Notice of an epidemic

18 December 2017

From time to time people come to the Bodleian with something they have found in their attic. They say they want to know what it is, but what they really want to know is what it’s worth. I was usually able to identify what they brought in, but was not allowed to value it, even if I could.

The manuscript I’m about to describe was brought to me by a Mr Turner in the summer of 1979, just three years after I joined the Library. Although photocopiers had been invented at that time, I didn’t have one, and scanners weren’t even dreamed of, so I transcribed it by hand. At the same time I identified it and wrote a couple of paragraphs on it for the owner. When he returned to collect it I offered to buy it from him once he had got a valuation from commercial dealers, but he never came back and I never saw the document again.

But I kept my transcription together with a carbon copy of my identification, and came across it for the first time in nearly forty years when clearing out my room as instructed, prior to my dismissal (see my previous blog entry).

The manuscript is a piece of ephemera of the sort I have recently become rather interested in. And so have the Chinese, who have started publishing collections of it which they sometimes call guzhidui 故紙堆, or “piles of old papers”. Ephemera is notoriously difficult to catalogue and make accessible to readers, but is of immense value in putting flesh on the bare bones of historical fact. Mr Turner’s manuscript illustrates this perfectly.

It is a notice from the acting magistrates of Nanhai 南海 and Panyu 番禺, two towns near Canton. It is quite large, 55cm high. and 66cm. wide, and is one of several copies that would have been made to be posted on the city walls near the main gates. It is dated the 17th day of the 5th month of the 20th year of Guangxu, which in the western calendar is 20 June 1894. It bears two seals applied side by side over the characters 「二十」 in the date. One is the official seal of Nanhai, and the other, which is illegible, is probably that of Panyu. The day of the month 「十七」 is written in red and would have been filled in after the rest of the document had been completed, just prior to its issue; and also written in red are the check marks and signature of the clerk who prepared it.

Here is my transcription of the manuscript, presented horizontally but preserving the text alignment and layout of the original (to see the vertical arrangement in PDF click here):




The 1911 edition of Nan hai xian zhi 南海縣志 records that in 1894 the magistrate was Yang Yinting 楊蔭廷 (9:1b) and that in this year there was a serious epidemic, the mention consisting of two characters only:「大疫」(2:69b). And the 1931 edition of Pan yu xian xu zhi 番禺縣續志 records that in 1894 the magistrate was Du Youbai 杜友白 (13:14a); the epidemic is not noted in the main chronological section (42:7b), but receives passing mention elsewhere (2:40a, 41a). (The editions of these two gazetteers are the first to have been published after the epidemic, and the links I have supplied lead to our catalogue entries of the reproductions I have used; both are in the recently published and very fine series Guang zhou da dian 廣州大典.)

It is immediately apparent that Mr Turner’s piece of ephemera tells us very much more than the laconic mentions in the gazetteers.

The epidemic has been troubling the region for several months. There is a rumour that it has been caused by poison planted by foreign missionaries, but this cannot be true as it has also affected the foreign residents of Hong Kong. The rumour has been put about by trouble makers with the object of causing a disturbance. The magistrates have posted the bill to inform people that the trouble makers have been arrested and punished, and that the epidemic is now abating so that they may go about their business as usual. They should pay no attention to the fabrication of trouble makers, and should obey the magisterial commands in fear and trembling.

If this text gets picked up by web crawlers and becomes searchable, and if this is the only form in which it survives, which it probably is, I will feel that my blog entry will have served a useful purpose, if only a small one. And if we had the time and resources to treat the countless pieces of ephemera in our libraries similarly, surely that would be a job worth doing.

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