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

Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum

Last week the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China opened at the British Museum. This exhibition documents the years 1400-1450, fifty years which saw the building of the Forbidden City and Beijing established as the capital city of China. It was also a time of intense diplomatic and cultural engagement with Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Some surprising exhibits on view resulting from cultural exchanges include the painting of a giraffe presented to the Yongle Emperor in 1414 as tribute by the Sultan of Bengal, Sayf al-Din Hamza Shah, and ‘The adoration of the Magi’, dating from c. 1495-1505, by the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna, depicting a Ming porcelain bowl. Equally exotic are two British Library 15th century Persian manuscripts, Add.16561 and Add.7759 copied in Shirvan and possibly in Herat on decorated paper exported from Ming China.

Prince entertained in a garden, the opening from an anthology of poetry produced in Shamakhi (Shirvan) in 873/1468, North Provincial Timurid style painting on Ming decorated paper (British Library Add.16561, ff. 1v-2r)

There were several missions exchanged between the Timurids and the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-24). After Timur's death, the first Chinese embassy to Shahrukh arrived in Herat in 815/1412. A second embassy arrived in Rabiʻ I 820/April 1417 with three hundred horsemen and gifts and presents sent by the Emperor of China consisting of falcons, brocades, velvets, silks, porcelain vessels and Chinese paper, etc. A third embassy reached Herat in Ramadan 822/October 1419 (see Thackston, p.279, citing the Persian sources Mujmal-i faṣīhī by Fasih al-Din Khvafi, and Maṭlaʻ-i saʻdayn  by ʻAbd al-Razzaq Samarqandi). Return missions also took place with the artist Ghiyas al-Din Naqqash, Baysunghur’s representative, keeping a detailed diary of his journey between December 1419 and August 1422 (see Thackston’s translation below).

Chinese paper was much valued by the Timurids and gave rise to a fashion for using coloured dyes and decorating with gold. It was regarded as good to write on. Slightly tinted paper was considered restful to the eye while dark colours suited coloured inks[1]. Add.16561, pictured below, is a collection of poetry by 12 different authors of the 14th and 15th century. It was copied in 1468 in Shirvan in present day Azerbayjan by Sharaf al-Din Husayn, a royal scribe, possibly at the court of the Shirvanshah Farrukh Yasar (1462-1501). The manuscript contains one double-page and seven single miniatures. The paper is highly polished and dyed different shades of pink, mauve and yellow/green, decorated with large flecks of gold.

Opening to the Dīvān of the 14th century poet Kamal Khujandi on highly polished gold flecked dyed paper. Copied by Sharaf al-Din Husayn Sultani, dated Shamakhi (Shirvan) at the beginning of Rabiʻ II 873/ Oct.1468  (British Library Add.16561, ff 2-3)

The second of the two manuscripts on display is Add.7759, the Dīvān of Hafiz, copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855/October 1451. Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation of which seven can be identified as containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The paper is coloured various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

A Chinese palace set against a background of mountains and lakes, with pine trees in the foreground (British Library Add.7759, f. 3r)

Facing pages of the Dīvān of Hafiz. Copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855/October 1451 (British Library Add.7759, ff. 60v-61r)

In her study of the New York Public Library Makhzan al-asrār (Spencer Persian 41), dated 25 Jumada I 883/24 August 1478, Priscilla Soucek demonstrated, by reconstructing several examples, that the decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of sheets which were painted before being cut up. A further example of the same feature can be seen in folios 17r and 10v below where the outlines of the mountains on the two pages are almost contiguous. As in the New York manuscript, the designs in Add.7759 are at right angles to the text.

Add7759_ff17r and 10v
Folios 17r (left) and 10v (right), formed from the same sheet of paper (British Library Add.7759)

Both Add.7759 and Add.16561 have now been fully digitized and will be published on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page during the next few months. This will hopefully allow a much needed detailed study to be made of the paper.

Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. An illustrated catalogue of the same title by the exhibition curators Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall is available from the British Museum shop.

Further reading

W. M. Thackston, “Report to Mirza Baysunghur on the Timurid Legation to the Ming Court at Peking” in A century of princes: sources on Timurid history and art. Cambridge, Mass, 1989, pp. 279-97

David J. Roxburgh,The Persian Album, 1400-1600: From Dispersal to Collection. Yale University, 2005, pp. 159-165

Priscilla Soucek, “The New York Public Library ‘Makhzan al-asrār’ and Its Importance, Ars Orientalis 18 (1988), pp. 1-37

Sheila S. Blair, “Color and Gold: The Decorated Papers used in Manuscripts in later Islamic Times,” Muqarnas 17 (2000), pp. 24-36

N. Titley, Persian Miniature Painting and Its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India: The British Library Collections. London, 1984, pp. 240-41


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

[1] Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi quoted by Qadi Ahmad, Calligraphers and Painters (tr. V. Minorsky), Washington, 1959, p. 113

26 September 2014

Ernest Cromwell Peake in China

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Among the papers of the Mervyn Peake Archive, which is held by the British Library, is a memoir by Mervyn’s father, Dr Ernest Cromwell Peake. Dr Peake was the first medical missionary to arrive in the region of Hankow, in Hunan province deep in inland China, where he spent the early years of the twentieth century.

The memoir has never before been published, but is now being brought into print by the British Library, making available a new eyewitness account of this crucial, revolutionary period in Chinese history. Dr Peake records his clear-eyed impressions of Chinese culture and politics – including the Boxer rebellion and the overthrow of the Imperial dynasty – while recording his experience of establishing a hospital to serve a people deeply hostile to Western medicine.

The memoir is introduced by Hilary Spurling, the renowned biographer, who explores the connections between Mervyn Peake’s childhood in China and his great Gormenghast novels.

This extract from Dr Peake’s memoir documents his experience of the 1911 Revolution in Hankow.

Leaving Kuling I took passage up-river to join the few doctors in Hankow who were organising aid to the wounded under the Red Cross. On our way we saw grim evidences of the struggle even before we reached our destination. As the steamer approached the city we passed the scene of a recent battle, the dead still lying on the river bank just as they had fallen. Fighting was going on at the time, the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns being plainly audible. Perhaps the most ominous thing of all was the dense column of smoke which ascended from the doomed city, showing that the Imperial troops had already succeeded in setting fire to its out-lying parts.

Hanow burning. Dr Peake’s photos of revolutionary violence, 1911. © 2014 the Estate of Ernest Cromwell Peake. Reproduced by permission.

The Concessions in Hankow were practically deserted by the foreigners; all the women and children, and many of the men, having escaped down river. But there were vast crowds of Chinese who had fled for refuge into the comparative safety of the foreign settlements. They looked dazed, and moved aimlessly along in an unending stream, carrying their babies and pathetic bundles, not knowing where to find shelter or safety.

In the narrow streets of the native city, which adjoined the British area, savage fighting was proceeding – shooting from the houses and around street corners. The situation in the Settlement was not a pleasant one; for although hostilities were not directed against us, bullets were flying freely all over, and anywhere in the open was dangerous.

I made my way through the stupefied crowds to the residence of a friend, and found that his place functioned as the hastily improvised Red Cross Headquarters. There were several doctors there, both British and American, and I received a warm welcome as an addition to the party. It’s wonderful what companionship will do in critical situations. I remember that we were a cheerful party, in spite of shells whistling over our heads and bursting in the streets. Many of the houses in the Concession were badly knocked about by shell-fire. Not that there was any intention to damage foreign property; but the opposing armies frequently fired at each other over our heads, and from bad marksmanship we were well peppered.

Hanow burning. Dr Peake’s photos of revolutionary violence, 1911. © 2014 the Estate of Ernest Cromwell Peake. Reproduced by permission.

