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

30 October 2014

Ghoulish images from East Asia

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The new exhibition, ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which will run until Tuesday 20 January 2015, provides fascinating insights into the dark side of British literary culture and explores its diffusion through different media. But the attraction of terror and wonder was a phenomenon of no lesser importance in other literary cultures as well. Despite being set in completely different landscapes and employing diverse imageries the weird, the macabre, and the mysterious enthralled readers of all ages across the globe.

In China, for example, short tales about extraordinary or unusual events, called chuan qi 伝記, had a long-lasting popularity which began in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and continued throughout the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). There are in fact numerous collections of chuan qi produced in those periods, most notably Jian deng xin hua 剪燈新話 (1378) by Qu You 瞿佑, Jian deng yu hua 剪燈餘話 (c. 1420) by Li Zhen 李禎, and Mi deng yin hua 覓燈因話 (1592) by Shao Jingzhan 邵景詹. Their popularity was long lasting, and in the mid-19th century these three works were still being reprinted under the collective title of San deng cong hua 三燈叢話.

These collections of chuan qi circulated widely throughout East Asia. Reprints of the original Chinese texts, for instance Shinpen sentō yowa 新編剪燈餘話 (see Gardner, pp. 87-88), bear witness to their great success even outside China. In particular, Jian deng xin hua was very well received in Korea, Vietnam and Japan, and became the source of inspiration for other similar collections of weird stories compiled in those countries: Geumo Sinhwa 金鰲新話 (Korea), Truyền kì mạn lục 傳奇漫錄 (Vietnam), and Otogibōko 伽婢子 (Japan).

Left: title page of a later edition of Jian deng xin hua 剪燈新話, which is included in San deng cong hua he ke 三燈叢話合刻 (1847) (British Library 15331.d.14)
Right: preface of Shinpen Sentō yowa 新編剪燈餘話, movable-type edition of Jiandeng yuhua 剪燈餘話 published in Japan during the seventeenth-century (c. 1615-30)  (British Library ORB 30/217)

In Japan, the publication of Otogibōko 伽婢子 (1666) heralded the start of a new vogue for stories concerning mysteries and supernatural events. This multi-volume collection of 13 booklets, compiled by Asai Ryōi 浅井了意 and published in Kyōto by Nishizawa Tahee 西澤太兵衛, contain numerous tales of terror and wonder written in vernacular Japanese and illustrated with beautiful black and white woodcuts. Asai Ryōi drew inspiration from pre-existing stories, originally composed on the continent, translating and adapting them to meet the taste of early-modern Japanese readers of popular fiction. Of the 68 tales contained in Otogibōko, 16 are taken from the above-mentioned Jian deng xin hua, 2 from Geumo Sinhwa, 2 from Jian deng yu hua, and the remainder were taken from other Chinese collections of weird happenings.

Close-up of some of the volumes comprising the edition of Otogibōko held at the British Library (British Library 16107.c.45)

The array of tales narrated in Otogibōko varies considerably, ranging from the bizarre to the macabre, from the grotesque to the surreal. Each story vividly sketches scenes of ordinary life, which are then flavoured with a supernatural twist, mysterious illness, inexplicable happenings, the appearance of monsters, ghosts, or other ghoulish creatures.  

Details from some of the illustrated leaves in Otogibōko (vol. 11, f. 26v; vol. 2, f.14v; vol. 3, f. 13r; vol. 3, f. 18r)  (British Library 16107.c.45)

Asai Ryōi’s text was widely appreciated long after its first publication. Otogibōko itself was reprinted several times (in 1699 and 1826) and served as archetype for other collections of tales of terror and wonder produced in the following decades – for example Shin Otogibōko新御伽婢子 (1683) and Shui Otogibōko 拾遺伽婢子 (1704). The publication of Otogibōko marked an important milestone in the history of Japanese literature, and many other works of popular fiction featuring ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings drew their inspiration from the stories contained therein.

Although the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions leave little or no room for Dracula- and Frankenstein-like monsters, they were nonetheless populated by equally terrifying and nightmarish monsters.

On this night of horror, better keep an eye out......

