Odd variants in a Buddhist manuscript

There is a Dunhuang copy of the Da fangbian Fo baoenjing 大方便佛報恩經 (The sutra of requiting kindness) at the National Library of China (shelfmark BD01534) which has a number of interesting character variants. One of them is the character 爾 in the phrase ershi 爾時 (at that time), which is extremely common in Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras (e.g. “At that time the Buddha…”). In Buddhist texts, the character in this phrase is invariably written as 尒, which is thus recognized as an alternate form of the standard character 爾. But manuscript BD01534 at the National Library of China writes this variant in a number of different ways:


Of these, the first one is the “normal” way of writing the character, which one would expect in a Buddhist manuscript. The other two are completely unattested in both the lexicographic tradition and – to my knowledge – in other manuscripts. The third form, which is completely wrong as it has the component 心 at the bottom instead of 小, seems to have been influenced by the character 恭 written 6 characters earlier in the same line:

Nevertheless, these anomalous forms seem to imply that the person was largely unaware of not only how this character was supposed to be written but also what it meant in this context. Obviously, he was fully literate because most of the manuscript is written in a “normal” way, yet some characters are problematic. In this case, the distinctly Buddhist way of writing the character 爾 as 尒 suggests that he was completely unfamiliar with Buddhist literature. In some cases, for example, he did not only “misspell” the character 尒 but replaced it altogether with another one, resulting in the meaningless phrase lingshi 令時:

Once again, this points to a complete unfamiliarity of the scribe with Buddhist sutras, where the phrase ershi 尒時 occurs with considerable frequency. Interestingly, this difficulty of reading correctly the Buddhist form 尒 is also attested in the philological tradition. Most notably, the late 6th-century work Jingdian shiwen 經典釋文 quotes the Xiang’er 相爾 commentary to the Laozi 老子, writing it as Xiangyu 相余. William G. Boltz (1982, p. 95, n. 2) comments on this that “this would suggest that he [i.e. Lu Deming 陸德明, the author of the Jingdian shiwen] had never actually seen the text.” Boltz is right in pointing out that the error was the result of misreading 尔, the other common variant of 爾, although we may go a step further and specify that the variant behind the misreading was probably the form 尒 commonly seen in medieval Buddhist manuscripts. This, in turn, suggests that the error may have been introduced not by Lu Deming himself but occurred in the course of the transmission of the Jingdian shiwen. This is also corroborated by the fact that in contrast with this erroneous case, the title of the Xiang’er commentary appears elsewhere in the Jingdian shiwen correctly on at least two occasions.

But coming back to manuscript BD01534, we can also see a number of other variants that are unusual. One of these is the presence of several examples of the Empress Wu character 圀, normally used during the reign of Wu Zetian 武則天 (690-705) in place of the standard form of 國 (country, state). In terms of its physical appearance, however, the manuscript seems to be from the 9th-10th century, although it is undated and thus we cannot be certain about this. We should also keep in mind that there are known examples of Empress Wu characters being used in later manuscripts because they were copied over from earlier ones (cf. Drège 1984). Zhang Nan 张楠 (1992), for example, describes how this particular character continued to be used in Yunnan long after the time of Empress Wu. Nevertheless, in the majority of cases the rule of being able to date manuscripts to Empress Wu’s reign based on the characters she enforced seems to hold true.

The manuscript also has a number of orthographic inconsistencies, such as the following examples:




These are, however, not unusual and it is quite common in the Dunhuang manuscripts to see alternate forms of the same character, even if the entire scroll was written by the same person. This is simply part of manuscript culture. But there are still some variants that do not make sense. For example, the second character in the phrase qingjing 清淨 (peaceful and quiet) is very strange:

Here the right side component of the second character is 乎, rather than the usual 爭. Once again, this is a wholly unattested variant and must be considered an error, especially since the character 淨 appears elsewhere within the same manuscript in its correct form.

Now what do all these variants mean? Although I cannot be entirely sure but it seems that the manuscript was produced outside of the sutra-copying tradition to which we attribute most of the Dunhuang scrolls. It was probably copied by someone who was not familiar with Buddhist sutras, which is a problematic scenario in the Buddhist community of medieval Dunhuang. All this means that this particular manuscript deserves further study and, until we can account for the reasons behind its irregular features, should be used with caution.