That evening a large area of the native city was in flames. Viewed from the roof of the Post Office, one of the highest buildings in the Settlement, it was an appalling sight – one continuous line of fire, some three miles in length by about half a mile in width. On three successive nights we watched the conflagration spread, until it appeared that the whole city was aflame. The only hospitals in Hankow for Chinese patients were the Mission hospitals, and these being situated two on the outskirts of the native city and one in the Concession itself, were mercifully preserved. The furthest was three miles away. Anxiously each night we looked through our glasses, beyond the smoke and the flames, to see if the Red Cross flag was still flying from its roof. 

The hospital of the London Mission was only just beyond the Concession boundary. In an incredibly short time it was crowded with wounded. As the fire crept nearer, and the flames threatened the building, we became anxious about the patients lying helpless inside. It seemed only prudent to evacuate them while yet there was time.

There were 200 cases to be removed from the beds and floors of a building intended for 60. Having no place to which we could take them we were compelled to put them out in the road. So during the night, while doctors were still operating, stretcher-bearers carried them out and laid them on the pavement. Permission was then obtained from the American Episcopal Mission to use their large Church as a hospital ward. The wounded consequently were taken there. We made beds of the pews, turning them face to face and padding them with straw mattresses. They were safe from the fire there at any rate. But then our problems began. Feeding, nursing, sanitation, presented great difficulties. But the hospital staff, and voluntary helpers, rose to the occasion, and ways were found to carry on from day to day. Fortunately it was not for long. Soon after evacuation of the hospital a change in the wind had saved the building, the fire had stopped just short of it, and we were able to move our patients back.

 At this time, when the fighting was so fierce, the casualties were very heavy. They poured in faster than we could deal with them. Day and night the booming of the guns filled the air; and in the streets no man, woman, or child was safe from the rifle fire of the soldiers. Even going the short distance to the hospital was dangerous. I can recall now the ‘zip’ of a bullet as it whizzed past my ear and ricocheted off the brick wall at my side.

Peake in China is available now (hardback, £16.99, ISBN 978 0 7123 5741 8) through the British Library's online shop

Extract and photos copyright © 2014 the Estate of Ernest Cromwell Peake. Reproduced by permission.

18 September 2014

The Magic of Birds

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Our guest blogger Celia Fisher is an art historian and plantswoman who has written extensively on the history of plants in art. Her new book Magic of Birds is based on the collections at the British Library (published September 2014). Celia writes:

The Magic of Birds – my new book published by the British Library this month – ranges across time and continents, exploring the ways in which artists, poets, storytellers and explorers have depicted birds. Although the book is not entirely about birds from the East, they appear throughout. One chapter is devoted to the Eastern fables – including the search for the legendary simurgh – which gave Persian and Mughal artists the opportunity to depict gatherings of curious and beautiful birds. In the West the concept of the simurgh developed into the phoenix, but it was originally believed to be an inhabitant of the Far East, where it was depicted as an enormous pheasant. The techniques and mysticism of Chinese and Japanese album paintings are described at this point, and also spill over into other chapters. For instance ‘Decorative Birds’, as well as peacocks, includes a crane flying against the sun from a Japanese album, and a keen-eyed cormorant juxtaposed to those which twist around the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Page from Tennen hyakkaku, ‘Tennen’s one hundred cranes’ by Kaigai Tennen, Kyoto, 1900. Orb40/964 vol.3 f.17r.

The first chapter, entitled ‘Creation and Diversity’, begins with God creating the birds, travels through the discovery of new continents, and ends with Alfred Wallace’s descriptions of birds of paradise, which had been traded across Asia for centuries before they contributed to his theory of evolution. The chapter on ‘Freedom, Hunting and Captivity’ features the Mughal Emperor Babur with the bird-catchers of Kabul, as well as his ancestor Tamburlaine hunting peacocks; and contrasts two fierce-eyed hawks from a Japanese album, one flying free across the mountains, the other itself a tethered captive. When ‘The Symbolism of Birds’ is discussed, the use of cockerels for divination as well as food – and cockfighting – proves a world-wide phenomenon, but all domesticated poultry are descended from the red jungle fowl of central South East Asia. Their spread towards Europe and America happened surprisingly early, while China became the centre for developing rare breeds. Another widespread phenomenon is a fear of owls as birds of ill-omen, and in the chapter on that theme Dürer’s owl is set beside two horned owls perched on a ruined palace, discussing the fate of the Persian Emperor Anurshirvan’s troubled domains. On a lighter note, the section on ‘Winged Spirits and Messengers’ includes the hoopoe which acted as a messenger between Solomon and Sheba; the varied messenger pigeons bred by the Mughal Emperors; and the Hindu god Garuda flying to the rescue.

The crow deciding whether the owl should lead the assembly of birds. A miniature painting from Anvar-i Suhayli, a version of the Kalila va Dimna fables, India, 1610–11. Add. Or. 18579 f.210v.

Added to this sumptuously illustrated background of South Asian and Far Eastern beliefs relating to birds, there are many images and descriptions taken from the early European publications on the natural history of birds. These include the wonders of the East, hornbills and kingfishers, parrots and dodos, not to mention the birds of Australia, and they provide the balance of scientific bird illustration, alongside fascinating descriptions of bird behaviour and – once again – their relationship to humans, including humour.  

The Magic of Birds is available now (hardback, £20, ISBN 978 0 7123 5742 5) through the British Library's online shop.

16 September 2014

One-day Symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research

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One day symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Friday, 31 October 2014, 9.30-18.00

Or_2265_f066v_1000Khusraw and Shirin listen to stories told by Shirin's handmaidens. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting in Safavid Tabriz style c 1540s,  ascribed to Aqa Mirak (British Library Or.2265, f. 66v)

The British Library is holding a one-day symposium on the theme of digitisation and new research on its collection of Persian manuscripts, one of the most significant in the world in both size and importance. It is currently mid-way through a partnership project with the Iran Heritage Foundation and other supporters to convert catalogue records for Persian manuscripts into digital format as well as to digitise selected items from the Library’s vast collection with a view to making the data freely accessible online to readers worldwide. The main underlying objectives are to aid scholarship on the cultures and history of the Islamicate and Persianate world, and to help preserve this delicate material for posterity. Although only a small number of manuscripts have been digitised to date, the range is expected to grow over the coming years thanks to continued public and private funding.

Progress so far has already facilitated some exciting developments and discoveries. Join project members and scholars to explore the Library's Persian collections and find out more about recent research.


Booking will be available from Monday 22 September from British Library Events . Tickets include a light lunch and refreshments and are priced at £15, £12 (over 60s), £10 (concessions).


Dr Sâqib Bâburî, British Library
Two new sources for the study of Muḥammad Vājid ʿAlī Shāh in the William Irvine Collection

Dr Bruno De Nicola, University of St Andrews
Rashīd al-Dīn’s World History: manuscripts of Jāmi‘ al-tavārīkh in the British Library

Dr Walter N. Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY (USA)
Minimum taxable knowledge: the niṣāb genre of multilingual vocabularies in verse

Jeremiah Losty, British Library (Emeritus)
The artists of James Skinner’s Tashrīḥ al-Aqvām (British Library Add. 27255)

Dr Stephan Popp, University of Vienna
Horoscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahān

Dr Katharine Schofield, King’s College, London
The confluence of two oceans: Hindustani music in the British Library Persian collections

Dr Emily Shovelton, Independent Scholar
Margins of the Divine: the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan  (British Library Add. 27261)

Dr Eleanor Sims, Editor of Islamic Art and Independent Scholar
More from Mashhad? A recently re-discovered illustrated Shahnama manuscript of the 17th century

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, British Library
Niẓāmī through Digital Eyes: Observations on masterworks in the British Library


For further information: contact Dr. Sâqib Bâburî (