Friday, November 20, 2015

A Chinese-Tibetan bilingual Buddhist manuscript

This Chinese-Tibetan Lankavatara Sutra is one of the most interesting, and beautiful bilingual manuscripts from Dunhuang. As the picture above shows, it was made in the concertina format. The Chinese text, written in black ink, is a commentary on the Lankavatara Sutra, while the Tibetan text, written in red ink between the lines of Chinese, is the Tibetan translation of the sutra itself (but not the commentary).

When you read the Chinese text on this manuscript, you treat the concertina as if it were a folded Chinese scroll (which it basically is), reading from top to bottom and right to left:

On the other hand, in order to read the Tibetan, you have to turn the manuscript ninety degrees to the left, and read from left to right. When you do this, the concertina looks much more like a Tibetan pothi, and there is even a string-hole to make that association quite clear:

If you look carefully at these images, you can see that the text has been carefully marked up to show where the Tibetan translation corresponds to the Chinese. So what was the manuscript used for? One possibility is that it was used by someone learning Tibetan, or Chinese.

Another very interesting theory, suggested by Daishun Ueyama, is that this manuscript was used by the translator Chodrup, who lived in Dunhuang in the 9th century, and produced several translations of Buddhist texts into Tibetan from Chinese. Since the Tibetan text on this manuscript is from a different translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, made from a Sanskrit text, the manuscript could have been used in the course of preparing a new translation from Chinese.

Manuscript: Or.8210/S.5603, Stein Collection, British Library.
Ueyama Daishun. 1990. Tonkō bukkyō no kenkyū [Studies on Buddhism in Dunhuang]. Kyōto: Hōzōkan.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Xuastvanift: a confession book of Manichaean Uygurs

The British Library manuscript copy of Xuastvanift (Or.8212/178), a confession book of the Manichaean Uygurs.

The British Library manuscript copy can now be viewed on IDP. This follows publication in 2014 of a book on this text by Betül Özbat:
Huastuanift: Manihaist Uygurlarin Tövbe Duasi
[Xuastvanift — a confession book of the Manichaean Uygurs]
Türk Dil Kurumu Yayınları: Ankara 2014
PB, 256 pp., colour and B&W ills., 14TL.
ISBN: 9789751628985

Betül Özbat introduces her book below.

"This manuscript is one of the most important and complete texts among the Old Uygur Manichaean texts. It was first published by W. Radloff (1909) and A. von Le Coq (1910/1). After this scholars such as W. Bang and J. P. Asmussen also studied the text. A. von Le Coq’s publication (1911) was translated into Turkish in 1941 but there was no detailed study after this in Turkey. One of our main aims was to prepare a new publication on this text in Turkish in order to reach Turkish readers.

My book consists of two main sections. The first is an introduction containing brief information on Manichaean Uygurs, Manichaean literature, art, script and religion, as well as Sogdian people and their relationship with the Uygurs. The second part contains the text of Xuastvanift. This follows the text found on the longest extant manuscript which is in the Stein collection in London (Or.8212/178). There are more than twenty copies of the text but I only used other fragments from Berlin and St. Petersburg to supplement the main text. A transcription is given along with notes giving the source(s) of the text.

For example:
[337] k(ä)ntü özümüzni ämgätir biz (U7a, 1-2; L 299; Spb 139-140)

In this example, the number to the left in the square brackets indicates that this is the 337th line of the entire text. The number on the right in the round brackets indicates that this line corresponds to (respectively) the 1st and 2nd lines on the recto of Berlin U7 fragment; the 299th line on the London scroll, Or.8212/178; and the 139th-140th lines on the St. Petersburg manuscript.

A Turkish translation and the transliteration is given after the transcription. The book ends with the interpretation of some problematic points in the text, a glossary and appendix.

The appendix gives images of different manuscript copies of the Xuastvanift. The coloured images of the British Library scroll are the first to be reproduced — the previous publication by A. Von Le Coq had only black and white images."

