fascinating heritage through unique collection items and teaching resources.

Jean Campbell
Workshop Leader, British Library Learning Team Ccownwork

25 January 2016

The British Library’s Collection of Chinese Propaganda Posters: An Overview

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And so my three months are up and I have completed the project: to compile and research a catalogue of the British Library’s Chinese propaganda posters. So what have I found out? Well, in the collection there are 90 individual items, considerably more than we believed there would be at the outset. The posters date from between 1950 and 1982, with the vast majority having been published in the mid-1960s, just before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), largely thanks to a couple of sets of what I have loosely described as ‘public information’ posters, dating from 1965. One set deals with what to do in the event of an enemy air raid, and the other with meteorological and agricultural observations.

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A detail from Qiang jiu shou shang ren yuan (抢救受伤人员), ‘Rescuing injured personnel’, from a set of wall charts (Ren min fang kong chang shi gua tu, 人民防空常识挂图, ‘People's Air Defence General Knowledge Wall Charts’), compiled by Tianjin shi ren min fang kong wei yuan hui (天津市人民防空委员会), the Tianjin People's Air Defence Committee, and published by Tianjin mei shu chu ban she (天津美术出版社), the Tianjin Fine Art Publishing House, in July 1965. British Library, ORB.99/79 (14).

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A detail from Qi xiang zhi shi (si). Yu qing he shang qing (气象知识 (四). 雨情和商情), ‘Meteorological knowledge 4. Rainfall and soil moisture content’, from a set of wall charts (Qi xiang zhi shi gua tu (gong xiao xing zhan lan), 氣象知識挂图 (供小型展览), Wall chart of meteorological knowledge (for small scale exhibitions)’, compiled and published by Tianjin shi ke xue pu ji xing xiang zi liao she (天津市科学普及形象资料社), ‘Tianjin popular science image resource group’, in February 1965. British Library, ORB.99/87 (4).

Overall the poster collection covers a range of genres, from new nian hua and revolutionary romanticism – a fusion of socialist realism and guo hua brush and ink painting – to photographic portraits. I have categorised them according to a number of different themes:

•    Posters related to the Mao cult, including colourised and heavily airbrushed photographic portraits of Mao Zedong dating from the late 1960s, and several examples of his calligraphy (and poetry).
•    A series of posters featuring chubby babies and children, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s, several of which promote the one child policy.
•    Revolutionary nian hua prints, dating from the early years of the People’s Republic, and which I looked at in depth in my last blogpost.
•    A set of posters featuring the ubiquitous and (probably) semi-mythical soldier-hero Lei Feng (雷锋) and which eulogise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
•    A fairly rare set of posters featuring satirical caricatures of the ‘Gang of Four’ (si ren bang, 四人邦), the group headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and which was blamed for the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976.
•    The aforementioned sets of public information posters dating from 1965.
•    Documentary and feature film posters - the Library’s collection seems fairly unique in this respect; these are not something I’ve seen in large quantities in other collections.
•    Posters featuring scenes taken from the revolutionary model works (yang ban xi, 样板戏), including ‘The White Haired Girl’ (Bai mao nü, 白毛女), ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’ (Hong deng ji, 红灯记) and ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (Hong se niang zi jun, 红色娘子军).

While copyright implications have stymied the original plan to digitise the collection and make it publically accessible online, the catalogue – minus images – will shortly be available to download as a PDF from the new Chinese collection webpages.

Over the last three months I have had an absolutely fantastic time. It’s been a great experience to work at the Library and I was made to feel very welcome. The project has provided me with plenty of research material for the future, and what a privilege it was to get hands-on with the collection!
All that remains is for me to thank Professor Robert Bickers and BICC for funding the project and Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, curators of the Chinese collection at the British Library for hosting me.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral researcher  Ccownwork