Reversed inscriptions: Chinese writing going from left to right

I have come across an inscription which is read in reversed order, that is, from left to right. This is a famous inscription called Mogaoku ji (Record of the Mogao Caves) on the wall of the antechamber of Cave 156 at the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. A copy has also been preserved on a Tang manuscript that is kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Pelliot chinois 3720) but there the text follows the usual order, from right to left.

Seeing this reversed inscription for the first time, I became quite curious about it and naturally wanted to make sure that it really was written from left to right. Unfortunately the original inscription is no longer visible due to recent deterioration and I could see literally nothing on the photographs. A tracing made a few decades earlier makes it possible to read the text and there the direction is reversed (see image below). Although I remained suspicious about the correctness of the tracing, recently I came across several other inscription-type writings executed in a similar manner, from from left to right. These are found among the textiles in the collection of the Museé Guimet, quite a few of which have multi-column inscriptions at the bottom of the painting, usually related to the donors who appear on the two sides of the text. These writings are written the same way as the Mogaoku ji, going from left to right. Now the textiles also come from Dunhuang and it is possible that this direction of writing was adopted from the Tibetans who had exerted a strong influence on Buddhist culture in Dunhuang. But to prove this, we would need more documents and the dates of the inscriptions would have to be determined with better precision. Also, it would be useful to have more examples of this phenomenon, to know whether it ever occurred in Central China or only in Dunhuang which had been occupied by the Tibetans for several decades and separated from the rest of China for another century or so.

Chinese inscription going from left to right (Mogaoku ji)
Chinese inscription going from left to right (Mogaoku ji)

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Manuscript copies of stone inscriptions

Putting some of my older publications online:

Manuscript copies of stone inscriptions in the Dunhuang corpus: Issues of dating and provenance
(Imre Galambos)
Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques LXIII, 4, 2009: 809-826.

Modern observers tend to simplify the complex process of textual transmission and imagine that in a manuscript culture texts were handed down by scribes copying manuscripts in a long line of succession extending for generations. It is less commonly recognized, however, that manuscript copies were also routinely made from non-handwritten material, such as printed works or stone inscriptions. This paper looks at dated copies of stele inscriptions among the Dunhuang manuscripts, in an attempt to demonstrate the inherent difficulties in dating and establishing provenance for such copies. One of the main questions is whether the date in the colophon refers to the time when the text was carved into stone or the moment of creating the manuscript copy. The analysis reveals that there is no automatic answer to this problem, and the decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis. An additional lesson is that in many cases manuscripts are composite objects the components of which had a history of their own. The panels comprising a typical scroll often came from different locations and were written decades or more apart. It is through analyzing the interrelation of the texts and panels that we begin to uncover the complex process of the manuscript’s creation and the different layers of time and locations.

Read the whole article here: Manuscript copies of stone inscriptions in the Dunhuang corpus

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A Hungarian Visitor Among the Ainu

Putting some of my older publications online:

A Hungarian Visitor Among the Ainu: A Translation of Benedek Baráthosi-Balogh’s Travel Reports to Sakhalin and Hokkaido
(Imre Galambos)
Japanese Religions, Vol. 33, 1&2 (2008): 55-74

Benedek Baráthosi-Balogh (1870-1945) was a public school teacher in Budapest who carried out a series of ambitious trips to various parts of Asia during the first decades of the 20th century. His main aspiration was to document the cultural and linguistic links of Hungary with the Orient, although today he is primarily remembered for the ethnographic material he acquired on his trips, the most important of which are the ones he collected among the Ainu and the Siberian tribes of the Amur. His critics, and there have been many, invariably referred to his lack of scientific training, linguistic in particular. But no one has ever questioned his perseverance and enthusiasm that drove him to explore newer regions despite financial difficulties, physical hardship and unsteady political situation in the areas he visited.

He was a great admirer of Alexander Csoma de Körösi (1784-1842) who had walked to India in 1820 in search of the roots of Hungarians.1 Just like Csoma, Baráthosi was born and raised in Transylvania, and he moved to Budapest only in 1899, with the explicit aim of being able to prepare for his journeys better. There he worked as a public school teacher and did some of his shorter explorations in between school terms. Although by this time he had traveled extensively through Europe, his first trip to Asia was in 1903 when he spent a year and a half in Tokyo. It was during this longer stay in Japan that he visited the Ainu for the first time, trying to assemble an ethnographic collection. He was accompanied by his wife who traveled with him on most of his trips, and a close Japanese friend from Tokyo by the name of Katsura Tasobu. Before leaving Tokyo he had contacted Professor Matsumura Shonen 松村松年 (1872-1960) at the Sapporo Nogakko 札幌農学校 who promised that he would send a young Ainu with him to the villages to help him with his purchases. However, he was not able to meet with the professor in Sapporo and thus could not make any larger purchases. Instead, after a short survey of the island, he decided to return there later.