Sponsorship enabling digitisation of the scroll was kindly provided by a Turkish scholar.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Remembering Aurel Stein: died 26 October 1943 in Kabul

On 31 March 1943, just back from Las Belas tracing one of Alexander the Great's unsurveyed routes, the scholar, archaeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein (b. 1862) received a telegram from Cornelius Van Hemert Engert (1887-1985), US Minister in Kabul. It was an entirely unexpected invitation to Afghanistan. Stein was in his 81st year but, characteristically undefeated by age, he immediately started making plans and laying down conditions for his visit: he wanted to visit sites in Bactria and the Helmand valley and also follow ancient routes through Afghanistan. Van Hemert Engert was dismayed that Stein expected so much to be agreed in advance, but Stein's experiences on his last visit to China in 1930 had made him cautious. Perhaps also he could not really believe it would be possible: after all, his boyhood dreams of visiting Afghanistan had been constantly thwarted.

Stein had set foot — in his imagination — on Afghan soil as a schoolboy when he first read of the travels of Alexander the Great. Thirty years later when crossing the Pamirs in 1900 on his first Chinese Central Asian expedition, he had stood at the country's western border and taken a few steps into the promised land. After this he tried many times to gain permission to carry out excavations there but had constantly failed.

Stein finally reached Kabul on Tuesday 19 October 1943. He arrived from Peshawar in the US Legation car and stayed in the Legation. He lost no time in making the round of official calls necessary to facilitate his planned archaeological work but, on the Thursday after his arrival, he allowed himself an afternoon in the Kabul Museum. The next day he had a chill and was forced to cancel engagements, including a Saturday visit to the cinema. By this time the chill had developed into bronchitis and on Sunday morning he clearly felt he might not recover. He spoke to van Hemert Engert about funeral arrangements, asking for a Church of England service and telling him: 'I have had a wonderful life and it could not be concluded more happily than in Afghanistan which I have wanted to visit for sixty years.'

That evening he suffered a stroke. He did not fully regain consciousness and died on Thursday 26 October 1943 only a week after his arrival. He was buried in the Christian cemetery in Kabul, Gora Kabur ('white graveyard'). The funeral service was conducted by the Anglican padre from Peshawar and attended by representatives of the Afghan ruler, the Foreign Ministry and other departments, the Persian Ambassador, Iraqi Minister and Soviet Chargé d'Affaires, alongside American and British Legation staff: Stein would have approved of the international mix. His grave continues to be looked after today (picture above taken in 2006).

Stein's life — and that of his contemporary, Sigmund Freud — is the topic of a lecture by Professor Craig Clunas on 6 November 2015. The lecture will be held at the British Library and followed by a drinks reception.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Publication: Tibetan Zen

Discovering a Lost Tradition
The Stories Told by the Dunhuang Cave Manuscripts

Author: Sam van Schaik

Until the early twentieth century, hardly any traces of the Tibetan tradition of Chinese Chan Buddhism, or Zen, remained. The discovery of the sealed cave in Dunhuang transformed our understanding of early Zen, and its role in Tibetan Buddhism. Sam van Schaik of IDP has recently published a book of translations of key Tibetan Zen texts, with brief introductions discussing the roles of ritual, debate, lineage, and meditation in the early Zen tradition.

Shambhala Publications, 2015
PB. 240 pp. $21.95/£17.99
ISBN: 9781559394468

Available in the UK from Wisdom Books.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Authenticity and Transparency in Digital Projects: IDP

In 2014 Paschalia Terzi from the University of Borås, Sweden, spent six months on an Erasmus scholarship with IDP in London working on her MA thesis on the concepts of authenticity and transparency in digitisation projects. Her MA was awarded in 2015 and her thesis is now available for download.

She writes:

"Cultural institutions that hold unique and valuable physical items only for restricted access until now are experiencing a change that demands them to take up the role of information providers as well. The International Dunhuang Project is a digitization project that has been taken as an example to investigate this phenomenon and more particularly issues of trustworthiness and how it can be established in the digital environment. Two concepts have been found to form the basis of its assessment in the online world, authenticity and transparency. Authenticity is a concept borrowed from the existing practice of cultural institutions like museums and archives but transparency is a new demand that has come along with internet and the WWW. Through the examination of components of IDP's website like online documents, metadata and images along with interviews with the producers of the project, an attempt has been made to understand how trustworthiness is perceived by the producers of the project and how they have implemented it on the material of their website."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
From 8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry

This exhibit at the British Library consists of four cases of material to show the different media used for Chinese writing and the different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively.