Bakemono Yotsugi no hachinoki 化物世櫃鉢木 (1781) ( British Library 16107.c.20)

Further Reading
Gardner, Kenneth Bursham, Descriptive Catalogue of Japanese Books in the British Library Printed Before 1700 (London, Tenri: The British Library, Tenri Central Library, 1993)
Nienhauser, William, The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 275-76
Asai Ryōi, Otogibōko, in Tōyō bunkō v.475 and v. 480 (Tōkyō: Heibonsha 1988)

Alessandro Bianchi,  Asian and African Studies and PhD student, University of Cambridge
together with Hamish Todd, Ohtsuka Yasuyo and Sara Chiesura

23 October 2014

Twenty more Persian manuscript treasures now online

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This month sees a new upload of 20 Persian manuscripts (8588 images) to the Library's Digitised Manuscripts, generously funded by the Iran Heritage Foundation, the Barakat Trust, the Friends of the British Library, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation, the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute and others. These works have been selected for their artistic, historical and cultural importance and are among the most treasured of the Library's Persian manuscripts. Bringing this work to fruition has been one of the most rewarding tasks I have done: being able to look deep into the detail of a painting, examining minute annotations and studying the text itself is a luxury which was previously only possible to the priveleged few who could make it to the Library's reading room. Now you can do it from your desk, on the bus, or even in the dentist's waiting room!

The works in this recent upload include:

Add.18188  Firdawsi's Shāhnāmah ('Book of kings'). Copied in 1486 by Ghiyas al-Din Bayazid Sarraf and illustrated with 72 miniatures, Turkman/Timurid style.

Add.27262  Saʻdi's Būstān ('Orchard') dated at Agra in November 1629 and illustrated with ten miniatures. The calligrapher was the well-known physician and poet Hakim Rukn al-Din Masʻud, known as Hakim Rukna, who emigrated from Iran to India in the reign of Akbar and subsequently became one of Shah Jahan’s favourite poets.

The poet Saʻdi and his companions meet a young man whose sheep was tamed by kindness (Add.27262, f. 37r)

IO Islamic 137  The Ẓafarnāmah, a history of the conquests of Timur by Sharaf al-Din Yazdi completed ca. 1424. Illustrated with 30 miniatures in the 16th century Shiraz style.

The defeat of Damascus. Timur watches the flames as the city burns (IO Islamic 137, f. 358r)

IO Islamic 138  The only known copy of the Khamsah ('Five poems') composed by the poet Jamali who lived at the beginning of the 15th century. Dated 1465 at Baghdad and illustrated with six miniatures.

IO Islamic 3214  The Sindbādnāmah, an anonymous version of the adventures of Sindbad in Persian verse. It was probably copied in Golconda, India, around 1575, and contains 72 illustrations.
The vizier’s tale of the confectioner, his unfaithful wife, and the parrot (IO Islamic 3214, f. 36v)

IO Islamic 3558
The Dīvān-i Khāqān, a beautifully illuminated copy in calligraphic shikastah of the poems of  Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar, Shah of Iran (r. 1797-1834), who wrote poetry under the name Khaqan.

Io_islamic_3558_fbrigr Io_islamic_3558_fbrigv
The Shah hunting and a floral arrangement on the inside and outside of the contemporary lacquer binding of Fath ʻAli Shah Khaqanʼs Dīvān (IO Islamic 3558, inside and outside front cover)

Or.166  The Aḥvāl-i Humāyūn Pādshāh. Princess Gulbadan Begam's autobiographical account of the reigns of her father, the Mughal Emperor Babur, and his successor, her brother Humayun. Although this manuscript probably dates from the early 17th century, it is the only known copy to have survived.

Or.343   Futūḥ al-Ḥaramayn, a poetical description of the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina and the rites of pilgrimage by Muhyi Lari (d.1526 or 1527). Includes 17 miniatures dating from the 17th century.

Or.2839  Sūz va Gudāz (‘Burning and melting’) by Nawʻi Khabushani, the story of a bride whose betrothed was killed by a falling wall on his way to the wedding and her subsequent suicide on his funeral pyre. It was commissioned by Akbar's son Prince Danyal (1581-1614) who requested a change from traditional tales. It contains three miniatures and dates from the early 17th century.

