Wednesday, March 25, 2015

IDP Intern: Feichi Gao (Northumbria University)

I’m currently a student at Northumbria University studying MA Preventive Conservation. My five-week internship with IDP started on Monday 16th February following some great anticipation and slight anxiety. Now as my internship is coming to an end I can truly conclude that this has been a priceless experience and I feel so lucky to have been able to get involved.

The project I’ve been working on — collection care and digitisation of Tangut material — is very interesting and relevant to my background. This collection includes over 6000 paper fragments that Sir Aurel Stein excavated from Kharakhoto at the beginning of the 20th century. The condition and formats of items I’ve been working on are in great variety: some of them are manuscripts with beautiful handwriting, others are from printed books, some are in very good condition like they were made yesterday, others may have lost all the strength and are turning to dust. These material remains all belong to an ancient Central Asian ethnic group called the Tangut (also called Xixia or Western Xia), who established an empire between China and Tibet in the 11th century. This mysterious empire is of great interest and significance to scholars studying Central Asia, the Silk Road, the Chinese Song Dynasty, etc. However, I first learned about the Xixia from Louis Cha Leung-yung’s novels of ‘martial arts and chivalry’ (武侠) when I was a child, and to me this Tangut empire is more like a romantic fantasy than real history. Bearing this in mind, one can easily understand how wonderful this project is to me, not just because it benefits my professional life, but also because of my personal enjoyment.

Stupas at Kharakhoto, October 2008. Photo 1187/1(48)

My daily work on this project almost includes all the major parts of IDP’s workflow. I was showed how these materials are stored in the British Library basement with various storage methods in a fully controlled and monitored environment. Then I started my work by putting eight phase boxes of Tangut material in sequence according to their pressmarks. After that I took two boxes of Tangut fragments to the British Library Centre for Conservation (BLCC) and encapsulated them in new clear Melinex sheets. The method of encapsulation is quite simple but requires caution and steady hands. First I took the fragments out from old polyester sleeves and put them between two 40cm x 40cm Melinex sheets, then I welded several spots around each item to provide support and prevent them from sliding inside, and finally I sealed each edge of the Melinex sheets using a specially designed polyester welder. After rehousing, the paper fragments are better presented and protected and will be ready for digitisation and reader requests. I also spent a lot of time in the IDP studio where the Tangut material is digitised so high quality images will be freely available for scholars all around the world. Another major task of my work is to measure the length and width of each fragment and add the information to the IDP database, which is the destination of all the digital images and other important information.

Newly digitised Tangut fragment. Or.12380/7

Finally I want to thank all the IDP staff, paper conservator Wingyui Wong, preventive conservator Karen Bradford, and all the amazing people I’ve met in the Library for their help and guidance.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Treasures Gallery Closure: 30 Jan – 4 Feb 2015

Please note that if you are planning to visit the Diamond Sutra the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library will be closed from Friday 30 January until Wednesday 4 February.

More details about the Diamond Sutra display.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Suicidal Thunder God?

Drawing at the end of Dunhuang manuscript Or.8210/S.3326.

Showing this manuscript today to a group of visiting students, I was again struck by the strangeness of this figure and hope that someone might be able to provide an explanation or point to similar figures elsewhere.

The crude line drawing shows a figure dressed as a Chinese official with the label 電神 (Dianshen, thunder god) to the right and an apparent book title to the left — ending with 電經一卷 (Thunder Sutra, one roll). Most curious, however, are the drawn bow and arrow: the arrow is back to front, ie pointing towards the thunder god himself.

The image appears at the end of a very interesting — but also somewhat mysterious — manuscript which consists of two texts (translated for IDP by Imre Galambos). The first is a divination text based on cloud formations (nephelomancy). This is followed by a series of star charts. In a paper by Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bideau and Francois Praderie on this manuscript, the authors showed the star charts to be very accurate: it is a scientific document. The paper is extremely fine but the writing and the graphics appear sketchy and are certainly not in a fine scribal hand. It is therefore possible that this was a working copy which used a master — and fine — copy of a star chart, perhaps even tracing from it, hence the accuracy of the stars' positions. But how did this end up in Dunhuang, 1500 miles from the Imperial Astronomy Bureau in Chang'an where it was almost certainly produced?

Although we will probably never have all the answers to these questions, I hope that the suicidal thunder god might yet have more to tell us.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Needham's Enforced Stay in Dunhuang

In August 1943 Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the Cambridge scientist, set off from Chongqing in China for a tour of the northwest of China. He travelled with a New Zealand colleague and long-term resident of China, Rewi Alley, and with several Chinese colleagues. Their final destination was Dunhuang, although their primary objective was not a cultural tour, but rather economic: to gather information on the state of Chinese industry and agriculture. At this time Needham was director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing and, on his return, he compiled a detailed report for the Foreign Office. However, perhaps of more interest is his personal diary — now available online on IDP — written en route and with its own particular style and shorthand (eg. ‘nbg’ for no bloody good) and constant expressions of despair at the delays caused their ailing truck.

The troublesome truck en route to Dunhuang, NRI2/10/1/1/3/1/16.

During his month-long stay at the Mogao cave temples near Dunhuang, Needham took many photographs which remain of great interest today. However, perhaps less well known is the fact that he only ever intended to spend one day there. His party arrived late on 31 September 1943 and on 1 October he records visiting the caves between 9.30am and 2pm with James and Lucy Lo — who were then resident. In the afternoon he works on his accounts and packs, ready for departure. The entry for Saturday 2 October reads:

‘Dep. Chienfotung. Homeward bound at last’.

But this was not to be. Only a couple of kilometres from the caves the truck, forever temperamental, broke down:

‘Soon it transpired that the MAIN BEARINGS GONE from 1, 2, 3 & 4 cyls!!! (At the furthest point of the whole journey!)’.

Entry for 2 October 1943, NRI2/5/12/1.

Against his will, and to his daily frustration, Needham was forced to spend almost four weeks at Dunhuang until a replacement truck finally arrived and he was able to depart on Thursday 28 October.


Needham's photographs and documents of this and his 1958 return visit to Dunhuang can be viewed on IDP by adding ‘NRI2’ to the search box. These include the notebook from his 1943 visit, NRI2/5/12/4 (also available as a downloadable PDF 14.9MB) and his diary of his 1958 visit, NRI2/5/1/5 (PDF 52.9MB).

Thanks to John Moffett and the Needham Research Institute, whose collaboration allowed us to digitise this material; to the Dunhuang Foundation (US) for their support; to Luo Huaqing of the Dunhuang Academy for his captioning of the photographs; and to Michael Rank and Vic Swift for their work on transcribing and checking the diaries.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Diamond Sutra on display: Text panel 5

The whole text of the earliest dated printed book — the Diamond Sutra — will be on display at the British Library for the first time over a period between March 2014 – July 2015.

Following extensive conservation, the Diamond Sutra scroll currently remains in separate panels giving the unique opportunity to show all the panels in turn (see timetable below). Each panel will be on display for two months in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, open to all and with free admission.

The fifth text panel of the Diamond Sutra on display (January–March 2015) begins with the last line of section 17 and ends halfway through section 26 of the Diamond Sutra.

See the whole of the Diamond Sutra online on the IDP website.

The following English translation of the fifth text panel (by Lapiz Lazuli Texts) is based on Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the original Sanskrit:

17. Untimately without self (cont.)

Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has penetrating realization that dharmas are without self, then the Tathāgata says, ‘This is a true bodhisattva.’

18. Of a single unified perception

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the Physical Eye?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has the Physical Eye.” “Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the Divine Eye?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has the Divine Eye.” “Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the Prajñā Eye?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has the Prajñā Eye.” “Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the Dharma Eye?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has the Dharma Eye.” “Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the Buddha Eye?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has the Buddha Eye.” Subhūti, what do you think? Regarding the sand grains of the Ganges River, does the Buddha speak of these grains of sand?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata speaks of these grains of sand.” “If there were as many Ganges Rivers as there are sand grains in the Ganges River, and there were such buddha world realms as there were sand grains in all those Ganges Rivers, would their number be very many?” “It would be extremely many, Bhagavān.” The Buddha told Subhūti, “Such a number of lands possess a multitude of sentient beings, and their minds are fully known by the Tathāgata. Why? The minds that the Tathāgata speaks of are not minds, and are thus called minds. Why is this so? Subhūti, past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped.

19. Pervading the Dharma Realm

“Subhūti, what do you think? If someone filled three thousand great thousand-worlds with the Seven Precious Jewels, and gave them away in the practice of giving, would this person obtain many merits from such causes and conditions?” “Thusly, Bhagavān, from such causes and conditions, the merits of this person would be extremely many.” “Subhūti, if such merits truly existed, then the Tathāgata would not say that many merits that are obtained. It is from the merits that are unconditioned, that the Tathāgata speaks of obtaining many merits.

20. Leaving form, leaving appearance

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be seen by means of the perfected body of form?” “No, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata cannot be seen by means of the perfected body of form. Why? The perfected body of form that the Tathāgata speaks of is itself not a perfected body of form, and is thus called the perfected body of form.” “Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be seen by the perfection of all marks?” “No, Bhagavān, the Tathāgata cannot be seen by the perfection of all marks. Why? The perfection of marks that the Tathāgata speaks of is itself not a perfection, and is thus called the perfection of marks.”

21. No speaking, no dharma to speak

“Subhūti, do not say that it occurs to the Tathāgata, ‘I have a spoken Dharma.’ Do not compose this thought. Why? If someone says ‘The Tathāgata has a spoken Dharma,’ then this is like slandering the Buddha, because my teachings have not been understood. Subhūti, one who speaks the Dharma is unable to speak any dharma, and it is thus called speaking the Dharma.” At that time, Living Wisdom Subhūti addressed the Buddha, saying, “Bhagavān, will there be sentient beings in the next era who will hear this spoken dharma and give rise to a mind of belief?” The Buddha replied, “Subhūti, there will be neither sentient beings nor will there not be sentient beings. Why? Subhūti, the sentient beings that the Tathāgata speaks of are not sentient beings, and are thus called sentient beings.”

22. No dharmas may be grasped

Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, is the Buddha’s attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi actually without attainment?” “Thusly, thusly, Subhūti. With regard to my Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi, there is not even the slightest dharma of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi which may be grasped.

23. The virtuous practice of a pure mind

“Moreover, Subhūti, the equality of dharmas that has nothing that is better or worse, is called Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi, and by means of no self, no person, no being, and no life, all pure dharmas are cultivated and Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi is attained. Subhūti, these pure dharmas that the Tathāgata speaks of are not pure dharmas, and are thus called pure dharmas.

24. The merits of prajñā are incomparable

“Subhūti, suppose three thousand great thousand-worlds all contained Sumeru, King of Mountains, and there were mountains such as this of the Seven Precious Jewels, given away by someone in the practice of giving. If a person has only a four-line gāthā from this Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, and accepts, maintains, studies, recites, and speaks it for others, then the merits of the other person are not even one hundredth as good. They are so vastly inferior that the two are incomparable.

25. Transformations are not transformations

“Subhūti, what do you think? You should not say that it occurs to the Tathāgata, ‘I will cross over sentient beings.’ Subhūti, do not compose this thought. Why? Truly there are no sentient beings crossed over by the Tathāgata. If there were sentient beings crossed over by the Tathāgata, then there would be a self, a person, a being, and a life. The existence of a self that the Tathāgata speaks of is not the existence of a self, but ordinary people believe it is a self. Subhūti, an ordinary person that the Tathāgata speaks of is not an ordinary person.v

26. The Dharmakāya is without appearance

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be observed by means of the Thirty-two Marks?” Subhūti replied, “Thusly, thusly, with the Thirty-two Marks the Tathāgata is to be observed.” The Buddha said, “Subhūti, if the Tathāgata could be observed by means of the Thirty-two Marks, then a cakravartin king would be a tathāgata.”

‘The Diamond Sutra and Early Printing’

MARCH 2014 – JULY 2015

Monday 09.30 - 20.00
Tuesday 09.30 - 20.00
Wednesday 09.30 - 20.00
Thursday 09.30 - 20.00
Friday 09.30 - 18.00
Saturday 09.30 - 17.00
Sunday 11.00 - 17.00
Public holidays 11.00 - 17.00

Sir John Ritblat Gallery
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB

January – March 2015

5th panel printed text

April – May 2015

6th panel printed text, including colophon

June – July 2015


Thursday, December 4, 2014

IDP News No. 44, Autumn 2014

The new Visitors’ Centre at Dunhuang, September 2014. Courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. Photographer: Sun Zhijun.

IDP News No. 44, Autumn 2014 is now available to view online or download as a PDF (798KB). The current issue includes the articles:

  • The Visitors’ Centre at Dunhuang
  • Conservation and Research on Excavated Textiles from Mogao
  • Desmond Parsons in Chinese Archives
  • Prospects for the Study of Dunhuang Manuscripts: The Next 20 Years
  • Our Favourite Things: Excerpts from the IDP20 Blog
  • Obituary: Serguei Grigoryevich Klyashtornyj

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lectures: Bronze Age Origins of the Silk Road

Dr Kristian Kristiansen (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and Dr Idris Abdurusul (Honorary Director, Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology, China), will look at Bronze Age tomb sites from two widely separated regions — Northern Europe and East Central Asia — to highlight some of the similarities between them and discuss their possible connections.

The lectures will be held at 19.00 on Thursday, 4 December 2014 at the University of Leuven, Brussels (Room 00.20, MSI I, Erasmusplein 2, 3000 Leuven).

This series of duo-lectures, “The Silk Road: Border Crossing”, is an initiative and experiment of the Belgian Institute for Advanced Chinese Studies in Brussels (BIHCS/IBHEC), in co-organisation with the Educational and Cultural Department of the Royal Museums of Art and History (KMKG/ MRAH) and supported by Asian Art in Brussels (AAB) and the International Dunhuang Project (IDP).

The duo-lectures are intended to encourage the audience to step out of their comfort zone and participate in ‘border crossing’, not only along the well-known ‘silk roads’ but also by addressing areas that are not traditionally connected with present-day China but that have seen similar developments.

Each session includes a 2x1 hour lecture by two specialists on different areas but similar topics. The sessions will be moderated by the president of the BIHCS/ IBHEC, sinologist and archaeologist, Ilse Timperman.

Future lectures in this series are as below, both to be held at:
Auditorium, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels.

Sunday 14 December 2014, 10.30am

Early Monasticism and Anchoretic life in Egypt
Dr. Karel Innemée (Leiden University)

Early Monasticism on the Eastern Silk Road (Tarim Basin)
Dr. Susan Whitfield (International Dunhuang Project, British Library)

Sunday 25 January 2015, 10.30am

The Hellenistic East
Prof. Judith Barringer (University of Edinburgh)

Sculpture and the Question of Contacts between China and the Hellenistic East
Dr. Lukas Nickel (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)

For further details and a downloadable programme, see The Silk Road: Border Crossing page.