The remains of a house (N.XIV.) dating to the 2nd-4th century AD at the oasis settlement of Cadota (Niya) in the southern Taklamakan. The wooden gift tags described below were discovered here. (Stein is shown mapping the site on his plane table.)
January 1931.
Photo 392/34(155)


Wood and bamboo were widely used for Chinese texts during the late first millennium BC. Fashioned into narrow slips bearing one or more columns of text, they were joined together with string to form a ‘page’ and then rolled for storage. The strings have mainly disintegrated, leaving a puzzle for scholars to reconstruct the texts from the mixed-up wood slips.

Thousands of slips have been found in tombs in Central China and archaeological ruins on the Chinese northwestern frontier. Wood continued to be used in the first millennium AD in these desert outposts even after the invention of paper.


木头和竹子在公元前第一个千年的晚期曾被广泛应用于汉字书写。它们被制成细长的薄片,每片书写一列或几列文字,而后用细绳连缀成一‘页’并卷起储存。原本的绳子多已断裂,使学者们不得不面对从混乱的简牍中重构原文的难题。 中原地区的墓葬以及西北边疆的考古遗址中,已经出土了数以千计的简牍。在公元后的第一个千年,这些沙漠哨所仍继续使用木简作为书写材料,尽管纸张此时已被发明。

A Calendar. Ink on wood, 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. Dunhuang, China

The form of Chinese characters — the ‘spelling’ — was standardized in the 3rd century BC and the same standard has been used to the present day (although with different styles of handwriting — different ‘scripts’). However, the form deriving from that used on the oracle bones continued to be used alongside this standard, most especially on seals. It is here shown on part of a calendar inscribed on this unusually shaped piece of wood. This, and the other woodslips shown here, were discovered in ancient military fortifications which guarded the northwest frontier of China with the Silk Road.


Writing Exercise. Ink on wood, AD 14-19. Dunhuang, China

This is written in the standard script from the 3rd century BC which is still used in China. But the style of handwriting in this period is distinctive, with downward diagonal strokes that are thicker at the bottom right. It is clearly shown on this woodslip which contains a writing exercise. The words being practised include (big), (man) and (heaven). A date, corresponding to AD 14-19, is given in the four characters near the bottom.


Medical Prescriptions for People and Horses. Ink on bamboo, 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. Dunhuang, China
Or.8211/524, Or.8211/525, Or.8211/526

These slips contain medical prescriptions and were all found in a Chinese military station north of the frontier town of Dunhuang in the Gobi desert. They are written on bamboo which, although commonly used in Central China, was not locally available on this northwestern borde. It must have been carried in, probably from southwest China.

One prescription is to treat ‘a persistent cough, nausea in the chest, aching joints and long-standing constipation’ and contains pepper, ginger and cinnamon. Some of the prescriptions are for horses, including those that are wounded or suffering from the heat.

这些竹简写有一些医疗处方,它们均发现于边境城市敦煌以北,戈壁沙漠中的一处中国军事驻地。尽管这些竹简在中原地区被广泛使用,但西北边疆并不出产竹子。这些竹简很可能来自中国西南。 其中一份处方是为了治疗“久咳不止,胸闷,关节疼痛以及长期便秘”,处方中含有胡椒,姜,以及肉桂。其他一些处方是为受伤或中暑的马所开具。

Wooden gift tags. Ink on wood, 2nd to 3rd centuries AD. Niya, China
Or.8211/940, Or.8211/941, Or.8211/942, Or.8211/943, Or.8211/944, Or.8211/945, Or.8211/946

These wooden tags, discovered buried in sand in the hallway of a large ruined house, were used to label gifts of jade presented to the royal family of the kingdom of Jingjue or Cadota in the southern Taklamakan Desert. The front gives details of the gift: ‘Your subject Chengde bows his head to the ground and sincerely presents this rose coloured stone and bows twice in greeting’. The back gives the name of the recipient: ‘the great king’, ‘Princess Chun’, ‘The Royal Wife from Qiemo.’ No jade was found at the long-deserted site: the slips had been left there and survived by being covered by the desert sands.