Or.3714  Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, the memoirs of the Mughal Emperor Babur (r. 1526-30), originally written in Chaghatai Turkish and translated into Persian at his grandson Akbar’s request by Mirza ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan in 1589. This imperial copy, containing 143 illustrations, mostly by attributed artists, was completed c. 1590-93.

Babur with birdcatchers near Kabul, in 1504. Artist: Shiyam (Or.3714, f. 190r)

Or.5302  Saʻdi's Gulistān ('Flower garden') copied in 975 (1567/68) in Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and ascribed in the colophon to the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli Husayni. It includes six Bukhara-style paintings which were commissioned at Akbar's request. The manuscript was 'improved'  in India in Jahangir's reign when seven more paintings were added, probably between 1605 and 1609.

Chaos in the classroom: the story of the schoolmaster who became infatuated with one of his pupils  (Or.5302, f. 80r)

Or.5637  Muʼnis al-arvāḥ ('The confidant of spirits'), an autograph copy by Princess Jahanara (1641-81), daughter of Shah Jahan, of her biography, composed in 1640, of the Sufi saint Muʻīn al-Dīn Chishtī (see blog: Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint).

Or.7043  The Salīm Khānnāmah, a poetical history of the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (r.1566-1574) composed by Luqman in 1580. Copy dated 1099 (1687-88) containing eight miniatures, Ottoman

Or.7573  The Dīvān of Hafiz copied in Akbar’s reign in 990/1582-3 by ‘Abd al-Samad Shirin-qalam and enhanced by Jahangir c. 1611 with nine miniature paintings. Panels containing pairs of birds separate the verses thoroughout the volume. The final part of the manuscript including the colophon and one miniature is preserved at the Chester Beatty Library Dublin (see blog: Jahangir’s Hafiz and the Madrasa Jurist).

Or.8193  The 'Yazd' anthology, a collection of Turkish works written in calligraphic Uighur script in Yazd in 1431 with the addition of the Persian Dīvāns of Kamal-i Khujand and Amiri in the margins.

Facing pages with the Uighur text in the central panels and the Persian poems in the margins (Or.8193, ff. 46-47)

Or.11846  The Dīvān of Hafiz Saʻd copied by Shaykh Mahmud Pir Budaqi at Shiraz for the library of the Qaraqoyunlu prince Pir Budaq (d.1466).

The opening shamsah with a dedication to Abu'l-Fath Pir Budaq Bahadur Khan (Or.11846, f. 1v)

Or.12208  The emperor Akbar's copy of Nizami's Khamsah, dated between 1593 and 1595 and copied by ʻAbd al-Rahim ʻAnbarin-qalam. It contains 38 illustrated folios attributed to the major artists of the imperial Mughal studio and an original lacquered binding.

A scene from the Haft paykar in which the king escaped from a tower, carried off by magical bird. Artist: Dharamdas (Or.12208, f. 195r)

Or.12857  ʻAbd al-Karīm al-Qādirī Jawnpūrī's Javāhir al-mūsīqāt-i Muḥammadī, a musical treatise dedicated to Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (r.1626-56) dating from the 17th century which includes 48 Deccani miniatures from an earlier Dakhini manuscript dating from around 1570 (see blogs: Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 1 and Part 2).

Or.12988  An imperial copy of the first volume of Abu'l-Fazl's history of the reign of Akbar, the  Akbarnāmah. Completed ca.1602, it contains 39 paintings and inscriptions (unfortunately pasted over during a previous refurbishment and now only visible with infrared photography) by Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
The baby Akbar and his mother Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani. Artists: Sanvalah and Narsingh (Or.12988, f. 22r)

Or.14139  The Dīvān of Hafiz, copied at Herat or Mashhad ca. 1470 by, according to Shah Jahan’s note on folio 1 , the famous calligrapher Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi. The whole work was refurbished and remargined at the Mughal court ca. 1605 with cartouches containing images of animals, birds, musicians, workmen, soldiers etc. 

The opening of the Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ, copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi (Or.14139, f. 1v)

More details about these manuscripts, together with links to catalogue descriptions and related literature, can be found at Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts. This page is very much a 'work in progress' page to which we add continually, so please keep looking there to follow new developments.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


18 October 2014

A royal Malay letter from Ternate

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In 1579 Francis Drake sailed into Ternate harbour during his circumnavigation of the globe. This was the first official visit by an Englishman to the islands of what is now Indonesia.  The visit appears to have been a diplomatic success, and Drake brought back a letter to Queen Elizabeth and a gold ring.  However the follow-up was less than satisfactory from the Ternate point of view, for it was not until 1605 that the next English ships arrived in Ternate, captained by Henry Middleton. Middleton carried back to London a letter to James I from Sultan Said Syah (held today in the National Archives, SP 102/4/24) in which the sultan noted acerbically that in the over twenty years that had passed since Drake’s visit, he had sired eleven children, without receiving any further overtures of friendship from England  (dalam kerajaan itu sebellas anak beta, itu pun tiada jua sesuatu khabar Inggliterra hendak berkasih-kasihan Ingglitera dengan orang Maluku). Hardly surprisingly, the sultan refused the English permission to trade in Ternate, citing his alliance with the Dutch (Gallop 2003: 413-418).

Ilhas de Maluco, 'The islands of the Moluccas', showing from left to right the islands of Hiri, Ternate, Maitara, Tidore, Mare and Makian, with an interesting treatment of perspective which emphasises the height of the volcanoes which rise from the sea to form each of the islands. Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1646. British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.395v-396r.  noc

Despite such ups and down, over the next three centuries diplomatic channels of communication between Ternate and Britain remained open, as reflected in an occasional series of royal letters preserved in various repositories.  Presented here is a newly-digitised letter in Malay from Sultan Kaicil Patra Muhammad Yasin of Ternate (r.1801-1807) to the British Commissioner in Ambon in the central Moluccas, dated 26 Zulhijah 1216 (19 April 1802) (Add.18141, f.2r).  At that time the Commissioner was Col. J. Oliver, but the letter may have been intended for his predecessor, Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar (1776-1830) - British commercial Resident of Ambon from the late 1790s until 1801 and subsequently Lieutenant-Governor of Penang from 1804-1805 and first Governor of Mauritius from 1810 to 1823 - for the letter was presented to the British Museum in 1850 by his son, Sir Walter Minto Farquhar (who had evidently been named after the oldest son of Lord Minto, Governor-General of India).  In this letter, the Sultan informs the Commissioner that a joint British-Ternatan force had been despatched to Halmahera to settle a disturbance in Sawu provoked by the kingdom of Jailolo (kuku Jailolo dengan manisnya membujuk negeri Sawu, maka berdiri sama2 menunjuk berani, ‘sweet-talking Jailolo has managed to dig its nails into Sawu, and now they’re both acting up’).

Letter in Malay from Sultan Muhammad Yasin of Ternate to the British Commissioner in Ambon, 1802. British Library, Add. 18141, f.2r.  noc

The letter is written in superb calligraphy, confident and stylish, by a master of the craft who makes good use of the thick and thin edges of the nib of the pen, as particularly evident in the first line, a detail of which is shown below.  The hand in this letter shares some characteristics with other royal letters from the Moluccas, in particular the sweeping, cursive style of writing which greatly exaggerates the tails of letters. One of the most characteristic letter forms is ya or medial or final ha (see the word maha below), both of which are usually written as two convex arcs joined at the lower tip, like an elongated curved v tipped towards the right, while also notable is the pyramidal (or mountain-like?) presentation of the sultan’s name in the first line shown here.
Detail of part of the first line of the letter, reading 'Wherefore His Majesty the Sultan of Ternate ...' (Bahwa  paduka  seri  maha  yang  tuan sultan  Ternate al-buldan taj ...).  The scribe has taken a very cavalier and almost playful approach to certain letters, such as the dal (d) of paduka, and the convoluted tail of nga in the word yang.

Further reading:

A.T. Gallop, 'Seventeenth-century Indonesian letters in the Public Record Office', Indonesia and Malay World, vol.31, no.91 (2003), pp. 412-439.

The full Malay text of the letter shown here can be read in the catalogue entry for Add.18141, f.2r.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia