The Promotion Chart

10 January 2014

Ephemera is notoriously difficult to describe and thus bring to the attention of scholars. It is even difficult to know what things are, because scholars are normally concerned with scholarship, and not the tiny details of daily life and work to which ephemera almost exclusively relates. And when all who might remember these details are long dead, so that there is nobody to ask, the difficulties are often insuperable.

I aim to describe all our Chinese ephemera in due course, and to identify it as best I can with the help of others.

In my second blog entry over two years ago, I described a rather high-brow piece of ephemera, the Red Decree. The subject of the current blog entry is rather different. I catalogue it as follows:

陞官圖 / 舊題(明)倪元璐作
1張 ; 82 x 75公分
Sinica 440/2

This is a large single-sheet item, bearing no title, so the title is simply a statement of what the item is, and was assigned to it by Xiang Da so that it could be included in his card catalogue. The “promotion chart” is simply an English translation of this description.


The above image is too small to be legible – I reproduce it only to show what the chart looks like; the full image can be seen and examined here.

The chart was among the books given to us in 1877 by General Lawrence Shadwell,who had served in the 98th (Prince of Wales) Regiment of Foot which had been sent to Hong Kong in 1842. His books are the first to be listed in James Legge’s manuscript continuation of Joseph Edkins’ printed catalogue of Chinese books in the Bodleian, which appeared in 1876 and contains 299 entries. Legge’s list therefore starts at number 300, and I reproduce the first entry to give a flavour of this document, which is surprisingly crude, and to introduce it to readers of this blog:


Unfortunately, there is no individual entry for the chart, which is found under number 321, “Extracts from Peking Gazette, Treaties, &c.”, and in fact it is only because of later annotations to this entry that we know that this batch of materials comprised 3 printed volumes, 19 manuscript volumes, and 4 printed sheets, of which one was discarded as a duplicate in 1939 by EOW (Eric Otto Winstedt, who was keeper of the Oriental collections at the time). Let’s hope it wasn’t a duplicate of the chart!


And here is the description of the chart “written on the back” as Legge’s entry suggests, and in his own hand:


However, it is wrong. Although the chart does indeed depict the structure of the contemporary Chinese bureaucracy, it is not a directory, but a game.

This, together with almost everything else I now know about the chart, I learned from Puk Wing Kin when he visited me in Oxford in 2009. Most important to me as a cataloguer, he pointed out that certain characters in the chart are represented by simplified forms which are only homophonous in Cantonese. For example: you 由 is used for rou 柔 (both are pronounced yau in Cantonese), and zhuang 庄 is used for zang 贓 (in Cantonese both are pronounced jong). I was thus able to say with some certainty where the map was printed in my catalogue entry, rather than merely infer it from its provenance; the date of 1840 道光庚子 is clearly printed in the central panel.

Puk Wing Kin came to Oxford in 1995 to pursue doctoral research under David Faure; his subject was the Ming salt monopoly, and he gained his D.Phil. in 2007. He had been introduced to the chart as an M.Phil student at Hong Kong Baptist University in the early 1990s. He is now a history professor in the Chinese University of Hong Kong specialising in the socio-economic history of Ming and Qing China, and is thus well qualified to understand the complexities of the game. He has written a book about it, which was published in 2010, with a second edition in 2011:

遊戲官場 : 陞官圖與中國官制文化 / 卜永堅著
香港 : 中華書局, 2011
平裝1冊(96頁) : 圖, 表 ; 23公分 + 圖2張
ISBN 978-962-8931-75-0

The two charts reproduced in large format in the book are facsimiles of ours and one printed in Shanghai in the Republican period.

The book discusses the history of the game, which originated in the Tang and achieved its present form in the Ming. The details of the chart change from time to time, according to the contemporary structure of the Chinese bureaucracy. The book also explains the rules of the game. They are very complex, and I will not pretend to understand the details, but the aim is quite simple: to achieve high government office, which means reaching the post of Grand Secretary 大學士 in the Grand Secretariat 內閣, encircled in red in the following image:


This involves a long series of promotions and demotions, as set forth in the small print in each of the rectangular panels, all determined by the roll of dice and the movement of counters. As in life, much depends on where one starts from, which in the game is again determined by the roll of dice.

By playing the game, much can be learned about the bureaucratic structure of imperial China and how officials rose and fell within it, for which reason Wing Kin told me that he sometimes plays the game with his students.

Although on one level the game is a very sophisticated form of snakes and ladders, perhaps its nearest western equivalent is Monopoly, which leads to a comparison of the two. While both are aleatory – games of chance depending on the roll of dice – whereas the aim of one is to attain the highest office in the land through virtuous conduct, that of the other is to become rich by bankrupting one’s neighbours. Food for thought here, don’t you think?

I’m going to describe another piece of printed ephemera in my next blog entry, as it’s closely related. Appointment to any of the posts represented in the promotion chart depended on passing the official examinations that were periodically held at local, provincial, and metropolitan levels. We have a set of three papers that were used in the provincial examination at Nanchang in 1902 which I’d like to bring to your attention. They will be exhibited in the Proscholium of the Old Library for a few weeks from mid-February, the aim of the display being to illustrate the traditional Chinese preoccupation with success in examinations as the path to fame and fortune.

Four Tang poets

29 August 2013

So far, I have found seven editions in our collections that were published by the famous Ming Dynasty bibliophile Mao Jin 毛晉 (1599-1659). If there is one publishing house whose name will be familiar to those with an interest Chinese books, it will be his: the Jiguge 汲古閣, originally called Lüjunting 綠君亭.

Mao Jin started to collect books in his youth, and had family money to support his interest. If he was unable to acquire a Song edition, he would make a tracing of it (影宋鈔本) for his library, thus preserving the text and appearance of a number of editions that were subsequently lost. At an early stage of his publishing career he produced editions of the Thirteen Confucian Classics 十三經 and the Seventeen Dynastic histories 七十史, supposedly because of a dream he had while taking the provincial examination in 1627, in which a dragon appeared bearing two pennants, one inscribed with the word jing 經 (classics) and the other with shi 史 (histories). As the dragon is a symbol of the emperor, and the dream occurred at around the time of the Chongzhen 崇禎 emperor’s accession, Mao Jin took this as a divine command to start printing them.

All this is recounted in Fang Chao-ying’s entry for Mao Jin in Hummel’s Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing period (565-566), and further details of Mao Jin’s life and work are too well-known to repeat – there are many accessible accounts both in print and on the internet.

Mao Jin’s publications are a joy to book collectors and scholars owing to the excellence of both their recension and production. In the Bodleian collections, one in particular stands out, his edition of Four Tang poets 唐人四集 which I catalogue as follows:

唐人四集 / (明)毛晉編
線裝6冊 ; 30公分
Backhouse 477
内容 :
1. 歌詩編 : 四卷集外詩一卷 / (唐)李賀撰
2. 唐英歌詩 : 三卷 / (唐)吳融撰. – 清康熙四十一年[1702]洞庭席啟寓琴川書屋刊「唐詩百名家集」本
3. 唐風集 : 三卷 / (唐)杜荀鶴撰
4. 竇氏聯珠集 : 一卷 / (唐)竇常, (唐)竇牟, (唐)竇群, (唐)竇庠, (唐)竇鞏撰 ; (唐)褚藏言輯

The first printed leaf of the copy is the so-called “cover page” (fengmian 封面). This often gets called a “title-page” by western writers (including me), but wrongly so, as it serves a different purpose. Traditionally, booksellers would spread out their books on tables inside the shop or even on the street, and the “cover-page” was designed to attract attention to them. This is why they so often contained mendacious attributions to famous authors or distinguished publishers.

The cover page of Backhouse 477 is visible only with difficulty, as it was encapsulated in a doubled leaf of the interleaving paper when the book was restored in Peking – I will discuss this procedure below.

 ftp2  ftp1

But we can just see the attribution of the editing work and printing (correct, in this case) to Mao Jin, corroborated by two of his seals: 「毛氏正本」 and 「汲古閣」.

This is a scholarly edition, and was clearly owned by a scholar. This is evident from the annotations throughout the second work in the copy, the poems of Wu Rong. According to a manuscript colophon after the table of contents, the copy was originally owned my a “Mr Xu of Wucheng” 吴城徐氏, but as it lacked the poems of Wu Rong, these were supplied from a different edition as described above. The writer of the colophon has taken the trouble to compare the two editions, and to note the discrepancies in his own copy and supply what is lacking, including the short biography of the author at the end of the text.

Here is the colophon and the first page of the text – the image also shows some of the annotations:

ftp3  ftp4

It is tempting to speculate on the identity of the writer, who signs himself “Jingxi” 景溪 in the eighth month of 1770 乾隆庚寅, with the seal “Huaidong” 懷東.

The Backhouse Collection contains many books that were formerly in imperial collections and owned by famous scholars and statesmen, and it is possible that “Jingxi” may be Xi Ao 席鏊 (字景溪), a juren 舉人 graduate of 1729 who rose to the Grand Secretariat and knew a thing or two about poetry. The timing fits reasonably well, although the date of his death is not recorded, nor are the words “Huaidong” 懷東 on the seal. I have reproduced this and the other owners’ seals in my list, but unfortunately have not been able to identify any of the owners, nor to read all the seals with any certainty.

Backhouse 477 is one of many books in the Backhouse Collection which were restored in Peking in the closing years of the Qing dynasty before being sent to Oxford from 1913 onwards. These books are models of the traditional art of Chinese book restoration at its height, and I used them when preparing the translation referred to at the end of my piece on Sinica 41. In fact, only by studying them was I able to understand what the Chinese manual was referring to.

The most sophisticated restoration format is the so-called “jade set in gold” ( jinxiangyu 金鑲玉) binding. This allows the original leaves to be preserved almost untouched whilst at the same time allowing the interleaving leaves to be trimmed and thus present a pristine appearance to the reader. The name comes from an old story in which the jade seal of an ancient kingdom got broken, and was repaired by binding the pieces together with gold wire. The leaves of the book correspond to the broken jade pieces, and they are held together by the gold wire of the interleaving.

In a “jade set in gold” binding, the interleaving extends beyond the leaves of the original, so that it can be trimmed without loss to them. Compensating slips of paper need to be present in the portions of interleaving that extend beyond the leaves of the original so that the two are of equal thickness. This is achieved by folding the interleaving paper as described in my translation of the Chinese manual. Here is one of the illustrations from it which shows how this structure functions:


Traditionally in China the lamination of thin or damaged leaves was avoided as it both reduced the flexibility on which the functioning of the binding structure depended, and also attracted insects through its extensive use of paste. Doubled leaves were supported by interleaving, and their edges were protected by extending it as described above

But this is not possible with single leaves, for example the cover page of this copy. This could have been converted into a doubled leaf by extending it, but the restorer chose to encapsulate it rather than alter its original form, which would have had the additional disadvantage of using paste.

The leaves from the second work in Backhouse 477 (which was supplied from a different edition) are smaller than those of the rest of the work, so they were extended to make them match. The paper used to make the extensions was dyed to make it harmonise with the original, but not so much as to make it identical. This is clearly visible in the illustrations above.

Thus the approach of the traditional Chinese book restorer conforms with modern conservation requirements in so many ways: respecting the original, sacrificing no part of it, and ensuring that all alterations are visible and reversible.

There is one final twist to the story of Backhouse 477.

Among Alexander Wylie’s books is the following work:

汲古閣校刻書目 : 一卷補遺一卷刻板存亡考一卷 / (清)鄭德懋編
線裝1冊 ; 30公分
Sinica 800

This is a list of the books printed by Mao Jin (although it is believed to be very incomplete), and it is of exceptional interest. It starts with a list of titles together with a total page-count, but also contains an amazing section which tells us what happened to the printing blocks (刻板存亡考). In most cases this is not known, so the list is quite short, with only two dozen titles on three leaves. Also the details are usually quite brief, for example “blocks in the possession of Mr Jiang of Suzhou” (板存蘇州蔣氏), “blocks no longer in existence – edition copied by Mr Xia of Songjiang” (板已無 有松江夏氏翻板) and so forth.

But when it comes to the Four Tang poets, we find the longest entry of all, telling the following charming story:

The blocks have been used as firewood for boiling tea water. The story goes that Mao Jin had a grandson who was fond of tea. He had bought some fresh new “Azure Vine” tea leaves from Mount Dongting, and some water from the Jade Crab Spring on Mount Yu. His only regret was that he lacked some good firewood. He therefore looked at the printing blocks of Four Tang poets, heaved a sigh and said: “If I use these to boil the water for my tea, it will taste twice as good.” And so each day he split a few of them up, and burnt them.

And then, perhaps, we find the reason why the second work in our copy, the poems of Wu Rong, went missing:

Of the works in Four Tang poets, the Poems of Wu Rong is the best edition. Mr Xi also printed this title in his Works of one hundred Tang poets [the edition used to replace it in Backhouse 477], but his text is lacking as many as two or three hundred characters, so that people can’t read it properly. So the Jiguge edition is to be highly prized.

The last flowering

22 August 2013

In May 2006 Christer von der Burg sold me a copy of what will probably prove to be the last major Chinese book to have been printed by woodblock. I have just catalogued it as follows:

里堂道聽錄 : 四十卷 / (清)焦循撰
附 焦里堂先生年譜 : 一卷 / 江蘇廣陵古籍刻印社輯錄
線裝40冊 ; 29公分
Sinica 6044

The book is a collection of short philological pieces by the prolific Qing Dynasty scholar and philosopher Jiao Xun (1763-1820), a native of Yangzhou. The original manuscript is in the National Library of China, and was photolithographically reproduced in the 1990s (the publication is undated) in its series of rare editions in its own collections (北京圖書館古籍珍本叢刊 – the National Library of China was then still called Peking Library, and its publishing house was called Shumu Wenxian Chubanshe 書目文獻出版社).

According to the information supplied by Christer, the edition took twenty years to produce, during which time two scribes and ten different block-cutters worked on it. In the Serica entry for the work I have presented many images from this book for the obvious reason that the edition will probably be the last of its kind, and readers may be curious to know what it looks like. Here is one of the images, the first page of text:


Although the blocks appear to have been finely cut, the quality of the impression is not at all good. There is a fuzziness which should not be present given that only one hundred copies had been taken from the blocks when we received ours – I have crystal-clear specimen impressions from blocks that were cut centuries before these, among them leaves from the Manchu Tripitaka and the Tetsugen Tripitika at Mampukuji near Kyoto. I think the reason might be partly due to the use of unsuitable paper.

Owing to this extraordinarily small print run, the book is not widely distributed, and it may be that ours is the only copy in Europe. WorldCat shows eight copies in the United States, one in Taiwan, and one in Hong Kong. The only other copy I have found is in the National Library of China. It is very odd that none can be found in Japan.

The National Library of China gives the imprint as 「南京 : 江蘇古籍出版社, 2001」. In WorldCat we find that nine of the ten libraries represented express the imprint as 「南京市 : 江蘇古籍出版社, 2001」 and one as 「揚州 : 廣陵書社, 2001」.

It is depressing indeed that librarians continue to follow slavishly rules that were written on the back of an envelope (see John Joliffe’s work on the subject) rather than tell readers what an edition actually is. AACR and MARC were devised primarily for cataloguing modern printed books in English;  traditionally produced Chinese books are about as far removed from that as it is possible to be.

For this reason, I follow the traditional Chinese practice of expressing the edition of a book in a single sentence of classical Chinese. Thus, my statement for this edition tells the reader exactly how the book was produced and distributed; the WorldCat and NLC records do neither, and only one refers to Yangzhou – the whole point of the edition, as it was produced in homage to one of that city’s most famous scholars!

The clashing rocks

17 July 2013

What to call this blog entry was solved by an article in last week’s Independent (Tuesday 9 July 2013, 28-29) by David McNeill. Presumably the author found the image on the internet – I think I’ve found the one he used, which appears in numerous locations, and is rather good.

Asia Disputed Islands

The article concerns the Senkaku Gunto 尖閣群島, the uninhabited group of rocky islands situated in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Okinawa. I give the islands their Japanese name because the Japanese are currently their internationally accepted owners, backed by American interests in the area. They are however claimed by the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, who know them as the Diaoyu islands 釣魚島 or Diaoyutai 釣魚臺.

The positions of all the claimants, together with their arguments, are set out comprehensively in the Wikipedia account of the dispute. And an interesting piece by Daniel Dzurek, written some while ago but rich in detail, is to be found here.

For sure, Diaoyutai is the earliest recorded name of the islands, and the reason the matter finds itself in this blog is because by an extraordinary coincidence, the first textual references to them appear in two documents of entirely different provenance in the Bodleian Library.

Both texts were discovered by Xiang Da (Hsiang Ta 向達) during his stay in Oxford from November 1935 until December 1936, which had been arranged by Yuan Tongli (Deputy Director of the National Library of Peiping), E.R. Hughes (recently appointed Reader in Chinese Philosophy and Religion at Oxford University), and Edmund Craster (Bodley’s Librarian) to enable him to catalogue the Library’s Chinese collections. Xiang Da’s stay in Oxford has been documented by Frances Wood in a recently published memorial volume for him (敦煌文獻‧考古‧藝術綜合研究 : 紀念向達先生誕辰110周年國際學術研討會論文集 / 樊錦詩, 榮新江, 林世田主編. – 北京 : 中華書局, 2011. – ISBN 978-7-101-08337-8). The original English text of her account can be seen here.

Xiang Da’s work in the Bodleian is particularly important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, he set up the first Chinese card catalogue in the Bodleian, and as described by Frances Wood, it was constructed along very sound lines which other libraries at the time would have done well to follow. I was still adding to this catalogue until it was closed in 1991, when automated Chinese cataloguing began.

And secondly, he wrote a lengthy article on the Bodleian’s historic Chinese collections, albeit with a few errors, in the journal of Peiping Library (as the National Library of China was then called) which introduced them to a wide audience in the Far East, and is still used to this day (瀛涯瑣誌 – 記牛津所藏的中文書, in 北平圖書館館刊 10:5, 1936, 9-44).

It is here (pp.30-33), I think, that the two rutters were introduced to sinology (and to politics) for the first time, although at the time the article was written, the ownership of the Diaoyu islands was not much of an issue, so there was no reason to mention to them, any more than to mention the numerous other locations referred to in the texts.

Twenty-five years later, Xiang Da published an account of the texts, with full transcriptions of them:

兩種海道針經 / 向達校注
北京 : 中華書局, 1961
平裝1冊(277頁) : 圖, 地圖 ; 18公分
統一書號 11018.142

As a result, the rutters became widely known in the Far East, and in recent years, they have become available on the internet in various locations.

Less freely available are original images of the texts, which have only just been made. It is planned to make them available in their entirety from the Serica interface in the near future, but for the convenience of those who might be interested in this matter right now, in a moment I will show scans of the four places (two in each text) where the mentions of Diaoyutai occur. But first, a few notes on the texts themselves.

The first is the so-called Laud rutter, described as follows in my catalogue:

順風相送 : 不分卷 / (明)佚名撰
洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 26公分
MS.Laud Or.145

The title by which this book is known, Shunfeng xiangsong, appears only on its cover. It is undated, but Xiang Da strongly suspects that it was produced in the 16th century (p.4).

The ultimate Chinese provenance of the book is not known, and strange as it may sound, it hasn’t even been established how Laud got his hands on it. Xiang Da suggests that it came from “a European Jesuit university” (歐洲一所耶穌會大學), and indeed most of Laud’s manuscripts were of continental origin.

We know from western inscriptions on the book that it came into the Library in 1639:


and also that it was examined by Shen Fuzong and Thomas Hyde in 1687:


The second text is appended to a small collectaneum of military works, which as indicated by its shelfmark, is part of the famous Backhouse Collection which came to the Library in stages between 1913 and 1922:

兵鈐 : 內書八卷外書八卷 / (清)呂磻, (清)盧承恩編
附 指南正法 : 不分卷 / 佚名撰
線裝7冊 : 圖 ; 30公分
Backhouse 578

This collectaneum never seems to have been printed, and although several manuscript copies of it are in existence (there is one complete copy and two incomplete copies in Peking University Library, another in Nankai University Library, and an incomplete copy in Princeton), only the Backhouse copy contains the vital appendix.

This seems to confirm Xiang Da’s view that although the preface to the book is dated 1675, our copy was actually written out rather later at the end of the Kangxi period, when the appendix was added.

I have only recently transcribed the single seal impression on the Backhouse copy, which informs us that it was formerly in the ownership of Wang Zaiquan 王載銓 (1794-1854). This I learned from a discovery on the internet, which even led me to the very bronze seal from which the impression was made. If only identifying seals and their owners were always so easy! In view of the evanescence of things on the internet (to which I have referred before), for the sake of posterity, I have preserved the web-page in question here.

And here are the images of the passages concerning the Diaoyu islands. The leaves were originally unpaginated – my references are to the pencilled foliation done locally some decades ago.

順風相送, 13a:


順風相送, 62a-63a:


指南正法, 7b:


指南正法, 33b-34a:


Inevitably, I learned about these texts at a very early stage of my career, when my interest in our historic collections was developing in the late 1970s. But I did not know about the Senkaku Islands, nor the fact that their ownership was in dispute, until I received a letter from Kazuyoshi Umemoto, Second Secretary in the Japanese Embassy in London, dated 18 August 1981. The letter asked us to show Shunfeng xiangsong and any other related documents to Professor Toshio Okuhara, a specialist in international law and an authority on this matter. In the event, I don’t think Professor Okuhara ever came; I think it was Mr Umemoto himself, and he must have come at the approach of winter, because he had a pair of elegant leather gloves which he laid carefully on the desk before examining the manuscript. It is odd how irrelevant little details like this stick in one’s mind while one forgets more important things.

It may not be a coincidence that at the end of 1982, a year after Mr Umemoto’s visit, a second printing of Xiang Da’s book was produced. What had not been an issue in 1961 had clearly become one since, as evidenced in some small but significant changes to the text.

In glossing the island Huangweiyu 黃尾嶼 (p.168,n.1), the changes are as follows:

1961: 黃尾嶼為今尖閣群島之久場島. (“Huangweiyu is the present Kubashima in the Senkaku Islands.”)
1982: 黃尾嶼為我國臺灣省所屬島嶼. (“Huangweiyu is an island which belongs to our country’s Taiwan Province.”)

And in the place-name index (p.253) the entries for the alternative names of the islands have also been modified:

1961: 釣魚嶼 — 釣魚嶼為自臺灣基隆至琉球途中尖閣群島中之一島, 今名魚釣島, 亦名釣魚島. (“Daioyuyu — Diaoyuyu is one of the Senkaku Islands which lies on the way from Jilong in Taiwan to the Ryukus; its present name is Yudiaodao, and it is also called Diaoyudao.”)
1982: 釣魚嶼 — 釣魚嶼在臺灣基隆東北海中, 為我國台灣省附屬島嶼, 今名魚釣島, 亦名釣魚島. (“Diaoyuyu — Diaoyuyu is in the sea to the northeast of Chilong in Taiwan, and is an island belonging to our country’s Taiwan Province; its present name is Yudiaodao, and it is also called Diaoyudao.”)

1961: 釣魚臺 — 此指琉球群島中尖閣群島之魚釣島, 一般作釣魚嶼, 亦作釣魚臺. (“Diaoyutai — This refers to Yudiaodao in the Senkaku Islands in the Ryukus, and it is commonly called Diaoyuyu or Diaoyutai.”)
1982: 釣魚臺 — 此指臺灣基隆東北海上之釣魚島, 一般作釣魚嶼, 亦作釣魚臺. (“Diaoyutai — This refers to Diaoyudao in the sea to the northeast of Chilong in Taiwan, and it is commonly called Diaoyuyu or Diaoyutai.”)

Most recently, in September 2012, in a further attempt to cement their claim to the islands the Chinese published a large and detailed map of “The Peoples Republic of China’s Diaoyudao and associated islands” (ISBN 978-7-5031-7131-4); I remember buying a comparable map of the Falkland Islands in 1982 – how else was one to know where they were?

Apart from Mr Umemoto, to my knowledge the only other diplomat to examine the Laud and Backhouse manuscripts is Dr. Shen Lyushun, the Taipei Representative in London, who visited us  on 30 November 2012.

I don’t know if any representative of the Chinese government has ever examined the manuscripts in the flesh, but some years ago a student told me he had been asked to look at them on their behalf.

By way of a postscript: it is ironic that Xiang Da, who discovered the documents which are now being seen by some as favouring his country’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, should have perished as a class enemy during the Cultural Revolution – and in that I suppose his visit to Oxford didn’t help. He was sent to labour in the countryside, and having a weak heart, died there almost immediately in 1966.

Taboo characters

30 May 2013

This is the first of what I hope will develop into a series of entries in which I would like to illustrate the avoidance of taboo characters as a means of dating editions from examples in our own collections. Inevitably this will mean waiting not only until I discover them, but also until I have a better understanding of the process.

I will make a start with two copies of of Hongjianlu 弘簡錄 which I catalogued a while ago. This is a very large work in the “separate histories” 別史 category written and published by the Ming dynasty scholar Shao Jingbang (1491-1565). According to his entry in Goodrich and Fang’s Dictionary of Ming biography, the endeavour “cost him one thousand taels of silver, which, he emphasized, he had saved through thirty years of simple living” (p.1165). A shorter sequel was written a century later by his grandson Shao Yuanping (a jinshi of 1664). The combined edition was finished in the mid-Kangxi period, and I have catalogued it as follows:

弘簡錄 二百五十四卷 / (明)邵經邦撰
續弘簡錄元史類編 四十二卷 / (清)邵遠平撰
線裝100冊 ; 29公分
Backhouse 536
Sinica 716 (線裝80冊 ; 25公分)

hjl2   hjl1

It is usually possible to establish the date when the blocks of an edition were cut, and therefore the date when it was first possible to print it. But it is more difficult to establish the date of printing, given that printing blocks could last for decades and even centuries after they were produced. Sometimes (but rarely) a preface or so called “title-page” will give us specific information. But in the case of our copies of Hongjianlu, it is the avoidance of taboo, that is, the characters in the personal name of the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor, Hongli 弘曆.

On the title-page of the book (illustrated above) we can see one of the ways in which the taboo was avoided  – the substitution of the taboo character with a homophone, in this case the character hong 宏. And in the text of the book we can see another method – the omission of the final stroke of the taboo character. The illustrations below show an example from our Backhouse copy (left), and alongside it, the same example from the copy reproduced in Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書 (right):

hjl3  hjl4

It is already clear from the degradation of the printing block that our copy was printed much later that the copy from which the reproduction was made, but the avoidance of taboo in the first character of the title by excising the final stroke from the printing block enables us to be a little more precise about how much later the impression was made. And it is not quite as simple as the difference between 1699, when the blocks were finished, and 1736, when the Qianlong emperor ascended the throne.

The avoidance of taboo did not always take effect immediately, so to use it as a means of dating we have to establish when it became mandatory. I recently discovered a very concise and useful source of this information in the following work:

清代內府刻書圖錄 / 翁連溪編著
北京 : 北京出版社, 2004
pp.64-66: 清代內府刻書中的避諱制度

There we learn that the avoidance of taboo was not strictly applied at the beginning of the Qianlong period. Only in the thirteenth year (1748) was the order given to omit the last stroke of the character. And the use of either that method or the substitution of the character with a homophone was later still, with the order first being given in the twenty-fifth year (1760).

While it may not be hugely significant that our impression was taken sixty years after the blocks were carved, it is better to have the information than not to have it, and at least it enables me to add the qualification 「後印」 to my description with some certainty.


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