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

26 February 2015

The truth about the Japanese doll festival

Add comment Comments (0)

Looking back to the late 90’s, “Girl Power” created a great sensation in the UK pop music industry. These pop idols are grown up now and no longer proudly shout their catchphrase “Girl Power”. Their time in the 90’s has become a rather nostalgic topic to reminisce about. On the other hand, there is a long surviving tradition in Japan for girls to celebrate being girls. Nowadays, 3rd March is a day to celebrate a girl’s well-being and happiness by setting out a special dolls display with peach blossoms. This festival is called the Hina festival (雛祭りHina matsuri).

Image1Example of a modern Hina-doll display. Photo by © Y.Ohtsuka

Women, both young and old, enjoy everything related to the celebration of the Hina festival, from opening boxes, unpacking the dolls and placing them in position to offering them peach blossoms. They also prepare treats such as dainty sweets and special drinks, and hold parties while taking pleasure in viewing the dolls. Basically it is a relaxing “Girly” day.

Sakura mochi (桜餅), a modern example of seasonal sweets for Hinamatsuri. Ashinari Photo Material

Hina (literally ʻprettyʼ or ʻlittleʼ) dolls are dressed like courtiers of the Heian period (794-1185). They are treated with great respect and are dearly loved throughout their graceful existence by all generations of women. In the display the top level is reserved for the master (男雛 Obina) and his mistress (女雛 Mebina). The next level below that is for their servants such as the Three Ladies-in-waiting (三人宮女 Sannin kannyo), the Five musicians (五人囃子Gonin bayashi), the Two ministers (随身 Zuijin), the Three guards (衛士 Eji), and beneath the mistress’s trousseau is also on display.

Image3Yōshu Nobuchika 楊洲周延 (1838-1912). ‘Hina-doll viewing’ (雛拝見 Hina haiken), which is a part of ‘The Great Interior of the Chiyoda Castle’ (千代田の大奥 Chiyoda no Ōoku), Tokyo : Fukuda Hatsujirō, 1896. Nishikie (錦絵) wood block print. Photo National Diet Library

The custom of displaying the Hina-dolls on different levels, looking as if they were placed on a kind of stand, became popular in the Edo period (1600-1867). This display format still lives on today. A number of educational books were published throughout the Edo period, which targeted girls for the purpose of teaching women’s morals, appropriate manners and accomplishments. It wasn't however, until the later Edo period that publications dealt with the etiquette of the Hina festival on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month which we consider to be the foundation of the modern version of Hina matsuri.

An example of early Edo era educational text books for girls with a page showing the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month on the right.  Based on a publication by Namura Jōhaku (苗村常伯 1674-1748), edited and revised by Takai Ranzan (高井蘭山 1838-1912). ‘A record of collected treasures for woman’ (女重寶記 Onna chōhōki), 1847. Woodblock printed (British Library 16124.d.23)

In the early Edo era, instead of celebrating with Hina-dolls, ceremonial poetry competitions were held on the date of Jōshi (上巳), which falls on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month. This traces its origins back to the Heian period when one of the absolutely essential skills for courtiers was the ability to compose elegant poetry spontaneously. There were many opportunities for poets to compete against each other. Perhaps the most challenging was the highly refined event held by the bank of a meandering river. The contestants sat along the river bank and had to complete their compositions before the cup, which was floating downstream, passed them by.  This was called the river bank poetry competition (曲水の宴Kyokusui no en).

Image5Some abstract  illustrations of Heian courtiers. The figures on the left page are represented as if they were sitting along the meandering river. ‘Practical design book’ (応用漫画 Ōyō manga), illustrated by Ogino Issui (荻野一水), 1903  (British Library ORB.30/6167)

Hina-dolls certainly existed in the Heian period, but not as display objects. In fact, they were children’s toys for playing with.  In chapter 5 of  ‘The Tale of Genji’ (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari), the hero, Prince Genji, discovers a young girl who reminds him of Lady Fujitsubo, whom he has been secretly admiring as his true love. He is eager to approach the girl, who does not have enough family members to support her upbringing, by offering his noble guardianship. However, her ill grandmother politely rejects his offer saying her granddaughter is just a child happily playing with her Hina-dolls, therefore not of suitable age to accept his overtures.

Chapter 5 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century (British Library, Or.1278, f.18)

There are no episodes describing the river bank poetry competition in the Tale of the Genji, but in chapter 12, Genji undergoes  a purification ceremony on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (上巳の祓え Jōshi no harae). The dolls had a key role during the ceremony since they absorbed the supplicants’ bad fortune. Then the supplicants threw the dolls into water in order to remove all of the negative energy from their lives.  Both events were rooted in trusting in the natural power of flowing water, which was able to carry things away.

Chapter 12 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century (British Library, Or.1278, f.18)

The 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month was also the time of peach blossom. In fact, peaches were believed to have divine power to protect people from evil. Most famously in Japanese legend, the god Izanagi, who formed the landmass of Japan with his partner, defeated demons by throwing peaches on his way back to earth from hell. Peaches might be part of the reason why the purification ceremony was carried out on Jōshi. People could expect extra protection from peach blossom as good spirits.

Peach blossom.  Ashinari Photo Material

Peach blossom is still one of key elements in the modern day celebration of the Hina dolls Festival. In fact the day is also known as the Peach festival (桃の節句 Momo no sekku). It is not only pretty, but also quietly ensure a safe and successful happy “Girly” day.

Further reading

Takeda, Kyoko  武田京子. Hinamatsuri in home education 家庭教育からみた雛祭.  Iwate Daigaku Kyōiku gakubu nenpō 岩手大学教育学部研究年報 [The annual report of the Faculty of Education, University of Iwate] 54.2 (1994): 79-87. (in Japanese)


With special thanks to Alessandro Bianchi, Asian and African Studies and PhD student, University of Cambridge

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator Japanese 



24 February 2015

Lao collection at the British Library now fully catalogued

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663.

P.277 Siam and Laos as seen by our american missionaries
Cloister at Vat Sisaket, Vientiane. From Siam and Laos as seen by our American missionaries (Philadelphia: 1884), p. 277. British Library,  noc

Printed material
The collection of printed material in Lao language contains over 300 monographs, most of them dating from 1950 onwards. The highlights of the collection, however, are three of the first books printed in the Lao language: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in Tham (Dhamma) script, printed in 1896 by the Chiang Mai Presbyterian Mission Press (ORB.30/5145); the Évangile selon Saint Jean en laocien (Khampasœ̄t tām lư̄ang hǣng Yōhan) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Paris in 1906 (11103.b.19); and the Évangile de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ selon Matthieu en laotien (Nangsư̄ khlittikhun pasœ̄t khǭng phra Yēsū Khlit tām thān Matthāi) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Song Khône, Laos, in 1916 (Siam.251). The latter appears to be the first book printed in Lao language in Laos. Book printing was introduced in Laos – at the time part of the Indochinese Union – through the efforts of missionaries with the Swiss Mission Evangélique in Song Khône, southern Laos. Together with a Buddhist monk Gabriel Contesse translated parts of the New Testament into Lao, of which the first part was printed in Lāo buhān script at a printing house in Paris in 1906. The second part was printed only after Contesse’s death in 1909 at the same printer. Finally, a press started printing material in Lāo buhān typeface at the mission in Song Khône thanks to the efforts of missionaries Fritz Audétat and Fritz Widmer.  

First page of the Lao translation of the Gospel of John, printed in 1906. British Library, 11103.b.19  noc

The heart of the Lao book collection is formed by publications of Maha Sila Viravong’s transliterations of literary, linguistic, Buddhist and historical texts from palm leaf manuscripts, for example rare first editions of Nangsư̄ thēt rư̄ang Vētsandon Sādok (Vessantara Jātaka, 1961, YP.2006.b.518), Phongsāwadān Lāo (Lao chronicles, 1957, YP.2005.a.6082), and Nithān Nāng Tantai (Lao version of the Panchatantra, 1957-66, 14304.b.23).
Other rare printed works include original issues as well as microfilmed copies of historical Lao newspapers and journals, like for example Pituphūm (O.P.984, holdings 1969-71), Sīang pasāson (Or.Mic.7339, holdings 1975), Khāophāp pacham sapdā (ORB.40/986, holdings 1968), Sāt Lāo (Or.Mic.11526, holdings 1971-75), and Vannakhadisān (ORB.30/6967, holdings 1953-58).

Lao newspapers
The only two issues of Khāophāp pacham sapdā, dated 12 and 26 Feburary 1968, held at the British Library. ORB.40/986

The Library also holds approximately 2000 books about Laos and Lao culture in Western languages, as well as in Thai and Vietnamese languages. These include some rare first editions, like for example de Gerini’s original description of Laos and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia Delle missioni dei' padri della Compagnia di Gesù nella Provincia del Giappone, e particolarmente di quella di Tumkino (printed in 1663 in Rome, V 5052), Vremde geschiedenissen in de koninckrijcken Cambodia en Louwen-Lant, in Oost-Indien zedert den Iare 1635 tot den Iare 1644 aldaer voor-gevallen. Mitsgaders de Reyse der Nederlanders van Cambodia de Louse Revier op, na Wincjan  (printed in Haarlem in 1669, 566.f.20.(6.)), Henri Mouhot’s Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (published in London in 1864, 010056.f.8), and Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (published in Philadelphia in 1884, Lao printed books and periodicals have now been fully catalogued and are searchable in the Library’s online catalogue.

