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
清康熙二十七年[1688]續錄三十八年[1699]邵遠平刊後印本
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 than 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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