The Red Decree

9 November 2011

Last Friday evening, together with two colleagues from Western Manuscripts I helped to entertain a group of parents from Cherwell School. The pattern was familiar: we had to choose one interesting item in our collections and talk about it for five minutes. I chose the Red Decree, a piece of Chinese ephemera which in recent decades has become less rare, as more copies are being discovered.

We need not dwell on what it is (it has been comprehensively described on the website of San Francisco’s Ricci Institute, where it is known as the “Red Manifesto“) but a word of clarification is in order. Actually, it is neither a decree nor a manifesto, but an open letter, written at the height of the “Rites Controversy” that was eventually to bring about the collapse of the entire Jesuit mission to China.

In 1705 Clement XI had forbidden Chinese Christian converts from practising the customary rites to ancestors, and when news of this and other complications reached China, it was considered so egregious that Kangxi sought explicit clarification from the Vatican. He therefore sent Antonio de Barros and Antoine de Beauvollier as envoys to Rome in 1706. They both drowned when their ship capsized near Portugal. In 1708 two further envoys were sent, José Ramón Arxo and Giuseppe Provana, but neither returned as Arxo died in Spain in 1711, and Provana died in 1720 on the return voyage. According to the Decree, while waiting for the return of these envoys, a further communication had been sent overland through the Russians.

In an attempt to discover their fate, this letter was sent to Canton to be given to all foreigners who arrived there, asking for information about them. It is written in Latin, Manchu, and a strange form of Chinese which is a mixture of classical and baihua 白话, perhaps to make it more easily understood by those to whom it was addressed.

It is printed from three wooden blocks, and in its general appearance, it resembles the bill proclaiming the foundation of the Qing Dynasty (Anmin gaoshi 安民告示) in 1644, although this is printed in Chinese only, and in black (see 清代內府刻書圖錄, 4-5).

How did I find the Bodleian copy? The story is worth telling, as it suggests that other copies might be lying unrecognised elsewhere.

When I first began to take stock of our old Chinese books in the late 1970s, I found a single folded sheet, printed in red, and bound in heavy boards under the shelfmark Chin.d.35. It must have been put there in the late 1880s when the sized oriental language collections were established during the Nicholson reclassification. At the time it meant nothing to me, so I replaced it unidentified, as previous generations of librarians had also done.

In 1992, I visited the impressive (and skilfully named) exhibition Impressions de Chine at the Bibliothèque Nationale, where “le Décret rouge” was displayed among other notable products of the Sino-European press. It had been identified by the Library’s Chinese curators, Monique Cohen and Nathalie Monnet. At the time, only three other copies were known, in London, Wolfenbüttel, and Stockholm.

The object reminded me of the object I had seen in Oxford some ten years previously, and when I returned, I was able to confirm that a fifth copy had now been found. I immediately had it removed from its boards and fully restored, and assigned it to its current location, Sinica 3762. During the course of the restoration work, the faintly pencilled words “F. Douce” were found on the verso. So our copy of the Red Decree is actually part of the bequest of the antiquary and book collector Francis Douce (1757-1834), and is possibly the last part of this enormous collection to be discovered and identified.

Now, the whereabouts of a further twelve copies are known, and here is a list of all sixteen:

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich
Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel (copy 1)
Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel (copy 2)
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Bodleian Library, Oxford
British Library, London
University Library, Cambridge
Muban Foundation, London
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
Sinological Institute, Leiden
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome
Royal Library, Stockholm
Rouleau Archives, Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco
Lilly Library (Boxer Collection), Indiana University
University Library (Wason Collection), Cornell
Private collection, Tokyo

There are none in China.

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