THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

24 July 2014

Tangut Manuscripts from St Petersburg

We have another wonderful guest blog, this time by Sam Van Schaik, International Dunhuang Project Research and HE Manager. Sam is also based at the British Library and sits just along the corridor from EAP. His blog is all about the historical context for EAP140 material.

 

The Tangut kingdom is one of the great lost civilisations of Asia. The kingdom, also known as Westen Xia, came to prominence in the 11th century and flourished until the early 13th century, when it was crushed by the armies of Genghis Khan. In that brief span, the Tanguts invented a new script, translated thousands of texts into their language, and pioneered the use of print technology, including moveable type.

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Stupas at the northwest corner of Kharakhoto, taken in October 2008. (c) International Dunhuang Project.

Until the beginning of the 20th century the Tanguts were only known through a few scattered references in historical texts. That changed with the excavation of the ancient ruined city of Kharakhoto by the Russian explorer Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863-1935). During two visits to the site in 1908 and 1909, Kozlov discovered thousands of ancient manuscripts in Chinese, Tibetan, and an unknown language that would later be identified as Tangut. Along with other artefacts, including beautiful paintings on silk, Kozlov’s discoveries were taken back to St Petersburg, and are now housed in the Hermitage and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

There are over eight thousand Tangut manuscripts and block printed books from Kharakhoto in the St Petersburg collection. Most of these are Buddhist texts, found when Kozlov was excavating a stupa (a Buddhist reliquary), dating from the 12th and early 13th centuries. The Tangut state was located between China and Tibet, and was influenced equally by these two great Buddhist cultures. Thus the manuscripts contain texts from China, including the literature of the Chan and Huayan schools, and from Tibet, mainly tantric Buddhist practices from India that had only recently arrived in Tibet.

It is a testament to the commitment of the Tangut emperors to Buddhism that the whole of the canon of Buddhist sutras (scriptures recording the words of the Buddha) were translated into Tangut by the 12th century. As we see from the Kharakhoto collections, many of these sutras were copied by hand and printed in expensive editions on fine paper. The Tibetan tantric texts were translated in the late 12th and early 13th centuries due to the increasing influence of Tibetan Buddhists at the Tangut court.

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A copy of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra in concertina format. Tang.334/201 EAP140/1/35

A project under the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP140) has now digitized a significant portion of the Tangut manuscript collections at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg. These are manuscripts of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra, "The Great Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom", the most numerous single text in the collection. Just like in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, this massive text was copied extensively for the religious merit thought to accrue from copying scripture.

These copies of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra are now available on the EAP website and will also be made available on the websites of the International Dunhuang Project. The high-quality colour images of these manuscripts make it possible to appreciate the variety of writing styles and book formats used in the Tangut kingdom. Book forms include concertina manuscripts like the one pictured above, and scrolls (see below).

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A scroll with a blue cloth cover. Tang.335/2.

The technology of woodblock printing was being used in China and Central Asia from the 7th century, and the production of both printed books and manuscripts continued in the following centuries. Though printing was a well-established technique in the Tangut kingdom, the great majority of these copies of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra were written by hand. Many of the manuscripts also have a block-printed frontispiece showing a scene of the Buddha teaching, an interesting combination of print and manuscript technologies. The fact that the same print is attached to many of the manuscripts suggests that they were produced around the same time. The Buddhist dynasties of China and Tibet sponsored major projects of copying the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, and it is likely that the Tangut emperors wanted to show that they could do the same.

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A block-printed illustration, the frontispiece to a Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra. Tang.334/204  EAP140/1/38

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