Read the whole article here: A Hungarian visitor among the Ainu

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The Third Ōtani Expedition at Dunhuang

Putting some of my older publications online:

The Third Ōtani Expedition at Dunhuang: Acquisition of the Japanese Collection of Dunhuang Manuscripts
(Imre Galambos)
Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 3/2008: 29-35

Aurel Stein’s 1907 visit to the hidden cave library at the Thousand Buddha Caves near Dunhuang, and especially his acquisition of a large number of manuscripts there, came as exciting news to archaeologists and researchers worldwide. Paul Pelliot’s visit a few months later yielded an equally impressive collection of documents, which was soon to stir the interest of leading Chinese intellectuals. As a result of their efforts, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a government directive to transport the remaining manuscripts to the capital in 1909, with this effectively putting an end to the sale of these to foreign explorers. However, the two members of the third Ōtani expedition were still able to acquire a significant number of documents in Dunhuang in 1911-1912.

Japan was a relatively new participant in the exploration of Central Asia. It had recently demonstrated its economic and military strength by unexpectedly defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and emerged as a major player in East Asia. As was the case with European imperialistic powers, Japan’s colonial ambitions were accompanied by an increased interest in the Qing empire, especially its non-Han regions of Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The archaeological exploration of North-West China, however, was conducted as a private enterprise rather than a government-sponsored project. The man behind these ambitious plans was Count Ōtani Kōzui 大谷光瑞 (1876-1948), leader of the powerful Nishi Honganji Branch of the Jodo Shinshu sect, who sponsored a series of expeditions with the specific aim of exploring the Buddhist sites of the region. While staying in London in 1900-1902, the young Ōtani was fascinated by the discoveries of Buddhist remains in Western China by European explorers such as Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein. He believed that as a Buddhist priest thoroughly trained in the Chinese tradition he would be able to make a contribution to the exploration of the spread of Buddhism in this region. In 1902, when it was time for him to leave London, he decided to return home to Japan with a handful of followers by taking the overland route via Central Asia. Although his own participation in the journey was cut short by the death of his father, his men stayed behind to continue the exploration for a total of two years…

Read the whole article here: The third Otani expedition at Dunhuang

Posted in 20th century, archaeology, Dunhuang, exploration, Japanese, Otani expeditions, published papers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Japanese ‘Spies’ along the Silk Road

Putting some of my older publications online:

Japanese ‘Spies’ along the Silk Road: British Suspicions Regarding the Second Otani Expedition (1908-09)
(Imre Galambos)
Japanese Religions, Vol. 35, 1& 2(2010): 33-61

The beginning of the 20th century saw the Golden Age of archaeology in Chinese Central Asia. Part of this great adventure were the three expeditions (1902-1914) organized and financed—as a private enterprise—by Count Ōtani Kōzui, leader of the Nishi Hongan-ji branch of the Jōdo Shin-shū sect in Kyōto. Towards the end of the second expedition, when the two members of the Japanese team arrived in Kashgar in June 1909, the acting British Consul was the young Captain Shuttleworth, temporarily replacing the experienced George Macartney who at the time was on leave. Influenced by allegations originating from Russian sources, Shuttleworth gradually became convinced that the Japanese explorers were engaged in espionage and archaeology was merely a disguise. In a series of correspondence with his superiors in British India, Shuttleworth made the case for seeing in the two explorers undesirable visitors. As a result, after crossing over to India, they were denied entry back to China through the British frontier, and had to re-enter through the Russian side, via Europe. From the distance of a century, archival sources in British and Japanese collections provide no evidence to support contemporary suspicions and it seems highly unlikely that the Japanese explorers would have been involved in espionage.

Read the whole article here: Japanese spies along the Silk Road

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Scribal Notation in Medieval Chinese Manuscripts

Putting some of my older publications online:

Scribal Notation in Medieval Chinese Manuscripts: The hewen (Ligature) and the chongwen (Duplication) Marks
(by Imre Galambos)
Manuscript Cultures (2010), No. 2.

Early Chinese manuscripts and inscriptions often make use of two devices referred to by modern researchers as hewen 合文 (ligature) and chongwen 重文 (duplication). Both of them are signified with the same mark, comprising two small dashes which are placed below the lower right corner of the character. The mark resembles the character 二 written in a small script, similar to what we would today call a subscript. Since the notation is identical in both cases, it is the context that determines whether it marks a joint character or a repetition.

