Archive for the 'encyclopaedias' Category

Yongle dadian – 2

9 December 2014

In several places elsewhere in this blog I have explained the nature of Chinese encyclopaedias and their importance as a source of lost texts.

It is well known that when Siku quanshu 四庫全書 was being compiled during the Qianlong period, 385 of the works it contained (more than ten per cent of the total) which were otherwise lost were reconstituted from quotations in Yongle dadian. Less well known is the precise manner in which this was done.

This leads to the second feature of Yongle dadian that has interested me over the years, the Siku quanshu forms that are pasted inside the front covers of some of the volumes. Such forms are found inside four of the Bodleian’s nineteen volumes; three of them are printed, and a fourth is in manuscript. Here’s what they look like:

form-16217

These forms are extremely valuable pieces of ephemera, as they give us a glimpse of the working practices of the editors which would otherwise be completely unrecorded – Chinese scholars of that period (if not all scholars of all periods) are not known for their interest in the practical and mundane. For this reason, when examining and taking stock of the volumes of Yongle dadian in European libraries, I made a careful note of the existence or otherwise of these forms, which can be summarised as follows: of the total 59 volumes, forms are present in 12, there are traces of forms in 16, and there is no evidence of forms in 31.

And so in the tiny sample that the European corpus represents (scarcely 0.5% of the total), forms, or evidence of them, are present in less than half. Not only is this sample too small to be scientific, but we don’t know whether the volumes lacking forms ever had them, or whether they might have disappeared if the volumes were ever repaired or rebound.

At first I thought that no work could have been done on these forms, because access to original volumes of Yongle dadian is limited, and the Zhonghua Shuju reprint of 1960/1984 (cited in my paper on the European holdings) is somewhat sanitised, reproducing only the text itself and not the covers and associated material. So in spite of the inadequacy of the European sample, I thought the path was open either to me to make a second original contibution to sinology, or to a bright student to make it the subject of a dissertation. But yesterday, my hopes were dashed when after a little searching in CNKI’s online database Chinese Academic Journals, I discovered an article on this very topic by Zhang Sheng 张升, a professor of Ming and Qing history and literature at Peking Normal University with a particular interest in Siku quanshu studies (《四库》馆签佚书单考, in 中国典籍与文化, 2006:3, 61-66).

Zhang Sheng first explains the structure of the forms. This is mostly self-evident, and I will illustrate it in a moment from one of the forms in the Bodleian volumes. He then uses the forms to investigate the identity of the thirty scholars who are known to have worked on extracting the lost passages from each volume. He has been able to identify twenty of the thirty names from the labels he has seen (mostly in China and Japan), together with the range of juan he reckons each of them worked on. Strangely, he gathers evidence from one of the forms preserved in a volume in the Bodleian (juan 5244-5245), but does not mention those in the other two volumes (juan 15073-15075 and 16217-16218) which would have filled a large gap in his list and enabled the names Min 閔 and Chen 陳 (from Guangdong 廣東) to be added; nor does he consider the volumes in the United States and elsewhere in Europe. Next he examines the process of the extraction itself, and finally determines the precise time when this took place. In all these four areas of enquiry, the forms are the primary if not the only source.

Here is one of the forms in a Bodleian volume with the entries explained:

form-15073b

A. name of the editor reponsible for identifying the texts that should be copied from the volume
B. juan numbers contained in the volume
C. titles of works from which text should be copied, followed by the number of passages to be copied from each
D. total number of works to be copied, followed by the total number of passages to be copied (two or more may have to be copied from the same work)
E. date the volume was processed
F. name of the scholar designated to copy out the passages

All the forms were printed from the same block, dated the 38th year of Qianlong (1773) – only the month and and day were to be completed in manuscript (E). We thus know precisely when the work was done. For some reason not yet explained, the name of the person who was to do the copying (F) has not been entered in any of the surviving forms.

So from the example shown, we learn that an editor called Min worked on juan 15073-15075 on the 12th day of the 8th moon of the 39th year of Qianlong (27 September 1773), and identified twenty passages to copied from that volume, taken from seventeen different texts.

