Yongle dadian – 4

18 March 2021

Between December 2014 and May 2015, I posted three blog entries on the subject of Yongle dadian 永樂大典. It was always my intention to post a fourth one in which I would discuss the relocation of roughly half the volumes that survived the burning of Hanlin Yuan 翰林院 on Saturday 23 June 1900 during the Siege of the Legations. In the meantime, the sale of two newly discovered volumes in Paris last year has provided some new and quite unexpected food for thought, which I now throw into the mix.

The Paris volumes contain juan 2268-2269 and 7391-7392, and are explained fully in articles by Weng Lianxi 翁连溪, Director of the National Palace Museum Library and an authority on Chinese bibliography, and Gao Shuwei 高树伟, a doctoral student of classical Chinese literature at Peking University who wrote his master’s thesis on Yongle dadian.

Here they are:

翁连溪: 新出现的两册《永乐大典》趣闻
高树伟: 读巴黎新见两册《永乐大典》记

The volumes were auctioned as Lot 231 by Beaussant Lefèvre in Paris at the sale “Archéologie – Art d’Asie” which began at 2pm on Tuesday 7 July 2020. They carried an estimate of €5,000-8,000.

Full details of the sale in English sources are difficult to come by, and although it was obviously much bigger news in China than in the west, already some of the Chinese internet reports that I bookmarked at the time have disappeared. So my thanks are due to Xu Haiyan 许海燕 at the National Library of China (who is currently masterminding the reprinting of all the extant volumes) for helping me to gather much of the information contained in this entry, which I reproduce in the hope that it will be available for longer than the sources from which it is derived.

The bidding started at 4.47pm, and opened at €10,000. In a few moments it reached €500,000, and after a minute and half it amounted to a number larger than the auctioneers’ screen could display. The Chinese lady who secured the volumes entered the bidding at €2,000,000 and finally secured the lot with a bid of €6,400,000. With the auctioneers’ commission of 27%, this brought the price of the two volumes to €8,128,000; that is, more than one thousand times the estimate.

The Chinese lady, whose identity I haven’t been able to establish, was acting on behalf of a businessman called Jin Liang 金亮, who had been informed of the sale and persuaded to bid by Weng Lianxi. Jin Liang is a native of Zhejiang Province 浙江省, and chairman of two companies whose names I can only cite in Chinese, as I can’t find an English version of them: 上海春竹集团有限公司, 浙江奥特莱斯广场有限公司. He is passionately interested in old Chinese books, of which he is both a collector and and a generous benefactor, having donated Song editions to Zhejiang Library 浙江图书馆 and Dunhuang manuscripts to Qixia Temple 栖霞寺. It is naturally a source of great pleasure to the Chinese that these volumes have now been returned to Chinese ownership, and the hope is that one day they will again be in a public collection.

This leads me to consider the original intention of my fourth Yongle dadian post, which is to discuss the problem of where the surviving volumes are currently located. For the Chinese, the fact that half them are in foreign hands is a highly emotive subject. This truth was brought home to me at the international conference held at the National Library of China in April 2002 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the compilation of Yongle dadian, where I read a paper on the British holdings of this work. (The paper has subsequently been modified to include all the European holdings, and is reprinted and distributed with all the National Library’s reprints of them).

At the conference reception, I was surrounded by a group of very angry young journalists from the Xinhua News Agency who accused me of theft, and demanded that I return the volumes to China without delay. My protestations of personal innocence cut no ice, nor was it accepted that the volumes were not mine to return. And even now, from time to time angry comments are sent to my blog.

The relocation of parts of Yongle dadian is regarded as the bibiographical equivalent of the looting of Yuanming Yuan 圓明園, but the two events could not be more different. The destruction of Yuanming Yuan in October 1860 was entirely the work of the British and French, and the more I think about it, the sicker I feel.

But in June 1900, Hanlin Yuan was set on fire by the Boxers, and it was the British who extinguished it. In fact, if they had not extinguished it, no volumes of Yongle dadian would have survived at all other than a few of the 10,000 or more which had already been removed by the Chinese themselves, and which now seem to have mostly disappeared.

In round numbers, only 800 volumes of Yongle dadian were left in Hanlin Yuan before the fire; of these, 400 were burnt and 400 survived; and of those that survived, roughly half are in China and the rest were taken by foreigners in the immediate aftermath of the Siege. Many Chinese, however, maintain that Hanlin Yuan was looted at the same time as Yuanming Yuan, as can quickly be discovered by the most casual internet search.