A Woodslip Book. Ink on wood with string, 2004

This is a modern reproduction of a Chinese woodslip book showing how the slips were fastened together to form a ‘page’. The notches for the string ties can be seen on the original woodslips, shown alongside.

The original woodslips shown here were found in oasis towns and desert fortifications on the Chinese part of the Silk Road. Most of them are probably written on poplar wood which was plentiful in the irrigated settlements. The remains of two thousand year old dessicated trees can still be seen in these long-deserted sites.

这是一件中国木简书的现代仿制品,它展示了木简如何被固定起来形成一个“册页”。为绑细绳用的缺口在旁边的木简原件上清晰可辨。 这里展示的木简原件发现于丝绸之路中国段的绿洲城镇及沙漠要塞。这些木简的大多数当为杨木,它们在有水利灌溉的定居点十分常见。在这些久被遗弃的遗址仍可见到两千年前干枯的古树。

An Almanac for the year 59 BC. Ink on wood. Dunhuang, China
Or.8211/26, Or.8211/28, Or.8211/29, Or.8211/30, Or.8211/31, Or.8211/34, Or.8211/35

These slips, which contain an almanac or calendar for the year 59 BC, would originally have been joined together to form a ‘page’. The notches used to hold the string ties can still be seen – two on the right hand edge of each slip. The characters at the top give the day – ‘eighth day’ 八日, eleventh day’ 十一日etc. Because the form or spelling of Chinese characters was standardized in the third century BC and retained to the present-day, anyone knowing modern Chinese would recognize these characters.


Thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation.


The Chinese character used on the panels at the exhibit at the British Library is the character for wood . It is taken from a Han period woodslips excavated in Juyan in north-western China.

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry

This exhibit at the British Library consists of four cases of material to show the different media used for Chinese writing and the different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively.

The manuscripts displayed here were all discovered in a Library Cave at the Buddhist cave temple site at Mogao, near Dunhuang. The entrance to the Library Cave can be seen on the right of the corridor of Cave 16, shown here.
Photo 392/59(1)


Silk, which has been cultivated in China for over 5,000 years, was used as a writing material in the first millennium BC. Like wood, its use continued even after the invention of paper. Because it was expensive, it was used for special texts, such as the fragment of the Buddhist sutra shown here. While paper became the most common writing material, silk continued to be used in book production, for scroll ties, scroll wrappers, and book covers.



Buddhist Sutra on Silk. Ink on silk, 6th century

Silk has been used as a medium for writing from the first millennium BC in China, but it was largely replaced by paper from the first few centuries AD as paper was cheaper. However, silk continued to be used for some special and expensive texts: a second century book is described as written on white silk ruled with red columns and wrapped in blue silk with the title in red. The piece shown here is fragment of a Buddhist sutra and was originally part of a longer scroll, like the ones on paper.


Buddhist sutra scrolls with silk ties. Ink on paper with silk and wood, 7th to 9th centuries
佛经卷轴与丝绸绑带。纸本,丝绸,木头,公元7至9世纪 Or.8210/S.5296, Or.8210/S.3621, Or.8210/S.4864

Silk continued to be used in book production in China even after the invention of paper, most especially for the braids used to tie the scrolls. These scrolls would have been expensive to produce. The paper was probably made in Central China, dyed with a yellow dye called huangbo containing berberine, which has insecticidal and water-repellant properties. A professional scribe would have copied the text, Buddhist sacred texts or sutras. The person sponsoring the production often had a note added to the end giving the date and the recipient of the merit gained from replicating the words of the Buddha.


Calligraphic Model after Wang Xizhi. Ink on paper, 7th to 9th centuries

In addition to its practical use, writing in Chinese was considered as art with the most famous calligraphers valued more highly than other artists. This piece is a model or copy based on the cursive calligraphy of one such master, Wang Xizhi (303-361): none of his original work survives. Good copies were believed to capture the ‘spirit resonance’ of the master’s work and were highly valued in themselves. It is written on pink dyed paper.


Thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation.


The Chinese character used on the panels at the exhibit at the British Library is the character for silk . It is taken from a medical manuscript from Dunhuang, probably dating to the 10th century. The British Library, Or.8210/S.76.