Boltz, William G., “The religious and philosophical significance of the ‘Hsiang Erh’ Lao Tzu in light of the Ma-wang-tui silk manuscripts,” BSOAS 45.1 (1982): 95-117.

Drège, Jean-Pierre, “Les Caractères de l’impératrice Wu Zetian dans les manuscrits de Dunhuang et Turfan,” BEFEO 73 (1984): 339-354.

Zhang Nan 張楠, “Wu Zhou xinzi ‘guo’ zai Yunnan de liuchuan kaoshi” 武周新字“國”在雲南的流傳考釋, Gugong bowuyuan yuankan 故宮博物院院刊 (1992) 3: 60-61.

Posted in Character variants, Chinese writing, Dating, Dunhuang, Orthography, Palaeography, Scribal habits | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Aurel Stein’s visit to Japan

Galambos, Imre. “Sir Aurel Stein’s visit to Japan His diary and notebook.” In Helen Wang, ed., Sir Aurel Stein: Colleagues and collections. British Museum Research Publication 184 (2012): 1-9.

This paper is based on Aurel Stein’s diary and notebook he kept while travelling in Japan in  the spring of 1930. He only spent a few days in Japan, before going to Nanking to lobby for a visa and digging permit, but he met most of the Japanese scholars active in the newly emerging field of Dunhuang studies, both in Tokyo and the Kansai area.

The volume is an online publication available as British Museum Research Publication 184.

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Grid lines in medieval Chinese scrolls: Functionality or design?

Medieval manuscript scrolls are often ruled with grid lines to guide the hand of the calligrapher. These lines are a basic feature of most standard Buddhist and Taoist scrolls, which typically have 17 characters per line and 27-28 (or 31) lines per sheet of paper. But other types of manuscripts with less standard layout also often employed the same system of grid lines. There are usually two horizontal grid lines, one at the top of the sheet and one at the bottom, creating a margin of an inch or two on both ends. The vertical grid lines are drawn to connect the horizontal ones, and the characters are then written between the vertical strips created this way. This produces an even and aesthetically pleasing appearance. In some cases, the vertical grid lines or the horizontal ones can also be missing, which surprisingly does not seem to affect the quality of calligraphy. Manuscript Or.8210/S.230 (Plate 1) below is a typical example of the use of vertical and horizontal grid lines.

Grid lines in manuscript Or.8210/S.230

Plate 1. Grid lines in manuscript Or.8210/S.230

Even though there is usually an even number of characters per line, these are not aligned horizontally, as they vary in size and spacing according to the rhythm of the calligraphy. For this very reason, there are no horizontal grid lines except for the two main ones which enclose the text from the top and bottom.

In most cases the grid lines are very faint and appear to our modern eye as if drawn with a pencil. In reality, they are written with a thin brush using diluted ink. This way, they do not dominate the layout but remain in the background, at times staying almost invisible. This suggests that they were not strictly speaking part of the design but rather a trace of the process of creating the sutra. In other words, their functionality lasted only while the text was being written and after that they lost their use. Having said that, there are cases where the grid lines are very strong and were obviously intended to remain highly visible. For example, in Or.8212/480 in Plate 2, an early fragment from Loulan (3rd-4th century?), the lines are extremely well pronounced and go well beyond seving as guidelines for the calligrapher. They were certainly intended to be part of the layout.


Plate 2. Manuscript Or.8212.480 from Loulan

An even more interesting case is Pelliot chinois 4500 (see Plate 3), a silk manuscript with an apocryphal sutra where the characters are embroidered onto the material. Similar to sutras written on paper, the text is guided by vertical and  horizontal grid lines, regardless of the fact that the artisan embroidering the characters probably did not need such devices to keep the characters straight. Nevertheless, as far as I can see from the online photographs of the verso of the scroll, the stitchings were done over brush-written characters and it is possible that the grid lines were used in the process of writing the text with a brush, before having those embroidered. This scenario, however, does not explain why the lines had to be so prominent. All in all, there are clearly cases when the grid lines do not serve an immediate role but are created or preserved to be part of the layout design. This is also corroborated by their presence in many stone inscriptions where they would have served no functional purpose whatsoever.

