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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Public Lecture: Aurel Stein, Sigmund Freud and the Other

Speaker: Professor Craig Clunas
Lecture and reception hosted by the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library with the Freud Museum

Marc Aurel Stein with dogs, Spin Khan and Dash. Srinagar, 1928. Photo 392/33(6), The British Library.
Sigmund Freud with dogs, Fo and Tattoun. Hohe Warte, 1933. 42*, Freud Museum London.

Although there is no evidence that they ever met, the careers of close contemporaries Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) offer some intriguing parallels. Both were born as Jewish subjects of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, yet ended their lives as exiles from their homelands, on British (or imperial British) soil. Both were fascinated by the ancient world, and while Stein became one of the most famous archaeologists of his age, Freud was gripped by the extent to which archaeology provided a metaphor for the new practice of psychoanalysis. Both were collectors of Asian antiquities, and while Stein’s achievements are well known Freud’s significant Chinese collections have attracted much less attention than his Egyptian and Graeco-Roman objects. Both had significantly close relationships with their dogs. And both were and remain highly controversial figures, revered and occasionally reviled. This lecture will look at some of the shared intellectual interests and parallel activities of these two giant figures in their respective fields, considering what links as well as what separates them today.

6 November 2015, 6pm
The British Library Conference Centre
96 Euston Road

£10/£8/£7 Concessions

Download a PDF with details (544KB)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Reuniting Dispersed Collections

Photo 392/28(460). Stein at T.XIII., 18 March 1914.

Stein used the Latin term limes to describe the series of Chinese Han period (206 BC – AD 220) defensive walls and watchtowers to the north of Dunhuang. He carried out excavations on his second and third Central Asian expeditions in 1907 and 1914 respectively. The artefacts he uncovered include numerous woodslips, Sogdian Letters, pottery, weapons, textiles and shoes.

One of the artefacts discovered in 1907 was a small bag made of silk and constructed of four pieces. In Serindia Stein writes:

But of particular interest are the two private letters written on very fine greyish silk, Doc Nos. 398, 398 a (Plate XX), which had been sewn up into the inner lining of a small silk bag, T.XII.i.003.a.…

…The two letters are addressed to an officer serving on the Tun-huang Limes by another employed far away on the northern frontier. They throw curious sidelights on the life led by such official exiles, besides furnishing us with actual specimens of an ancient writing-material which was previously known only from textual evidence, such as that quoted in connexion with the invention of paper.1

Chavannes transcribes the letters in Documents Chinoises Découverts par Aurel Stein drawing the conclusion that one of them is a letter of recommendation2.

MAS.773. Small bag made of grey silk from the British Museum collections.

Stein’s second expedition was jointly funded by the British Museum and the Government of India and his finds were sent to London for sorting before distribution between the two countries. The bag and its lining remained in the UK where conservators at the Museum then separated its constituent parts. The manuscript sections duly became part of the collections of the British Library when it was established in 1973 and they moved out of the Museum with the Oriental Collections in 1981, so becoming physically removed from their original housing.

Or.8211/398, Or.8211/398(bis), Or.8211/398(A). Letters written in Chinese on silk from the British Library collections.

IDP’s founding aim was to reunite the dispersed collections of Dunhuang and Central Asia. This example illustrates how material from institutions in the same country with strong historical links can become separated and how digitisation and online catalogues can virtually bring them back together.


1. Stein, Aurel. Serindia, Chapter XVIII, Sec. v, p. 681. Oxford, 1921.

2. Chavannes, Édouard. Documents Chinoises Découverts par Aurel Stein, pp. 89–90. Oxford, 1913.

The two silk letter fragments found at Dunhuang were previously published in:
Chugoku Hoshosen 10: Mokkan, chikkan, hakusho, p.20.
中国法書選 10:木簡・竹簡・帛書[漢・晋/隷書]
Tōkyō : Nigensha, 1991.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Symposium: Silks from the Silk Road: Origin, Transmission and Exchange

Hangzhou, China
Oct. 11th --Oct. 13th, 2015

In June 2014, the Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor jointly nominated by China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was inscribed on the World Heritage List, making the ancient Silk Road a common wealth of human beings.

Parallel to the cognominal exhibition, held at the China National Silk Museum from Sept. 15th to Oct. 14th, 2015, which include masterpiece ancient silk textiles and other treasures related to the Silk Road from 24 Chinese museums and archaeological institutions of eight provinces, the symposium will present the following six sections:

  • Silk Road and Technical Exchange
  • Archaeological Findings of Silk in China
  • Archaeological Findings of Silk outside China
  • Silks on the Silk Road from the Perspective of Linguistics
  • Maritime Silk Road and Chinese Export Silk
  • Silks on the Silk Road from the Perspective of Anthropology

Download a PDF (194KB) for more details and the programme.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

IDP Job Vacancy: Curator and Researcher

This is an opportunity for an early career researcher to work in a small, busy team. You will be helping with managing the collections, including answering queries, helping with readers, assisting in the conservation, cataloguing and digitisation workflow and in general data input and verification. You will be expected to learn about the collections and their context, including archival material, and to carry out research on a relevant area. You will help to maintain and develop relations with IDP’s existing international partners and scholars, especially those in China. IDP also works to bring the collections to a scholarly and wider audience and you will also be assisting in this, including the use of social media and public programmes in the UK and worldwide.

The postholder will be expected to have a passionate interest in the collections, a postgraduate qualification in a relevant subject, excellent spoken and written English and Chinese, interpersonal skills and an eye for detail. You should have strong IT skills and strong time-management skills. You should be prepared to travel and will be expected to help occasionally with events outside office hours.

View full job profile.