The first examples of this notation date back to the oracle-bone records but their heyday was during the centuries BC 8th–3rd. While their use in inscriptional material up to the Han is relatively well-studied, there is almost no treatment of it with regard to paper manuscripts, especially ones from the post-Han period. In this article, I would like to use the Chinese manuscripts from Dunhuang and Turfan to demonstrate the application of this notation during the medieval period. This has added relevance because, although the continuity of orthography and its transitions from early China to the medieval period has been fairly well researched, the secondary or peripheral aspects of writing, such as the marking of repetitions or the notation used in editing and correcting mistakes, have received little attention…

Read the whole article here: Scribal Notation in Medieval Chinese Manuscripts

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Sir Aurel Stein, Lajos Ligeti and a case of mistaken identity

Putting online some of my older publications:

Another Hungarian looting China’s treasures? Sir Aurel Stein, Lajos Ligeti and a case of mistaken identity
(Imre Galambos)
Tonkō shahon kenkyū nenpō 敦煌写本研究年報, no. 4 (March 2010): 195-207.

The voluminous publication Zhonghua minguo shi dang’an ziliao huibian 中華民國史檔案資料匯編 (Archives of the History of the Chinese Republic) includes a group of documents called “Report related to the theft of historical artefacts in the Xinjiang and Gansu region by the British national Stein (May 1830–December 1931).” One of the files in the group is titled “Report of the Government of Jehol province regarding the coping of Buddhist scriptures by the Hungarian national Stein (September 9)”. In a recent article, the Chinese historian HUO Yunfeng 霍雲峰 scrutinized the details of Sir M. Aurel Stein’s (1862–1943) visit to China during 1930–1931 and came to the conclusion that the telegram from Jehol could not have been written about Stein. He concluded that the person mentioned therein must have been just an unrelated “ordinary man” (一小人物) who was investigated only because he was engaged in copying Buddhist writings and happened to have a Hungarian passport.

HUO was, of course, correct in pointing out the mistake of the editors of the archives in associating this telegram with Stein, he was, however, unable to determine the identity of the person referred to in the telegram dispatched by the Jehol Government. In reality, this was the young Lajos Ligeti (1902–1987) who was to become one of the giants of Mongolian and Turkic studies, and who subsequently served for 20 years as vice president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. From the 1980s, his name, transliterated as Li Gaiti 李蓋提 , became well-known in academic circles in China, as he gradually became one of the trusted authorities in the field of Mongolian linguistics and history. But at the time of his first visit to China he was still in his late twenties, and completely unknown to anyone there. He had just completed his studies in Paris with Paul Pelliot (1878-1945) and Henri Maspero (1882-1945), and upon his return to Hungary succeeded in obtaining a three-year scholarship to visit the lamaseries of Inner Mongolia to study Tibetan Buddhist texts…

Read the whole article here: Sir Aurel Stein, Lajos Ligeti and a case of mistaken identity

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Chinese seals in Ireland

Putting online some of my older publications:

The story of the Chinese seals found in Ireland
(Imre Galambos)
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 18, 4 (2008), pp. 465-479.

In 1850, a paper was read before the Royal Historical Society of Ireland regarding a group of Chinese porcelain seals that had come to light during the previous eighty years in Ireland. In total there were about sixty seals which it was claimed had been discovered in various places throughout Ireland, ranging from Belfast all the way to Cork. In addition to their wide dispersion pattern, the seals were found in the strangest places – in an orchard, a cave, bogs, and so on. The discovery could not be easily explained at the time and when the inscriptions turned out to be written in the Chinese seal script, a number of fanciful hypotheses were advanced as to how these seals “of great antiquity” appeared in Ireland. According to these explanations, the seals were either brought over by the Phoenicians, or by ancient Irish tribes after their wanderings in China, or by mediaeval Irish monks travelling from the Middle East. All along, the emphasis was on the extent to which these artefacts corroborated Ireland’s ancient connection with the Orient, an idea that was believed and promoted at the time by both Irish nationalists and English imperialists. Both sides, albeit from a different standpoint and driven by different motives, saw the Irish as a distinctly non-European culture, whose ancestors must have originated from distant lands far beyond the perimeters of western civilisation…

Read the whole article here: Story of the Chinese seals found in Ireland

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Aurel Stein – Flowers to Lajos Lóczy

Last summer we were at Lake Balaton in western Hungary and decided to take a day trip to the Balatonarács cemetery to visit the grave of the famous Hungarian explorer and geologist Lajos Lóczy (1849-1920). In the West, he is mostly remembered as the person who first told the young Aurel Stein about the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang, where Stein later purchased the largest collection of Chinese manuscripts ever found. It is through Stein’s acknowledgment in his publications that Lóczy’s name became known in Dunhuang studies. (His name is pronounced loh-tsee, unlike how it is transliterated in some Chinese or Japanese references.)
Lóczy himself visited China, including Dunhuang, in 1878 as the geologist in the Hungarian expedition of Count Béla Széchenyi (1837-1918). At the time, the manuscript library was still unknown and the members of the expedition only described the wonderful murals and statues in the cave temples. An account of this visit was published in 1881 by Gustav Kreitner (1847-1893), the expedition’s Austrian member, under the title Im Fernen Osten: Reisen des Grafen Bela Szechenyi in Indien, Japan, China, Tibet und Birma in den Jahren 1877-1880. Lóczy’s also published a book and later a detailed scientific report in three volumes, all in Hungarian. To this day, these works are largely inaccessible to the international community. A translation of his description of the visit to Dunhuang was published by Lilla Russell-Smith in “Hungarian Explorers in Dunhuang” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2000, vol. 10, no. 3: 341-362).