Another way of monitoring the texts and passages to be copied, and not noted by Zhang Sheng, is exemplified by the printed form in the facsimile (very fine, as it happens) of juan 7889-7890 made in Nanking in 2003, and the manuscript note in juan 1036-1037, one of the Bodleian volumes:

form-7889 form-1036

Here, the titles of the texts are listed in the normal way, but each passage copied from them is indicated by a circle, not the total number; the editor must have been drawing the circles as he went through the volume, so as not to lose count. And so we get a very close look at the actual working practice of the editors, and see that they did the job in exactly the same way as we would do it today.

Another interesting piece of evidence is found in juan 13872-13873, a volume also in the Bodleian, where we have the remains of a printed form together with a manuscript slip bearing the words  「此本無簽」 “this volume has no label”. This must mean rather more than what is obvious, but what, I wonder?

form-13872a

Looking again at the example of a completed form explained above, we see that two passages were to be copied from the text Gujintou 古今黈, which in Siku quanshu and subsequent printed editions is always called Jingzhai gujintou 敬齋古今黈, Jingzhai being the fancy name of its author Li Ye (1192-1279), the famous Yuan dynasty mathematician. The lost work contained his literary anecdotes (biji 筆記):

form-15073a

Here is the first of the two passages in this volume:

SKQS2

And here is how they end up in juan 2 of the reconstituted work, reproduced here from the online version of Siku quanshu:

SKQS1

I have no idea how or on what basis the many fragments of text were assembled to reconstitute the complete work, that is, in what order they were fitted together, and how the juan divisions were decided.

I still feel a sense of excitement when looking at these original volumes of Yongle dadian, seeing the very manuscript from which lost texts were reconstituted, and the evidence of the precise manner in which this was done. Whether these volumes are appropriately located is a different matter, and I’ll be looking into this presently.

Yongle dadian – 1

3 December 2014

My only original contribution to sinology is to discover a hitherto unrecorded volume of the well-known Chinese encyclopaedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典.

The discovery took place in April 1997 during the course of a conference held at the University of Aberdeen to mark the centenary of the death of James Legge, a missionary to China from the nearby town of Huntley who subsequently became a pioneering sinologist and first Professor of Chinese at the University of Oxford.

At a soirée in the University Library in connection with this event, I asked Myrtle Anderson-Smith if the special collections, of which she was currently in charge, contained any Chinese books. She could only recall a large fascicle covered in yellow silk, with the text in black and red. It could only have been a fascicle of Yongle dadian, and an examination of it the following day confirmed that this was indeed the case – the unusually large size of Yongle dadian‘s fascicles, in addition to the unique binding and distinctive presentation of the text, make an impression that is relatively easy to recall. Easy, that is, if you’ve ever seen or handled them.

Thereafter, I came to be regarded as something of a specialist in Yongle dadian studies, and was asked to present an account of the British holdings of this work at a conference in Peking in 2002 to mark the 600th anniversary of the start of its compilation. For my presentation there, I gathered as much information as I could about the circumstances under which the surviving fascicles of Yongle dadian were scattered in the aftermath of the Siege of the Legations in the summer of 1900, carefully recording the precise provenance of every single fascicle.

I subsequently expanded this paper to include all the fascicles of Yongle dadian in European libraries, completing the account only in October when I visited Dublin to see the three fascicles in the Chester Beatty Library. My work is rather turgid, and consists largely of footnotes and a detailed table. The text itself is essentially the talk that I gave at the conference in Peking. It can be seen here.

Later, I was invited to give a talk about the Aberdeen fascicle at a meeting of the University’s Chinese Studies Group in March 2009, and took the opportunity of recording my understanding of what Chinese encyclopaedias are, and how the Yongle Dadian fits into the scheme of things. The text of that talk can be seen here.

Most recently, I have refashioned my work for the current issue of Arts of Asia (44:6, 2014, 82-89) in a series of articles commissioned to coincide with the British Museum’s Ming exhibition, where a fascicle of Yongle dadian from the British Library’s collection is on show.

Very few people have even seen any of the surviving parts, let alone handled them. This is because we are dealing with a work that was never printed, and whose surviving parts are held by only a few libraries. The National Library of China holds most, but even when visiting that library as a representative of the great Bodleian Library in Oxford, I would not ask to handle them. It would be like a Chinese colleague coming to the Bodleian and asking us to produce a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio. In any case, a number of very faithful facsimiles give a good idea of what the original volumes feel like.