Map p.1 Siam and Laos as seen by our missionaries 1884
Map of mainland Southeast Asia, from Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884). British Library,  noc

In addition to printed material, the Library holds 85 manuscripts which are either in Lao language or in Pali, but written in Tham script or in Lāo buhān script. The collection comprises literary, historical and Buddhist texts, most of them written on palm leaves. A small number, however, are in form of folding books made from khoi paper or from lacquered cotton. Among the highlights are a rare Lao dictionary, which is a folding book in three volumes acquired in 1839 (Add.11624), Henri Mouhot's Alphabets and inscriptions (Or.4736), and a Kammavāca manuscript in Tham (Dhamma) script dated 1805 AD (Or.11797).

Lao KammavacaOr11797
Kammavāca palm leaf manuscript from Laos. It has wooden covers which are decorated with lacquer, gilt and mirror glass inlay. British Library, Or.11797  noc

Included in the manuscripts collection are also some wooden manuscript boxes decorated with lacquer and gold, as well as a few hand-woven manuscript wrappers made from silk or cotton. Other minor languages covered in the Lao manuscripts collection include some Tai Lue and Tai Khoen manuscripts. All items in the Library’s Lao manuscripts collection have been catalogued in the online catalogue, Search our Catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts, SoCAM.

Moving image and sound recordings
In addition to printed material and manuscripts, a collection of moving image and sound recordings from Laos is available in the Library’s Sound Archive. These include recordings of traditional Lao music, natural sound recordings, as well as a small number of documentaries and feature films. Among these are numerous unpublished recordings of remote populations of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand by Tom Vater. Access to the Sound Archive is through the online catalogue Cadensa.

Endangered Archives
The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme supports the preservation and digitisation of archival and manuscript collections in their country of origin. The Archive of Buddhist Photographs from Luang Prabang has been digitised in full through this Programme and is available here.

Lao ORB.30-6309p.6
Postcard of a cattle caravan in Laos, printed around 1910. From an Album of postcards from Siam, Burma, Indochina. British Library, ORB.30/6309  noc

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

20 February 2015

Malay legal texts

Add comment Comments (0)

Codes of law (undang-undang) and legal digests (risalah) are amongst our most valuable indigenous historical sources on the Malay world, for the rules designed to regulate life provide us with a wealth of information on the societies in which the texts were composed: expected standards of behaviour, and – as well illustrated by the list of transgressions to be legislated against – what commonly went wrong. 

A Dutch judge and six Javanese officials witnessing the execution and mutilation of four criminals, Java, 1807. Two of the prisoners, dressed in white, are tied to posts while the executioners make ready to despatch them with a keris (dagger). On the left one criminal lies dead, while in the centre foreground another Javanese offender is being trussed up and apparently made ready to have his limbs cut off, a punishment commonly inflicted on counterfeiters. Raffles collection, WD 2977.  noc

The oldest surviving Malay manuscript, written in the Malay language in Indic 'Kawi' script on tree-bark paper which has been carbon-dated to the 14th century, is a pre-Islamic code of laws from the kingdom of Darmasraya in Kerinci, in the highlands of central Sumatra (Kozok 2006). With the arrival of Islam changes were swiftly effected to legal structures in the newly Muslim states of the archipelago. The most famous set of laws in Malay, the Undang-undang Melaka, was codified in the kingdom of Melaka during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Syah (r.1424-44) and completed under Sultan Muzaffar Syah (r.1445-58) (Liaw 1976: 38). Manuscripts of the Undang-undang Melaka are often hybrid compilations containing a number of different parts, most commonly the Undang-undang Melaka proper, relating to the law of the land, and the Undang-undang laut, on maritime law. Over fifty manuscripts are known, many containing local variants of the code from Aceh, Kedah, Patani and Johor.

Undang-undang Melaka, the code of laws of the Malay kingdom of Melaka, an early 19th century manuscript containing the Acehnese variant of the text. British Library, Add. 12395, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

The first foreign scholar to pay serious attention to Malay legal texts was Thomas Stamford Raffles. Soon after his arrival in Penang in 1805 he began to collect copies of Malay laws, and an English version of the Undang-undang laut was included in his paper ‘On the Malayu Nation, with a Translation of its Maritime Institutions’ read to the Royal Asiatic Society in Bengal, and later published in Asiatic Researches (Vol.12, 1818, pp. 102-159). The Undang-undang Melaka was the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Liaw Yock Fang (1976), and was re-published in his updated study following the discovery of a 17th-century manuscript in the Vatican Library, which turned out to be the earliest and most important representative of the text (Liaw 2003).