Embroidered silk manuscript

Plate 3. Embroidered silk manuscript Pelliot chinois 4500

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An unrecognized photo of Aurel Stein

Last week we went down for a few days to the south of Hungary and while there I wanted to see at a village called Gádoros, near Orosháza, the “museum” of Zsigmond Justh (1863-1894), a talented Hungarian writer who died too young to fulfill his early promise. He was a close friend of Lionel Dunsterforce (1865-1946), the later major-general, after whom R. Kipling modelled the character Stalky in his book Stalky and Co. (Dunsterville later used this name in the title of his own memoirs: Stalky’s Reminiscences, London: 1928.) Justh visited Dunsterville in 1892 in Mian Mir where the Englishman was stationed at the time. It is here that he met the young Aurel Stein who was working at the Oriental College in Lahore. Following their acquaintance, Stein wrote a number of very warm letters to Justh and in the following summer even visited him at his estate in Szenttornya, not far from Gádoros where his museum is today. Although Justh died the following year (1894), Stein and Dunsterville corresponded for decades (at the Hungarian National Library there are letters from Dunsterville to Stein from 1941).

In the two small rooms of the museum (or rather, exhibition) there are lots of photographs and letters. Among the material related to his trip to India, there is a group photo where the bearded Justh sits on a chair, holding a tea cup on his knee. The caption reads, “With his friends in India — next to him is Lionel Dunsterville.” But on the left side, we can see the standing figure of the young Aurel Stein. This is a rare photo from this early period of Stein’s life, long before he became a celebrated explorer. The photo must date to December 1892, when Justh was visiting.

Stein, Justh and Dunsterville in Lahore, 1892

Aurel Stein, 1892

A close-up of the young Aurel Stein


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Manuscripts and Travellers in your local bookstore

Sam van Schaik and Imre Galambos, Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012).

Our book is finally out. It all started about 5 years ago when Sam asked me if I wanted to join him in writing a paper about a Tibetan-Chinese manuscript from Dunhuang, currently kept at the British Library. As we worked on the manuscript, he on the Tibetan, I on the Chinese parts of it, the original paper kept growing until it made more sense to publish it as a monograph.

The book is about several manuscripts that had been glued together into a single scroll. This scroll was carried by a Chinese monk in the late 960s through the regions of Amdo and Hexi, as part of his larger pilgrimage from Wutaishan to the Nalanda monastery in India. We do not know if he ever reached his final destination, since we only have his manuscript for the part in Qinghai and Gansu. Included are Tibetan letters of introduction addressed to abbots of monasteries along the way, demonstrating the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region during the early years of the newly emerging Song dynasty. The longest of the manuscripts had Tibetan tantric texts on one side (invisible from the outside as it was glued onto the letters) and a copy of juan 3 of the Chinese sutra called Baoenjing 報恩經 on the other. Finally, there was a copy of a stone inscription commemorating the Gantong Monastery 感通寺 near Liangzhou 涼州, to which a short colophon was added, stating that the copy was made by a certain Daozhao 道昭 in 968. In the book, we take the manuscript apart and study each text. Then we try to put them back together and see how and why they were glued together and what their function was with regard to the pilgrimage.

Manuscripts and travellers is beautifully produced and includes color images of the entire manuscript with all its parts.

Posted in archaeology, Aurel Stein, books, Dunhuang, Palaeography, published papers, Scribal habits, Tibetan, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Manuscripts of translations made from printed texts

Recently a 16-volume publication came out with “rare and precious” (guji zhenben 古籍珍本) travel manuscripts in the collection of the National Library of China (NLC). Having flipped through the volumes, I was surprised to find a text titled Xiongyali youji 匈牙利游記 (Record of travelling in Hungary). This looked very interesting because it seemed to be an unknown manuscript of a Chinese person who had travelled to Hungary sometime during the late 19th or early 20th centuries. It was written in classical Chinese and talked about travelling to different parts of the country, visiting Gypsy communities and Slovak villages, etc. It was all very exciting and I only became suspicious when I read at the end of the text that the person had to go to the British Embassy after the local chief of police at the Russian border confiscated his camera. But I reasoned that this Chinaman might have been a British resident or that he had friends there.