The scholarly content of Yongle dadian has been thoroughly exhausted, starting in 1773 with its use as a source for reconstructing lost works for the Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 project (and I can still remember the frosty reception that one of the participants got when he said as much at the Peking conference in 2002; rather like the reception that A.B. got at the hagiographical Legge conference in Aberdeen, when she said that the great man’s understanding of Chinese mythology was virtually nil).

In three (perhaps more) blog entries, I’m going to elaborate on features of Yongle dadian that have interested me, starting with its arrangement, which I think is both original and peculiar. It is illustrated in the following images of the cover and first leaf of text from one of the nineteen fascicles in our possession, which I catalogue as follows:

永樂大典 殘一卷(19735) / (明)永樂中解縉等奉敕編
明嘉靖隆慶間內府重寫本
包背裝1冊 ; 51公分
MS.Backhouse 1j = Arch.O.a.6/17

aoe0003 aoe0001

The cover has been repaired, but both the labels have been retained. In some cases one or both these labels have disappeared.

The label on the left is quite straightforward, giving the title of the work and the juan contained in that volume. In this case there is only one, but most of the surviving fascicles contain two or three. The juan are numbered consecutively throughout the work, giving no indication of their content. This is provided by the small label on the right.

Before the compilation of Yongle dadian, the biggest works ever produced in China were the Taiping yulan 太平御覽 (1000 juan, and completed in 983) and the Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜 (also 1000 juan, and completed in 1013); these were two of the so-called “Four great books of the Song Dynasty” 宋四大書 (the other two being the Taiping guangji 太平廣記 and Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華, completed in 981 and 982 respectively). All these works had been arranged by subject.

But Yongle dadian was more than twenty times bigger than the biggest of these “Four great books”, and it is recorded in the Ming Shilu that the emperor himself had required that the entries be arranged by rhyme, so that locating them would be “as easy as taking things out of a bag” 便如探囊取物 (明太宗文皇帝實錄, 20, 132). So far as I know, this is the first time that the entries in a Chinese encyclopaedia were arranged not by subject, which is inevitably arbitrary to some extent, but in the fixed order of a commonly accepted sequence of characters – the Chinese equivalent of our alphabetical order.

The rhyming sequence adopted was the one that had been used in a fairly recently compiled work that for a time became standard, the Hongwu zhengyun 洪武正韻, or “Correct rhymes of the Hongwu period”. This had been compiled in 1375 at the behest of the first Ming emperor, and was an attempt to establish the northern pronunciation of Mandarin as standard, but it actually reflects the southern Mandarin speech of its compilers.

We have two Ming editions of this work in our collections, which I will take the opportunity of presenting.

洪武正韻 十六卷 / (明)洪武八年[1375]樂韶鳳等奉敕撰
明嘉靖四十年[1561]巡按直隸監察御史劉以節刊本
線裝5冊 ; 31公分
Backhouse 406

s00794

洪武正韻 十六卷 / (明)洪武八年[1375]樂韶鳳等奉敕撰
明刊本
線裝5冊 ; 30公分
Sinica 539

s00792

It is clear from these specimen pages that both editions belong to the same family, being identical in format. Like all the editions curently represented in the CALIS database with the exception of a single edition from the very end of the dynasty (明崇禎四年[1631]), they must surely be copied from the first edition which was presumably an imperial edition made in the early Ming, although I have failed to find an edition so described in any catalogue.

The content of Hongwu zhengyun is arranged firstly by the four tones (which are not the same as those of modern Mandarin), and within each tone, by initial consonant and rhyme. Our Backhouse edition preserves its original labels and covers (they’re a bit damaged, but I’ll be getting them repaired), so that we can see how convenient the work is for locating the required character (indeed, as easy as taking it out of a bag):

s00796

Returning to the fascicle of Yongle dadian illustrated above, we see that the label indicates that the volume is the 76th (of a total 251) in the rhymes under the character wu 屋, the first character in the former fourth, or “entering” tone 入聲.

lu1

Here is where the character is located in Hongwu zhengyun (but finding it it was for me, at least, not quite as easy as taking it out of a bag):

lu3a lu2a

The table of contents of Yongle dadian, if there ever was one, has long ceased to exist. But in 1932, in the bulletin of the National Library of Peiping as it was then called, Yuan Tongli 袁同禮 reproduced a manuscript table of contents of the encyclopaedia that had recently come into the library’s possession, bearing the seal of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, where the encyclopaedia was formerly housed (永樂大典存目, in 國立北平圖書館館刊 6:1, 1932, 93-133). Yuan Tongli (1895-1965), a graduate of Peking University who went on to become a distinguished librarian, was fascinated with Yongle dadian, and made great efforts to establish the whereabouts of extant volumes, as noted in my paper on the European holdings referred to above.