Years ago I have read a biography of Lóczy, which mentioned that Aurel Stein sent flowers to his grave from Kashmir. These were supposed to be some alpine flowers the type of edelweiss. Now that I had a chance to visit the grave in person, I was curious to see whether I could find any flowers. The village of Balatonarács has since been incorporated into the town of Balatonfüred and finding the cemetery was not a straightforward task. Once inside, however, we immediately noticed the grave, erected not far from the entrance, a bit to the left. But it took us a while to notice the flowers, even though they were pressed under a circular sheet of glass right beneath Lóczy’s relief portrait. An inscription in Hungarian read, “Last greetings from Aurel Stein in Kashmir.” Since Lóczy died in 1920, I assume that these flowers date to that year, too. They are withered but nevertheless remarkably well preserved.

Thus this cemetery in a little village near Lake Balaton preserves a tiny piece of history related to the great days of the exploration of Central Asia.

Lajos Lóczy's grave

Lajos Lóczy's grave at the Balatonarács cemetery


The tomb stone The tomb stone


The flowers sent from Kashmir by Aurel Stein The flowers sent from Kashmir by Aurel Stein
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Looking at the original: Limits of the digital realm

I have worked on manuscript P.3720 from the Pelliot collection at the Bibliothèque nationale (BnF) as an example of a composite manuscript. This is a scroll originating from the Dunhuang cave library discovered at the beginning of the 20th century. It is a collation of different texts, including appointment decrees, religious poetry, a funerary inscription, another inscription about the beginnings of the Mogao caves, etc. In addition, some of the texts come from different sources, having been written at different times by different hands on different paper, before they were all joined together into a single scroll. Thus physically the manuscript is also a composite object, consisting of separate sheets of paper glued together sometime during the early half of the 10th century. A remarkable aspect of the arrangement is that some of the texts are dated and the dates range from 851 to 934, thus there are 83 years between the earliest and latest sources. My goal was to reconstruct the process and motivation behind assembling this manuscript. An important question is whether the component texts were copied at different times, as their dates imply, or they were copied — together with the dates — from earlier sources.

Now I had a chance to look at this manuscript in person and this was when the idea of working on it came to mind. However, during the process of doing research, I was no longer in Paris and had to work with digital images from the IDP website. But when I counted the sheets of paper from which the manuscript was assembled, no matter how carefully I tried to do this, I always ended up with 9 sheets on the recto and 6 on the verso. This discrepancy was quite disturbing as I did not understand what was going on. In addition, there is an important text on the verso, called the Mogaoku ji 莫高窟記 (Record of the Mogao Caves) which talks about the establishment of the cave complex at Mogao during the 4th century AD. According to the digital photographs, this text was at the beginning of the scroll on the verso, but upside down. I thought I understood where this text was in terms of the whole scroll, including what was on its recto.

The surprise came when I finally had a second chance to look at the manuscript in person. I wanted to produce an accurate count of sheets and determine the original components of this composite object. I simply could not understand how could there be 9 sheets on one side and 6 on the other. But when I actually examined the scroll at the BnF, I realized that it consisted of 12 sheets, which was, of course, the same for both sides. The digital images, as well as the printed images in the Shanghai guji chubanshe edition, were unable to show that some of the sheets that looked continuous were in reality composed of two components. Only by turning the scroll towards the light was I able to see where some of the components were glued together.

The second surprise was that the back of the scroll was incomplete on the digital images. There were sheets missing from the beginning of the scroll, and the sheet with the Mogaoku ji text, which was shown as being upside down at the beginning of the scroll, in reality was right side up and about a third into the scroll. This, of course, changed lots of things because I realized that originally I had been wrong about every single sheet when pairing the texts on the two sides. The relationships changed. And, since most of the texts were dated, the dates changed, too.

All this is just an example of how looking at an original manuscript can clarify a number of issues that appear odd or mysterious on a reproduction. Of course, in most cases there is no difficulty in understanding the structure of a manuscript, which in most cases is actually quite simple, but there are exceptional cases of very complex structures (e.g. P.3720) which require an examination in person.


Imre Galambos, “Manuscript Copies of Stone Inscriptions in the Dunhuang Corpus: Issues of Dating and Provenance.” Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques LXIII 4 (2009): 809-826.

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