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have been digitised are five legal texts, including two copies of the Undang-undang Melaka, both from the collection of John Crawfurd.  Add. 12395 (source ‘F’ in the study by Liaw 1976), contains a copy of the Acehnese version of the Undang-undang Melaka and the Undang-undang laut. The second manuscript, Add. 12397 (Liaw’s source ‘G’), contains core versions of both the Undang-undang Melaka and the Undang-undang laut, and was copied in Singapore. This manuscript is very precisely dated: it was commenced on 14 Jumadilawal 1236 (17 February 1821) (f.1v) and completed on 10 Syawal 1236 (Wednesday 11 July 1821) (f.92v), a span of nearly four months. A third manuscript of the Undang-undang Melaka, from the India Office collection (MSS Malay D.10), only contains headings of the pasals or articles.

Undang-undang Melaka, called here al-risālah hukum al-qānūn fī balad al-Malāka, copied in Singapore in 1821. British Library, Add. 12397, f. 1v.  noc

Undang-undang Melaka, containing titles of sections only; that shown above is on the wages payable for carrying and felling wood (pasal pada menyatakan hukum upahan naik kayu dan menebang kayu). This page appears to be in the hand of Raffles's scribe Ibrahim, and may therefore have been written in Penang in early 19th century. British Library, MSS Malay D.10, f. 2r.  noc

Another recently digitised manuscript (MSS Malay D.12) contains a copy of the Undang-undang Aceh, a code of laws from Aceh, said to have been composed in the reign of Sultan Jamalul Alam of Aceh (r.1703-26), on 1 Muharam 1120  (23 March 1708). The badly-damaged and now heavily-restored manuscript itself was copied by Haji Muhammad bin Abdullah in 1873.

Opening pages of the Undang-undang Aceh. Begins (after blessings): maka adalah Haji Muhammad anak Bintan  (or Banten? b.n.t.n) menurunkan undang negeri Aceh masa itu Raja Syah Sultan Jamalul Alam kepada hijrat nabi sanat 1120 tahun kepada tahun Muharam [sic] sehari bulan Muharam bahwa dewasa ini adapun ini surat namanya undang2 Aceh diturunkan oleh Tuan Haji Muhammad. The date is written as ‘1160’ but it is not uncommon in Arabic-script manuscripts for numerals occasionally to be written in reversed form, and in this case the ‘6’ should be read 'in negative' as ‘2’. British Library, MSS Malay D.12, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Colophon to the Undang-undang Aceh, dated 5 Rabiulawal 1290 (3 May 1873): Tamatlah undang2 Aceh kepada hijrat nabi sanat 1290 tahun kepada lima hari bulan Rabiulawal kepada hari yaum ... yang empunya surat ini tuan Haji Muhammad ibn Abdullah tamat al-kalam wal-salam bi-al-khayr wa-al-salam. Sekarang suda lamanya tengah tiga ratus tahun. British Library, MSS Malay D.12, f. 18v (detail).  noc

Finally, one of the oldest Malay manuscripts in the British Library, from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane and thus present at the founding of the British Museum in 1753, is an Undang-undang manuscript (Sloane 2393) containing a code of Muslim criminal law (Mohd. Jajuli 1986).

Opening pages of the Undang-undang, an early Malay legal text, probably 18th century. The unusual horizonal format suggests that this undated MS was written at a time when the standard writing material was just changing from palm leaf to paper. British Library, Sloane 2393, ff. 19v-20r.  noc

Further reading:

Uli Kozok, Kitab undang-undang Tanjung Tanah: naskah Melayu yang tertua.  Alih aksara Hassan Djafar, Ninie Susanti Y, dan Waruno Mahdi; alih bahasa Achadiati Ikram ... [et al].  Jakarta: Yayasan Naskah Nusantara, 2006.

Liaw Yock Fang, Undang-undang Melaka: the Laws of Melaka.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 13).

Liaw Yock Fang. Undang-undang Melaka dan Undang-undang laut.  Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Karyawan, 2003.

Mohamad Jajuli Rahman, The Undang-undang: a mid-eighteenth century Malay law text (BL Sloane MS 2393): transcription and translation. Canterbury: University of Kent, Centre of South-east Asian studies, 1986.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia