Archive for April, 2016

The state of things

6 April 2016

Regular readers of this blog might be thinking that I’ve lost interest in it, or even that I might be dead, as it is now some ten months since my latest offering. Neither is the case.

First, I had to finish my Serica project (to catalogue 5,200 of our pre-modern books). Then It was necessary to catalogue an extraordinary donation of missionary material collected by Arthur Bonsey, a Congregational minister who worked with the London Missionary Society in central China from 1882 to 1923 – I’ll be writing a blog entry about this before long.

And finally, I’ve been playing around with computers – a classic displacement activity, but one which occasionally produces something worthwhile. In particular, I’ve been tidying up and enhancing our implementation of the allegro software (developed by Bernhard Eversberg at Braunschweig Technical University) for cataloguing Chinese and other special collections in the Bodleian Library. This work has taken far longer than I expected.

Specimen pages  (書影)

One of the enhancements which is especially important to the work of describing our collections and making them widely known and accessible is the provision of “specimen pages” (書影) attached to the catalogue entry. The programming behind the button that does that has been done by my colleague Thaddeus Lipinski. I will explain the importance, and indeed the necessity for these specimen pages in my next blog entry.

Another enhancement adds to the allegro catalogue a function widely available in other databases, namely a link to texts which we have digitised and which are now available online.

Examples of these new functions can be seen here (go to the shelfmark index, and look for Backhouse 610 and Sinica 1250).

Pre-1920 Catalogue

Still on the subject of allegro, I have been whiling away the winter evenings by rescuing the Bodleian’s catalogue of pre-1920 (western) imprints; the rescued product, containing over one million records, can be seen here.

The Pre-1920 Catalogue is a project that was in full swing when I joined the Library on 5 April 1976, and its story is briefly told in the “About” section of the catalogue. I completed work on it only last week, and have presented it to the Library as a fortieth birthday present (we do things that way round here).

The Pre-1920 project was not only an early example of library automation, but was ahead of its time in encoding special glyphs (including Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew original script) using only the alpha-numeric keys on the standard English keyboard, with coded instructions in angle-brackets. Only now is it possible to display most of these glyphs on the computer screen. The system was the invention of John Jolliffe in the early 1970s; at the time he was Keeper of Catalogues, and subsequently became Bodley’s Librarian until his untimely death in 1985.

Constructing an allegro database from this data was relatively simple. What took time was mapping the data to UTF-8 values so that the glyphs could be displayed. Most of the original documentation had disappeared apart from a few pages which incredibly were preserved by a colleague who wasn’t even here at the time. Much had to be construed from the data itself, and I hope I’ve got it right. Certainly, Old Church Slavonic makes the Chinese script look like child’s play. Hebrew, with its short alphabet and lack of accented letters was easy, but the less said about Greek, the better.

To return to the matter in hand: old Chinese books. There have been a number of developments.

Zheng Cheng

Zheng Cheng 鄭誠 is a visiting scholar at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, from the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences 中国科学院自然科学史研究所 in Peking. He told me that his main research focuses on the history of science and technology in the Ming and Qing, especially military technology and the influence of European technology on Chinese firearms, and that his interest in the history of books is just “a hobby”.

Some hobby! He has just brought out an edition of the catalogue of the Ming bibliophile Qi Chenghan’s 祁承㸁 private library (Danshengtang 澹生堂), one of the largest in the late Ming. And out of the blue, he told me that he had read my blog entry of 27 March 2012 in which I asked for help in identifying seals, and promptly identified most of the impressions reproduced here.

In Cambridge, he has been hunting down 17th-century accessions both in the University Library and the colleges, and has made a number of discoveries which he has given me to add to my rather primitive, but I hope increasingly comprehensive 17th-century page.

All this is primarily to acknowledge his help and to thank him for it.

Southern Ming calendars

Another example of the fifty copies of the Southern Ming calendar for 1671 presented to Ellis Crisp by the “King of Formosa” (Zheng Jing 鄭經) has turned up in the library of Christ Church – I have made a note of it both on my 17th-century page (just cited) and also in my blog entry on these calendars.

I was told about it by the Christ Church librarian Cristina Neagu, and immediately went to examine it. Her discovery brings the total of known surviving copies to eight, and I’m sure that a few more will eventually turn up.

I’ve lived in Oxford for forty years, and my house is only a few minutes’ walk from Christ Church. I’ve shown visitors around many times, but had never entered the library until I went to see the calendar. What a spectacular interior! The 18th-century plasterwork in the Upper Library is extraordinary – so three-dimensional that one wonders how it stays up.

The Red Decree

Finally, another copy of the Red Decree has been found, in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. It was discovered in their online catalogue by Devin Fitzgerald, who is writing a dissertation at Harvard on the global trade in Chinese books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He will visit Oxford in July.

That brings to 16 the number of known extant copies, and I’ve added it to the list in my blog entry. Quite an increase from the four that were known when I entered the profession! As I’ve pointed out several times already, the internet is making rare Chinese books less rare by the day.