In fact there is no evidence for this assertion. I have personally examined every volume in Europe, and described them exhaustively in the table appended to my paper. Wherever their provenance is documented, it points to the Siege. There is nothing to suggest that any volumes of Yongle dadian came to Europe earlier than this, much less that there is a cache somewhere of previously stolen volumes hidden away from public view.

The provenance of the Paris volumes however is different. And for me, given the fact that Yongle dadian gave up its secrets long ago, their provenance is the only interesting thing about them. It is therefore most unfortunate that so little is known about it – or that so little has been divulged – and that it is so vague. Near the end of his article, Weng Lianxi reports that the volumes were offered for sale by the descendants of a French naval officer who was in China in the 1870s, and that he received them together with other gifts from Chinese officials with whom he had dealings. He goes on to say that all this is quite plausible.

If this is indeed the case, the two Paris volumes would be the only ones yet discovered that came to Europe before the Siege, and which were not removed from Hanlin Yuan by foreigners.

I mention all these things not to justify the present location of what little survives of Yongle dadian, much less how it got there, but to introduce a few facts into an argument often clouded by unreason and emotion.



22 December 2020

An article I read in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago has made me think of Francis Douce.

Douce (1757-1834) has already been mentioned twice in my blog as the donor of the Bodleian’s copy of the Red Decree and the small volume which contains what may be the first example of Chinese lithography. He is the subject of a brief article in Wikipedia, and here it is only necessary to point out that he built up an enormous collection of printed books and manuscripts that he bequeathed to the Bodleian, and that this bequest is one of the greatest gifts the Library ever received. In 1984 its sesquicentennial anniversary was marked by an exhibition, The Douce Legacy.

The Douce Chinese collection, numbering only some twenty items, consists almost entirely of illustrated books. This is understandable, as Douce was collecting in the period between the time when Chinese books were imported into Europe as curiosities – because nobody could read them – and later in the 19th century when the Protestant missionaries – who certainly could read them – brought back collections which for the first time could sustain serious sinological enquiry.

For the exhibition I chose what I think are two of the most interesting ones. After thirty-six years my choice would still be the same (but don’t look them up in the exhibition catalogue – they managed to get both captions wrong).

The first is indeed rare. It is a copy of Shixue 視學, a richly illustrated work on perspective in western art by Nian Xiyao 年希堯 (1671-1738):

視學 不分卷 / (清)年希堯撰
洋裝(原線裝)1冊 : 圖 ; 39公分
Douce Chin.b.2

Nian Xiyao was the elder brother of the more eminent Nian Gengyao 年羹堯 (1679-1726) [1], and had learned about perspective from the Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) who had come to China in 1715. Castiglione was a master of painting trompe l’oeil designs, and had painted a trompe l’oeil dome on the ceiling of the Dongtang 東堂 Catholic church in Peking in 1729, the year in which Shixue was first published. (Castiglione and his colleagues would later delight the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor with their perspective work on the so-called “Western Mansions” 西洋樓 of Yuanming Yuan 圓明園. [2])

Nian acknowledges the help of Castiglione in his preface. Both had learned much from Andrea Pozzo’s influential work Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum (Rome, 1693), of which there was a copy among the books held in the libraries of the Jesuit missionaries in Peking in the early 18th century. The illustrations in Shixue are largely but not entirely derived from this.

The Douce copy is of the expanded version printed in 1735, which has considerably more illustrations, and is reproduced in its entirety (from microfilm) in Chuugoku no youfuugaten : minmatsu kara shinjidai no kaiga hanga sashiebon 『中国の洋風画』展 : 明末から清時代の絵画・版画・挿絵本 (Machida 町田, 1995), with the corresponding Pozzo illustrations alongside. It is identical in all respects with that reproduced in Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書, which is the copy in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The Library has another, lesser known work by Nian Xiyao, which I catalogue as follows:

綱鑑甲子圖 / (清)年希堯撰
1張 ; 112 x 57公分
背抄「Table chinoise des empereurs de la Chine」
Sinica 352

This work has never been regarded as part of the Douce Collection, but it is exactly the sort of thing that Douce collected. The same was true of our copy of the Red Decree until I sent it for conservation, when the faintly pencilled “F. Douce” was found on the verso.

Its provenance is not known, but the verso inscription “Table chinoise des empereurs de la Chine” suggests that it may have been among many other 18th-century works sent to Europe by the Jesuits, which according to Cordier [3] may have passed through the hands of L.F. Delatour, “ancien imprimeur-libraire et sécretaire du roi” before going on to the open market.

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has copies of both Shixue and Gangjian jiazitu, possibly those which according to Elisabetti Corsi [4] were sent to Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan, Secretary General of the  Académie Royale des Sciences, by the French Jesuit missionary Dominique Parrenin in 1733 or shortly after. It is equally possible that the Douce copies of both these works are of the same origin.

Other printed single-sheet items in the Douce Collection are found in two large guardbooks shelfmarked Douce.Chin.b.1 and Douce.Chin.c.1, the former labelled A collection of Chinese shop bills, &c., the latter containing printed illustrations. Among them are three Suzhou prints of which one is a unique surving copy. Christer von der Burg identified them a while ago, and wrote about them in his blog.

The second Douce item that I chose for the sesquicentennial exhibition in 1984 is what the article I read in the Guardian reminded me of. It is an illustrated manual of go strategies:

圍碁近譜 一卷 / (清)金樹志撰
線裝1冊 : 圖 ; 30公分
Douce Chin.d.2

Like Shixue, this edition is also rather rare; I have only found two copies in Peking University Libary, one in the Naikaku Bunko, and another in Columbia University Library.

Unusually, we know the exact provenance of the Bodleian copy. Douce bought it at a Christie’s sale in London on Friday 15 February 1799, where it was lot 16 of

“… a capital, and truly valuable assemblage of Chinese drawings, paintings, natural and artificial curiosities, the property of A.E. van Braam [Andeas Everard van Braam Houckgeest], Esq. Chief of the Direction of the Dutch Wast India Company at Canton, and Second in the Dutch Embassy to the Court of Pekin, in the years 1794 and 1795 …”

This information comes from Douce’s annotated copy of the sales catalogue, which is preserved in the Bodleian’s collection. [5] Intriguingly, the catalogue lists another work on weiqi (lot 18) in five volumes which along with his copy of Shixue also appears in one of Douce’s manuscript lists [6], but no trace of it can now be found.

The content of the Guardian article may well be common knowledge, but I certainly didn’t know it. It is about Hara Masahiro 原昌宏, an employee of the Japanese automobile components firm Denso Wave. Over twenty-five years ago he was looking for a better way of managing inventories of large numbers of parts than barcodes could provide, and the answer came to him when he was having a lunchtime game of go with a colleague. Looking at the way in which the black and white stones were arranged on the grid, he came up with the idea of the QR code, which can handle 200 times more information than a standard barcode.

1. Hummel 587-590.
2. See John R Finlay: The Qianlong Emperor’s western vistas: linear perspective and tromp l’oeil illusion in the European palaces of the Yuanming yuan (in Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 94(2007), 159-193).
3. Henri Cordier: Catalogue des albums chinois et ouvrages relatifs à la Chine Conservés au cabinet des estampes de la Bibliothèque nationale (Paris, 1909), 210.
4. See Elisabetta Corsi: Envisioning perspective: Nian Xiyao 年希堯 (1671-1738)’s rendering of Western perspective in the prologues to “The science of vision”. In A life journey to the East: sinological studies in memory of Giuliano Bertuccioli (1923-2001), edited by Antonio Forte and Federico Masini (Kyoto: Scuola Italiana di Studi sull’Asia Orientale, 2002), 201-243.
5. Douce FF 65(5).
6. MS.Douce d.79, f45.


More seventeenth-century finds

28 November 2020

Most of my latest blog entries have been concerned with the Chinese books that came to Europe in the 17th century, and so is this one. It’s beyond my control. People keep finding them, and when they do, if I can I like to provide some background information about them that it would be inappropriate to put in my simple list.

Pembroke College Cambridge

News of the first one came from Will Poole. Noel Malcolm had drawn his attention to an entry in the Benefactors’ Book of Pembroke College, Cambridge recording the donation of a Qu’ran by the London merchant Edward Tines, probably in the early 1630s, followed by a Chinese book in 1633. The Chinese book is an almanac for the year 1631. When I saw an image of it, I recognised it immediately because by a strange coincidence, earlier this year I’d re-examined another copy of the same work in Corpus Christi College in Oxford, which I catalogue as follows:

天星日子 不分卷有缺
洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 28公分
Corpus Christi College MS 216

The discovery of the Pembroke copy is particularly fortunate, as its title-page (to use a misleading word, as there is no real English equivalent of the Chinese term fengmian 封面) is complete, whereas that of the Corpus copy lacks the top portion which bears the date of the almanac: 崇禎四年辛未歲 “4th year of the Chongzhen emperor, the year xinwei“, that is, 1631. I’d already established the date of the Corpus copy from the text, but to see it so prominently displayed on the title-page was nevertheless reassuring.

Something worth noting is that there are editions in the 17th century corpus that date to well before the first Dutch East India Company voyages. For example, several of the medical works date to the first decade or so of the Wanli 萬暦 period, so does the edition of the word-book described below. So they could have been bought at any time from the first voyage onwards, as works like these are permanently in demand and would have been available from booksellers at any time.

Almanacs on the other hand are very ephemeral, and would only have been sold around the time of the Chinese new year, which in 1631 fell on Saturday 1 February, if the website from which I found this out is any good. And the fact that at least two copies of this almanac came to Europe suggest that they were indeed bought at this time, when multiple copies were on sale. So it may be possible for somebody with a detailed knowledge of the early VOC voyages to identify the sailing on which these two almanacs – and maybe even more – came to Europe.

Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

The second find was made by Koos Kuiper. It’s actually three finds, in Utrecht University Library. Koos told me about them last year, but I didn’t put them into my list until he reminded me about them a couple of weeks ago. Inexcusable.


Two of the finds clearly belong to editions which are already in the list. The first is four more juan 卷 of Zhou Shixian’s 周士顯 edition of the Four books 周會魁校正四書大全: 2, 4, and two copies of 10 (V OCT 855). They were given to the library by Willem van Cleeff in 1719, who Koos thinks is probably the Gulielmus van Cleeff who obtained a doctorate in Utrecht in 1706.

This work has 18 juan altogether. Most of the surviving examples are in Oxford, and apart from the recently discovered juan in Utrecht there are a few leaves from juan 18 in Trinity College Dublin on which I posted a blog entry at the beginning of last year, telling all that I know about the edition and its distribution. I have nothing to add to that, except to point out that as my catalogue aims to record all Chinese books in Oxford, not just those in the Bodleian, I have added the juan in Corpus Christi College to my catalogue entry – it was already in the list – so that the entry now reads as follows:

周會魁校正四書大全 殘十六卷 / (明)胡廣, (明)楊榮奉敕纂修 ; (明)周士顯校正
線裝18冊 ; 27公分
全書十八卷, 殘卷一~六﹑八﹑九﹑十一~十八, 有缺
Sinica 68
Sinica 69 殘卷一﹑三﹑十二﹑十四﹑十五﹑十八, 有缺. – 線裝6冊
Sinica 52 殘卷十二. – 洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 28公分
Sinica 43 殘卷十四. – 線裝1冊 ; 25公分
CCC MS 205 殘卷十七. – 洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 27公分

From this it can be deduced that Oxford has fascicles from at least three different copies (there are three copies of juan 14). But we have no copies of juan 10 – they went to Utrecht. The only part of this work of which no example has yet been found in Europe is juan 7.


The next Utrecht find is some leaves from a medical text of which the first three juan are in the Bodleian, and which someone told me is a unique survival; indeed, I’ve failed to find it in any catalogue whether printed or online, and a Google search for this title or even part of it will currently only lead to its entry in the Serica Project website. I catalogue it as follows:

刻馬玄臺先生註證脈訣正義 殘三卷 / (明)馬蒔撰
線裝2冊 ; 28公分
Sinica 11

But the discovery of the Utrecht fragment shows that at least a second copy must have come to Europe, as it duplicates the first of the Bodleian fascicles:


The only difference is that the Bodleian fascicle (left) preserves p.22-54, and the Utrecht fascicle (right) p.21-53. It is possible that owing to its length, the first juan may have been bound in two fascicles, but it is a strange coincidence that only the second of the two should have been preserved in both Oxford and Utrecht.

This, together with the fact that almost all of the European 17th-century acquisitions are incomplete, makes me think that the complete books may never have been brought to Europe. The VOC merchants had no idea what they were buying, only that whatever it was, it had a curiousity value once it reached Amsterdam. So they might simply have bought (or been given) odds and ends by the Chinese they were trading with.


The third Utrecht find was at first rather difficult to identify, because the surviving leaves lack the juan 卷 beginnings and endings where a title would normally be found, nor is there a title in the banxin 版心, the central column of the block. Koos had studied the text and established that whereas it was clearly a word-book with phonetic glosses arranged according to radicals, the radicals were not in the familiar order of any of the well-known dictionaries such as the Shuowen 說文 or Zihui 字彙. As in the Yupian 玉篇, the radicals were arranged in categories denoting similar things, not in the order of their stroke count.

He then sent me some images, so that I was able to compare them with word-books in our own collection. The most promising was one having twenty juan, which I would have catalogued as follows if complete:

翰林重考字義韻律大板海篇心鏡 二十卷 / (明)劉孔當校

There are 6 fascicles of this work in the Bodleian representing three distinct printings.

Sinica 14 is the earliest printing, and the blocks have a so called heikou 黑口 or “black mouth”, that is, the central column of the block is uncarved, so that a thick black band runs down the centre of the leaf. (The word “mouth” is used because when the leaves are bound, that column is at the point where the book opens.) There are two fascicles of this printing, in which juan 2, 3, and 18 are preserved (below left).

There are two fascicles in Utrecht, and they are clearly of a piece with this edition (below right). The fascicles are both incomplete copies of juan 19 (pp.2b-30a and pp.1b-28a, 29a). It’s rather strange that again, Utrecht should have two copies of a juan which is not represented in a work of which the Bodleian has more extensive holdings.

In Sinica 15, the “black mouth” has been excised, so that the blocks now have a baikou 白口, or “white mouth”. This copy also has two fascicles, preserving juan 18 and 20. This is most fortunate, as juan 18 can be compared with the juan 18 in Sinica 14, showing that it is indeed from the same blocks; and juan 20 is the last fascicle, at the end of which there is a magnificent paizi 牌子 which tells us all we need to know about the edition:

The Bodleian also has two fascicles from what appears to be a third distinct printing, Sinica 73, preserving juan 13 and 14. This may be a later printing from the “black mouth” version before the central column was excised, but as these juan are not represented in the other copies, it can’t be proved one way or the other.

That three printings of this edition should have been on sale when the Dutch merchants picked them up is scarcely surprising. The nature of the Chinese script is such that anyone who can read it needs a dictionary by their side at all times. My colleagues and I have worn out several copies of Xinhua zidian 新华字典 during the course of our careers, and someone once told me that this dictionary is the best selling book of all time, including the Bible.


I’ve long thought that the most obvious places to look for other parts of the European 17th century corpus would be the smaller old-established libraries, which in England would be the libraries of Oxbridge colleges, cathedrals, country houses, or perhaps of the older private schools such as Eton College. The Pembroke almanac is a case in point.

It would never have occurred to me to look on eBay, but that is exactly where the last and probably most significant of the finds I’m describing was made last year. Andrew West told me about it.

It is a mid-19th century western leather binding containing juan 9-13 of the well-known and presumably unique surviving edition of the Shuihuzhuan which is already in my list, and of which other parts are in Copenhagen, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Stuttgart, and Oxford, where there is a single leaf:

There isn’t enough of the copy preserved to enable more than a rather vague description of the edition to be made: the opening juan and prefatory material are missing, as is the last juan, which may have had a paizi 牌子 at the end. So it isn’t even possible to say how many juan the complete edition would have had. But juan 21 (in Paris, the last of the preserved juan) begins with hui 回 102, so I reckon 120 hui in 24 juan might be a reasonable guess, and would tentatively catalogue the edition as follows:

新刻京本全像插增田虎王慶忠義水滸全傳 二十四卷一百二十回 / (明)施耐庵撰 ; (明)羅本編

The eBay volume was offered for sale by a bookseller in Winchester who had no idea what it was or what it was worth. It was eventually sold for the sum of £18,100, and has been taken abroad. Although this is currently the only part of the 17th century corpus to be in private hands and therefore not able to be freely examined, it is apparently going to be published in facsimile next year. All the other extant parts of the copy have already been published either in print or online.

I don’t know why the fact that part of the 17th century corpus turned up on eBay amuses me, but it does. Illogical, because I’ve found equally recherché, if less valuable things on eBay myself. In fact I found a Chinese printing block there only a few weeks ago, which will be the subject of a future blog entry.


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: https://serica.ie/. 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.


12 March 2019

In my previous blog entry (which I partly wrote as a mise-en-scène for this one), I confessed to having left our albums of model calligraphy (fatie 法帖) until last because they were difficult. This, of course, is what librarians do: shove anything difficult into a cupboard and forget about it – my own cupboard was pretty full when I was dismissed eighteen months ago.

It’s some consolation to find that even Thomas Hyde wasn’t above doing this sort of thing. In his manuscript notes of our Chinese holdings (British Library Sloane Or.853, increasingly quoted in my blog) he has a section headed Praetermissa in Arch. A, literally “Things put aside in Arch[ivum] A” (I won’t repeat the facts about the storage and handling of our earliest Chinese accessions – it’s all explained in an earlier blog entry). I think it’s pretty clear what he meant by “put aside” – one of the items is Sinica 91, something I have put aside these past forty years.

In his notes, Hyde describes the item as follows:

Praetermissa in Arch. A …
182. Liber Fa-tie, continens Calligraphiae exemplaria nitida pro addiscentibus scribere linguam Sinensem.

Things put aside in Arch[ivum] A …
182. A Fa-tie, containing fine examples of calligraphy for those who are learning to write the Chinese language.

In the Bernard catalogue (p.152), we learn a little more about it; it is a roll, and the text appears as white on black:

Rotulae in Archivo A …
2969.18 Liber Sinensis impressus Characteribus albis in charta nigra, continens exemplaria Calligraphiae nitida pro addiscentibus scribere linguam Sinensem.

Rolls in Archivum A …
2969.18 A Chinese printed book with white characters on a black background, containing fine examples of calligraphy for those who are learning to write the Chinese language.

Here is the item as it is currently preserved:


It is bound in a codex, probably by Nicholson. The composition of the codex and the order in which the leaves are presented suggest that in Hyde’s time the Chinese leaves were rolled up in a protective sheet of western paper, and that the whole thing was then rolled in a piece of limp vellum inscribed by Shen and Hyde in the usual way. The inscription is for the most part illegible, that is unless you are Will Poole, for it is he who kindly transcribed and translated it for me within minutes of receiving my e-mail:


A 182
fa Formularius
tie Libellus seu charta
Est libellus pro Institutione eorum qui / primò addiscunt scribere linguam Chinensem, / continens varia Exemplaria rariores / Scripturae tam quadratae quam cursivae. / Anglicè A China Copy-booke.

A 182
法 fa A model
帖 tie album
This is a book for teaching those who are first gaining knowledge of how to write the Chinese language, containing various uncommon examples of writing both squared and cursive. In English: A Chinese copy-book.

The codex contains the first 17 pages of the fatie, but they are not bound in order. Here is the first, which clearly bears its title, Mingshu jixuan fatie 名書集選法帖 (“An album of collected works by famous calligraphers”), and appropriately the very first example is by Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (see my previous blog entry):


The leaf, like all the others, is clearly divided into three panels, with pagination in the lower right corner. Originally they would have been pasted together and folded to make an “accordion” binding (zhezhuang 折裝).

According to Madan and Craster’s Summary catalogue [1], the item was “acquired about 1618”, but I don’t know where this information came from. This means that it must have been printed during the Wanli period at the latest, so I have described it thus in my catalogue:

名書集選法帖 不分卷殘十七葉
洋裝1冊(原活葉) ; 60 x 30公分
Sinica 91

I can find no record of the title in any catalogue, whether printed or online. A Google search for “名書集選法帖” will at the time of writing find only two things: this text in my online list Chinese books in Europe in the 17th century, and a work entitled Mingshu jixuan fatie qianzi wen 名書集選法帖千字文 (the “Thousand character classic”) by the Tang dynasty monk and calligrapher Huaisu 懷素 (737–799) in Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library 大阪府立中之島圖書館 in Japan.

This can only mean either that Sinica 91 is of exceptional rarity, or it isn’t a discrete work, but part of another which I have failed to identify. Either way, it is extraordinary that a work of such quality should have arrived along with the rather cheaper productions of the Jianyang and Jinling commercial printers, and it must surely be the very first calligraphic manual to reach Europe.

1. Summary catalogue of Western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, vol.2 pt.1 (Oxford, 1922), p.558.