Taiping yulan

28 March 2012

Two of the best known Chinese encyclopaedias date from the the reign of the second Song emperor, and bear the name of the Taiping period (976-983) in which they were compiled: the Taiping guangji 太平廣記 in 500 chapters, and the Taiping yulan 太平御覽 in 1,000 chapters. Both were compiled at imperial behest by the scholar Li Fang 李昉 working with a team of editorial assistants.

The Taiping yulan is the subject of this blog entry, in which I will describe two editions of it to be found in the Backhouse Collection, after a few words about each of the two encycopaedias by way of explanation.

The Taiping guangji 太平廣記 (guangji meaning “extensive record”), completed in 981, was compiled from informal, unofficial sources, such as histories written by private scholars and even accounts which we would regard as fairy tales. The compilation is derived from 475 different texts, of which one half are now lost, so that the Taiping guangji is now the most important source for early Chinese fiction. The Taiping yulan 太平御覽 on the other hand was a more general encyclopaedia, and was compiled from what at the time were regarded as more acceptable sources. As a repository for lost texts, it is even more impressive, for of the two thousand or so books and pamphlets from which it was compiled (of which 1,690 are listed in a prefatory chapter), three-quarters are no longer extant.

The Taiping yulan is not only bigger than any previous encyclopaedia, but at the time it was written also the biggest single Chinese work ever to have been compiled and published. It was completed in 983 and was first entitled Taiping leibian 太平类编 (leibian meaning “arranged in categories”), but it was then passed to the emperor, who examined three chapters a day during the course of almost an entire year, after which the second part of the name was changed to yulan, meaning “imperially perused”. This reminds us of the prototype Chinese encyclopaedia, the Huanglan 皇覽 (“for perusal by the emperor”), which was compiled for emperor Wen 文 of the Wei 魏 dynasty, who reigned from AD 220-227. This work is no longer extant, but some fragments quoted in other texts were pieced together by Sun Fengyi 孫馮翼 at the end of the 18th century. It was a collection of excerpts from the national literature, presented to the emperor in a way that was convenient for him to read, and is believed to have contained 120 chapters.

Between the Song and the Qing, only two editions of the Taiping yulan were made, and these appeared almost simultaneously in the Wanli period of the Ming. The first of the two examples of this work in the Backhouse Collection is a combination of both, and is described as follows:

太平御覽 一千卷經史圖書綱目一卷目錄十卷 / (宋)太平興國二年[977]李昉等奉敕撰.
明萬曆元年[1573]倪炳錫山刊本配補萬曆二年[1574]周堂銅活字印本
線裝160冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 534

I have spent more time on this work than on any other in the Bodleian’s collections, because it has been necessary to examine every single leaf carefully – and there are over 12,000. I did this in the early 1980s when I was preparing my catalogue of the Backhouse Collection for publication. Then thirty years later, when I began to prepare this blog entry, I got out my old notes and started to transcribe details from them. Half way through, I stopped to do other things. The next day, the notes had disappeared. I searched high and low for them, and can only suppose that I accidentally put them in the recycling box, and that they have now been reincarnated as lavatory paper. So last week I had to examine every single leaf all over again.

Normally, one wouldn’t examine a large work in this way. But in this case, there were no evidences of any kind as to the imprint, whether of the block printed or moveable type editions – no prefaces or postfaces, no colophon, and no indications on the blocks; and also, I caught sight of one of the very distinctive leaves from the moveable type edition, which was rather exciting. It turned out to be from the well-known but extremely rare edition printed by Zhou Tang 周堂 in 1574 from engraved bronze moveable type.

I derive my information about this edition from K.T. Wu’s 吳光清 classic article Ming printing and printers (Harvard journal of Asiatic studies 7:3, 1943, 203-260), where it is described on p.220; and also Wang Zhongmin’s 王重民 description of two copies of the work on pp.355-357 of his equally classic Zhongguo shanben tiyao 中國善本書提要 (this work, by the way, was completed by others and published posthumously for the first time in Shanghai in 1983).

The rarity of Zhou Tang’s edition is probably due to the fact that only a hundred or so copies were ever printed, as evidenced by two pieces of information in the lower banxin 板心 of some (but very few) of the pages:

宋板校正饒氏仝板 / 活字印行壹百餘部
宋板校正閩游氏仝 / 板活字印一百餘部

 

According to K.T. Wu, Rao Shiren 饒世仁 and You Tinggui 游廷桂 were both professional printers in Fujian, who made the engraved bronze (仝 = 銅) types at Wusi. These were subsequently acquired by collectors there who used them to have the book published under the supervision of Zhou Tang 周堂, who wrote a preface dated 1574.

The Bodleian copy contains the following leaves from Zhou Tang’s moveable type edition:

卷16-25; 81:1,8; 83:1,2; 340:10; 361:1-5,7-11; 362-365; 366:1-4,8-13; 367:1,2,4-12; 368:2-10; 369; 370:1-5,7-10; 378:12 (this leaf has 「卷三百七十八」 in the banxin 版心 but 「卷第三百十八」 at the chapter ending 卷末); 387:1; 464:2; 573:7; 632:6; 691:1; 755:6; 812:8; 814:4; 816:2,5,6; 821:2,4; 824:7; 828:13; 981:1,3,4; 983:1,2.

The edition displays all the characteristics of a Chinese moveable type edition: the variablity of the types, which were made individually and not mass-produced with punches and matrixes; the uneveness of the inking, as the types were held in place by wax and the impression made by hand, not with a press – in fact the forme was treated in exactly the same way as a conventional woodblock; and above all (and I was overjoyed when I found this example), by the occasional character that is upside down or on its side:

This occurs on leaf 816:6 (which happens to be mis-bound between pp.7 and 8).

Sometimes, moveable-type editions are less easy to identify, and the characteristics listed above may be largely absent – a good example being our second Backhouse copy of Taiping yulan described below, which has been printed to a very high technical standard. In a blockprinted edition, the lowest extremity of one character can, and frequently does, overlap with the highest extremity of the next; in a moveable-type edition, this is obviously impossible.

The main part of the Bodleian copy must be from Ni Bing’s 倪炳 block-printed edition of 1573, which is alike in format, and also rare. Outside the text of Taiping yulan, I have only been able to find the words 「江孔脩校錄」 which appear at the very end of juan 34.

 

Ni Bing’s edition has been produced rather carelessly.

For example, the banxin 版心 of juan 185:3 has 「卷一百八十四」, 325:9 has 「卷四百二十五」, and 451:6 and 7 both have 「卷四百五十二」; the chapter ending 卷末 of juan 281 has 「卷第二百八十二」; juan 964:1 has 「卷六十四」 at its beginning 卷端, and 「九百六十七卷」 in the banxin. In juan 742, the juan numbering is treated as page numbering, so that 742:7 has 「七百四十三卷」 in the banxin, and 742:8 has 「七百四十四卷」; order is restored at 742:9.

Some mistakes are of the sort one might expect to find in a typeset edition. Juan 73:4 has 「卷三十七」 in the banxin; 405:6 has 「卷四卷百五」; 825 has 「卷第八百五十二」 at its beginning 卷端, and 925 has 「卷第九百二五十」.

The careless approach evident in the block-cutting is also apparent in the collation of the printed leaves, so that for example there are two copies of 302:3, one in its correct place, and the other where 337:3 should be; and the collator of juan 351 must have been drunk, as 344:4 in inserted for 351:4, 310:6 for 351:6, and 342:8 for 351:8. Instances of missing leaves are legion.

One single leaf in the entire copy is supplied in manuscript: 26:1.

The latest date when the two editions were combined is evidenced by the manuscript alteration of the following characters (and doubtless others) on the leaves of both editions to avoid taboo:

  • 玄, 弦, 土+玄(=壇), 昡, 泫, 炫, 畜, 絃, 蚿, 率, 曄 (188:8a)
    (to avoid the personal name of the Kangxi 康熙 emperor, Xuanye 玄燁)
  • 胤, (and the variant with 彳 on the left instead of 丿), 真
    (to avoid the personal name of the Yongzheng 雍正 emperor, Yinzhen 胤禛)
  •  弘, 泓, 曆, 歷
    (to avoid the personal name of the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor, Hongli 弘曆)

The characters have been altered by deleting the final stroke with a yellow brush, except in the case of the characters li 曆 and li 歷, where the first stoke of the element he 禾 has been struck out. I wonder if the excessively pious individual who conducted this laborious operation really knew what he was about? The rules state that the character li 曆 may be replaced with li 歷, which is not itself taboo.

So the copy must have been put together by 1796 at the latest. The fascicles are contained in 20 tao (8 in each) which are covered in coloured silk brocade, fastened with red-stained bone pegs, and bearing manuscript labels. I suppose the tao are contemporary with the marriage of the two editions in the 18th century; some of them are in bad condition. There are no collectors’ seals.

The other copy of Taiping yulan in the Backhouse Collection is also a bronze moveable-type edition:

太平御覽 一千卷經史圖書綱目一卷目錄十卷 / (宋)太平興國二年[977]李昉等奉敕撰.
清嘉慶十一年[1806]揚州汪昌序銅活字印本.
線裝100冊 ; 29公分
Backhouse 306

This has much more integrity than Backhouse 534, and is a classic example of a scholarly edition. There is no “title” (or “cover”) page 封面: the book starts with a series of prefaces, starting with the preface relating to the edition 太平御覽叙, by Yi Bingshou 伊秉綬, and dated 1806 (嘉慶十一年). Yi Bingshou was prefect of Yangzhou 楊州, and tells us that Wang Changxu 汪昌序 owned a copy of the Ming moveable-type edition, and decided to reprint 120 copies of it, again in moveable-type.

There follow the preface and postface (後序) to Zhou Tang’s edition (on which Wang’s was based), and then two Song postfaces (後序). The table of contents is in 10 juan, like Ni Bing’s printed edition. This is strange, as in Zhou Tang’s edition, the table of contents is in 15 juan.

There are also significant textual differences between the two moveable type editions.

There is a single seal 「平水周氏書記」 showing that the book was once owned by a certain Mr. Zhou from Pingshui, now a town (镇) in Shaoxing county 绍兴县, Zhejiang province 浙江省.

The earliest printing

10 November 2011

We have two copies of the great Song Dynasty encylopaedia Cefu yuangui, which was begun in 1005 and completed in 1013:

冊府元龜 一千卷目錄十卷 / (宋)景德二年[1005]王欽若等奉敕編
明崇禎十五年[1642]預章黃國琦五繡堂刊初印本
線裝300冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 81

冊府元龜 一千卷目錄十卷 / (宋)景德二年[1005]王欽若等奉敕編. –
明崇禎十五年[1642]預章黃國琦五繡堂刊後印本
洋裝50冊(原線裝200冊) ; 26公分
Sinica 2709

Both are of the late Ming edition made by Huang Guoqi, which is not at all rare. The Backhouse copy is a fairly early printing. The Sinica copy is later, and has been spoiled by the application of a western binding of the worst sort: glued and rounded. It was formerly in the Faculty Library (now the Chinese Studies Library), and was among the substantial collection of books acquired from Peking during the professorship of Homer H. Dubs. All were treated in this way, which greatly detracts from their value as objects and is already causing serious conservation problems.

In a roundabout way, this gives me cause to reflect on the very origins of printing.

It is well-known that the world’s earliest complete surviving printed book is Kumarajiva’s translation of the Diamond Sutra 金剛般若波羅蜜經 in the British Library, which was printed in AD 868.

By “book” I mean an assemblage of printed sheets – there are single-sheet items and printed fragments that are believed to date as far back as the 7th century, some eight centuries before the first appearance of printing in Europe. There is also good reason to believe that the printing of texts was commonplace by the 8th century, as the practice had already spread to other parts of East Asia by that time. This is evidenced in Korea by the printed dharani (Buddhist charm) discovered in the base of a stone pagoda in Pulguksa erected in 751 in Kyongju, and in Japan by the million dharani 百万塔陀羅尼 commissioned by the Empress Shōtoku in 764 in gratitude for the suppression of a rebellion, of which many copies are extant.

Less well-known (and it does not follow) is the fact that the world’s earliest textual reference to printing is also Chinese. It is found in the Old Tang history 舊唐書 (17下), the first version of the “dynastic history” of the Tang, completed in 945. It refers to an event that took place in 835:

[太和九年]十二月[…]丁丑,敕諸道府不得私置曆日板。

On the day dingchou of the 12th month (29 December), the order was given to the circuits and prefectures to disallow the private production of printing blocks for calendars.

The text of which this is a summary is preserved in full in Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜  (160:5b). The reason is this. The sections of Cefu yuangui which deal with the Tang and Wudai periods quote the “veritable records” 實錄 of those dynasties, which are no longer extant. The “veritable records” were used to compile the “dynastic histories”, which are a very much condensed account. This episode not only illustrates the process perfectly, but also demonstrates the value of Chinese encyclopaedias in preserving lost texts. The entries in Chinese encyclopaedias are not digests, as in western encyclopaedias, but direct quotations from their sources. So although this extract refers to something that happened almost two centuries before the Cefu yuangui was compiled, there can be no doubting its authenticity:

九年十二月丁丑, 東川節度使馮宿奏准勑禁斷印曆日版。劍南兩川及淮南道,皆以版印曆日鬻於市。每歲司天臺未奏頒下新曆,其印曆已滿天下。有乖敬授之道。故命禁之。

On the day dingchou of the 12th month of the 9th year [of Taihe] (29th December 835), Feng Su, military commandant of Dongchuan, submitted a memorial to the throne requesting that the printing of calendars from wooden blocks should be prohibited. From the two commanderies of Jiannan (Dongchuan and Xichuan, west of Chengdu) as far as the Huainan circuit (around Yangzhou in the east), block-printed calendars were for sale in the marketplace. Each year, these printed calendars could be found everywhere, before the Board of Astronomy had submitted the new version to the Emperor for official distribution, in violation of the correct practice for promulgating the calendar. Consequently the order was given to prohibit it.

[The commandery of Dongchuan 東川 was situated at Zizhou梓州 (modern Santaixian 三台縣 in Sichuan 四川 province). The 劍南兩川 were the commanderies of Jiannan Dongchuan 劍南東川 (see above) and Jiannan Xichuan 劍南西川 which was in Chengdufu 成都府. 敬授 is an allusion to 敬授人時 which occurs in the 書經 “to deliver respectfully the seasons to be observed by the people” (Legge, Shu King, p. 32). 有乖敬授之道 therefore might be rendered “in violation of the practice of issuing the calendar”. 《書•堯典》:“乃命羲和,欽若昊天,曆象日月星辰,敬授人時”。蔡沈集傳:“人時,謂耕獲之候”。]

“From the two commanderies of Jiannan as far as the Huainan circuit” is in fact almost the entire length of the Yangze. So this report shows not only how early printing was taking place, but also how widespread it was.

Furthermore, it is highly significant that the printing referred to is of calendars, the production of which was one of the most important functions of the central government throughout the entire history of dynastic China. In fact the two characters jingshou 敬授 in the expression that I have here paraphrased as “the correct practice for promulgating the calendar” are taken directly from a passage in the second book of the Confucian canon, the Book of History 書經 (堯典).

In this most sacred of texts, fixing the calendar is among the duties of the sage king:

乃命羲和,欽若昊天,曆象日月星辰,敬授民時。

Thereupon Yaou commanded He and Ho, in reverent accordance with their observation of the wide heavens, to calculate and delineate the movements and appearances of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the zodiacal spaces; and so to deliver respectfully the seasons to be observed by the people.

and:

帝曰:”咨!汝羲暨和。期三百有六旬有六日,以闰月定四时,成岁。允厘百工,庶绩咸熙。”

The emperor said, “Ah! you, He and Ho, a round year consists of three hundred, sixty, and six days. By means of an intercalary month do you fix the four seasons, and complete the determination of the year. Thereafter, in exact accordance with this, regulating the various officers, all the works of the year will be fully performed.”

[tr. Legge, The Chinese classics IIIi (1865), 18, 21-22.]

I shall return to the theme of the calendar, and the solemn duty of compiling it, in a future posting.