Four Great Song Stelae of Suzhou

4 June 2020

It’s well over a year since I last posted a blog entry. This is not an indication that I’ve finally lost interest in old Chinese books. Quite the contrary. I’m in the process of preparing a catalogue of the Bodleian’s pre-1912 Chinese holdings for publication, and have been going through the entire collection to check for any uncatalogued or overlooked material. This is taking quite some time – or at least, it was until March, when the Library closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, I’d completed the work just in time, and am now preparing my final draft for the publisher.

An unwelcome distraction in recent weeks has been the need to preserve and restore access to my work on the collections that was formerly on Bodleian fileservers.

This includes my list of Chinese books that came to Europe in the 17th century (through which the Selden Map was discovered), images and transcriptions of the collectors’ seals on Chinese books in the Bodleian (identified mostly by Zhang Hao at Zhonghua Shuju), and my survey of the Chinese “special collections”. Without warning, and without consulting what I believe are now called “stakeholders”, access to these resources was cut off a few weeks ago. So I’ve set up my own server, where these and a few other things are now located: There they will remain until I’m touched by the cold hand, which draws closer with each passing day.

Much more serious is the suspension of two projects for which the Bodleian received very significant funding from outside sources, and which I was compelled to conduct while in its employ. The first is the UK Union Catalogue of Chinese Books, a project funded by the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) which I completed in August 2002. I’ve set up this database, too, on my own server. It’s only a first effort, and still has many rough edges, but it can be seen here (search in unaggregated pinyin, or simplified characters).

The other project was rather more difficult to rescue. This is the Serica Project whose production was made possible by the generosity of Mr Nicholas Coulson and the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, and which came online in August 2012. As I explained on its home page, the project is ” … a subset of the Bodleian’s allegro catalogue of Chinese books, which has been designed to show the extent and nature of our pre-modern holdings, and to give access to those parts of the collection that have been digitised.” But the allegro catalogue has now been closed, as the Library takes its Chinese cataloguing back to the days of MARC (on which subject see the account by a former Bodley’s Librarian), and I was disallowed to do further work on it. Thus the Serica workflow was interrupted, and in the absence of any indication from the Library as to how it might be restored, I had to make my own alternative arrangements to keep the show on the road. This took quite some time.

When going through the collections for my published catalogue, I made a number of discoveries, not only of the sort referred to in my two previous blog entries (model calligraphic albums 法帖 and ink-squeezes 拓片 of stelae and other inscriptions), but also of some interesting and at times very visually attractive pieces of ephemera which I will try to record in future postings.

The first thing that caught my attention was a second copy (Sinica 2758) of the edition of Chunhuage tie 淳化閣帖 made by King Xian of Su 肅憲王 and completed in 1621. Like the first one (Backhouse 604) it is incomplete. But finding it made me research the edition a little more conscientiously than I did the first time round, so that I’m now not only quite sure that I’ve identified the edition correctly, but have also found out a great deal more about it. Accordingly, I’ve completely revised my blog entry which is now much more informative.

The second discovery was a set of large ink-squeezes (Sinica 2611) taken from the “Four Great Song Stelae of Suzhou” 蘇州四大宋碑 located in Suzhou Confucian Temple 蘇州文廟, now known as Suzhou Stone Inscription Museum 蘇州碑刻博物館 according to its website (Chinese version – the English version is here). The four stelae have the titles Tian wen tu 天文圖 (“map of the heavens”), Di li tu 地理圖 (“map of the earth”)*, Di wang shao yun tu 帝王紹運圖 (“chronological table of emperors”), and Ping jiang tu 平江圖 (“map of Pingjiang”), so that their full title is 《天、地、人、城四大宋碑》.


It’s worth pointing out that the character for di in Di li tu 地理圖 is actually 𨻐, which is currently not displaying. It is composed of the elements 阝+ 豕 (top) + 土 (bottom), and is an old glyph for 「地」. In accounts of this map, the character 「墜」 (together with its pronunciation zhui) is commonly, but wrongly used to represent it. The correct character can be found in Couvreur’s Dictionnaire classique de la langue chinoise (2me éd., 1911, 986), which only goes to increase my admiration for that work, as if any were needed.

The stelae are famous not only on account of their size and age, but also because all four are unique in some respect of their engraved content. The “map of the heavens” 天文圖 is the oldest engraving of a Chinese star chart; the “map of the earth” 地理圖 (together with the Hua yi tu 華夷圖 and Yu ji tu 禹迹圖 in Xi‘an Beilin 西安碑林) is one of the three oldest surviving maps of the whole of China; the “chronological table of emperors” 帝王紹運圖 is the only early example of such a list; and the “map of Pingjiang” 平江圖 is the oldest surviving town plan to be engraved on a stele.

Here are some images of the ink-squeezes which I took with my mobile phone not long before the coronavirus lockdown began. I haven’t been able to find any professionally digitised images of them on the internet, so it would be good if the Bodleian could make some once things get back to normal, if they ever do.

1張 ; 189 x 100公分
Sinica 2611/1


1張 ; 184 x 103公分
Sinica 2611/2


1張 ; 182 x 95公分
Sinica 2611/3


2張 ; 41 x 26公分, 204 x 143公分
Sinica 2611/4



To catalogue an ink-squeeze fully three questions must be answered. The first is who produced the content, and when; the second is who engraved it on stone, and when; and the third is who made the ink-squeeze, and when. Unusually, in the case of Sinica 2611, we can come quite close to answering all three.

For three of the stelae, the first two questions are answered by a colophon on the “map of the earth” 地理圖 which reads as follows:


“The four charts to the right were presented to the Prince of Jia by Huang Jianshan when he was acting as his tutor. I found them a while ago in the official residence of the provincial judge of Shu, and copied and engraved them in order to preserve them. Wang Zhiyuan of Dongjia, second month of winter, 1247.”

The “Prince of Jia” 嘉王 was a title given in 1189 to the crown prince who subsequently ascended the throne in 1195 as the Emperor Ningzong 寧宗,and the charts are from a set of eight that were made by Huang Shang 黄裳 (字兼山) in 1190. The only three to survive are those engraved by Wang Zhiyuan 王致遠 in 1247, that is, 天文圖, 地理圖, and 帝王紹運圖. It is not known if the fourth chart engraved by Wang was from the set of eight, but it was certainly not the “map of Pingjiang” 平江圖.

The author of this map is not known, but reasoning principally from the names of the engravers in the lower left corner of the stele, Lu Chan 呂梴, Zhang Yuncheng 張允成, and Zhang Yundi 張允迪, the eminent Suzhou scholar Wang Jian 王謇 (1888-1968) concluded that the map was engraved in 1229 绍定二年, a date which is generally accepted.

The engraving was sharpened up after the passing of almost seven centuries, as indicated by another colophon in the lower right corner:


“In the eighth month of autumn in the year dingsi (1917) the engraving was deepened under the supervision of Ye Dehui and Zhu Xiliang, both citizens of this prefecture.”

In answering the third question about these four ink-squeezes, that is who made them and when, we are again fortunate in having clear written evidence in the form of a typescript essay by the donor, Alfred Edward Hippisley, which is shelved together with them as Sinica 2611*. A scan of this essay can be seen here. The essay is somewhat rambling and contains a few misapprehensions, but in it he says:

“I … wrote to Mr. T. Castle, the Commissioner of Chinese Customs at Suchow … and he kindly obtained for me two complete sets of all four charts. They are the finest rubbings I have ever seen …”

I’m grateful to Robert Bickers for informing me that the magnificently named Thomas Amelius Marriott Castle was in office in Suzhou between 1921 and 1925 (see Customs Service: officers in charge, 1921-35. Shanghai: Statistical Department of the Inspectorate General of Customs, 1936, 80).


Hippisley (whose portait I reproduce courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol) had a long and distinguished career in the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs, serving in various places and in various capacities from 1875 to 1910.

His papers were given to the Bodleian Library in 1988 by Miss Doris Wright, a friend of Evelyn Hippisley, his niece.

An account of them, including a biography of Hippisley, was written by Margaret Czepiel in 2007.

A note in the papers says that in 1936 he made a donation to the Bodleian of a Chinese manuscript in 20 volumes entitled “Exhaustive inquiry into the Five Ceremonials”, which I have catalogued thus:

五禮通考 二百六十二卷總目二卷 / (清)秦蕙田撰
洋裝20冊(原線裝80冊) ; 31公分

There is no mention of the ink-squeezes, but as these were originally shelved near other books that were acquired in 1936, it is reasonable to assume that they were donated at the same time.

The second of Hippisley’s “two complete sets of all four charts” which Castle made for him in the 1920s was found among the papers quite recently, and transferred to the Sinica Collection where they are shelfmarked Sinica 6013-6016.

3 Responses to “Four Great Song Stelae of Suzhou”

  1. liuyao Says:

    Just came across the Zhuili Tu, if anyone wants to see the details more clearly

    Don’t know if the other three exist.

    • Many thanks for this. Very useful. It would be good if we could have such clear scans for the other three, too.

      • I’ve just added a paragraph to the blog entry about the character for di in Dilitu 地理圖. It’s not 墜 zhui, but an old glyph for 地 composed of the elements 阝+ 豕 (top) + 土 (bottom). It’s actually encoded in Unicode (U+28ED0) but currently not displaying, at least in my fonts.

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