A few months later by sheer accident I found the original of this story, published by the English photographer A. W. Cutler in the popular Wide World Magazine under the title “A Picture Hunter in Hungary” (1914, XXXII-XXXIII). So I realized that the Chinese version was a translation from English. Of course, the manuscript at the NLC said nothing about all this but now I had clear evidence that the story was authored by an English photographer in 1914. As I looked more carefully through the 16 volumes of travelogues, I also found some other translations, although in some cases they were clearly marked as being translated from another language. As it turned out, most of these modern travel accounts have been published around 1914 in the popular Shanghainese journal Xiaoshuo yuebao 小說月報. Whether the manuscripts at the NLC collection were a copy made for the journal or the journal simply used them remains unclear.

But what I would like to draw attention to here is the fact that we have a group of manuscripts published as “rare and precious” (guji zhenben 古籍珍本) and in reality they are translations of stories taken from a pulp magazine in another country. This is precisely what the Wide World Magazine was, an adventure magazine with a questionable degree of credibility. And yet when the stories were adopted by intellectuals in Shanghai and translated into elegant classical Chinese, they suddenly become much more valuable.

We should not forget either that there is a “manuscript” aspect to all of this. Many of the texts in the 16 volumes are handwritten translations of printed stories from cheap popular periodicals. Yes, they are manuscripts but neither autograph diaries nor copies in a long line of transmission. Instead, they are much more ordinary things and by calling them “rare and precious” yet publishing them without a single line of explanation creates the impression that they are something they are not. I think that this transition from print to manuscript, from English to Chinese, from adventure stories to elegant prose is a fascinating aspect of textual transmission. It reminds us that the process of transmission is much more complex than just making copies from earlier copies. Texts can re-incarnate in different form, language and context and in the course of this their value and function may change completely. In fact, they are no longer the same text, as in their new environment they are reborn with a new identity.

Travelling in Hungary

Image 1. First page of the manuscript Xiongyali youji (Travelling in Hungary)


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The beginnings of Tibetan studies: Denison Ross and Alexander Csoma de Kőrös

This is an article of mine that has just come out:

Imre Galambos. “‘Touched a nation’s heart’: Sir E. Denison Ross and Alexander Csoma de Kőrös.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 21, No. 3 (July 2011): 361-375.

Read full text here: Csoma de Kőrös.

The papers of Sir Edward Denison Ross (1871–1940) at the Archives of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) include a series of letters from Hungary, which thank him for his contribution in bringing the world’s attention to Alexander Csoma de Kőrös (1784–1842). Some of these letters were produced collectively by learned societies and signed by dozens of male and female members, but many were also written by ordinary people expressing their admiration for Csoma, the scholar who had walked most of the way from Transylvania to India in search of the roots of the Hungarian language and people. This lively response was a result of a lecture that Ross delivered on 5 January 1910 at the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta which became a sensation in Hungary in a matter of weeks. This article therefore looks at the phenomenon of how Ross’s purely academic research, to use Albert von Le Coq’s words, “touched a nation’s heart” and earned him a celebrity status in Csoma’s homeland. It is particularly interesting to uncover the motives behind this great publicity and show how it was orchestrated by two young Hungarians in Calcutta for not entirely unselfish purposes.

Read full text here: Csoma de Kőrös.

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The earliest Chinese manuscript corrections

The Houma covenant texts (Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書) are a large group of jade and stone tablets from the early 5th century BC. Accordingly, they are 2,500 years old and were written approximately during the last years of the life of Confucius. Although it might seem a bit counter intuitive to call stone tablets manuscripts but they were produced using a stylus and ink, that is, they were not inscribed or incised but written onto the surface. There are several groups of texts in this corpus and within each group the tablets record the exact same oath, with only the oath taker’s name changing. These are formulas. Each person who took part in the covenant ceremony had his oath recorded by the scribes, using the same “form”. Actually, these might be the first forms in history.

When we analyze scribal habits and practices, one of the interesting things we can look at is the way they made corrections. We have plenty of such corrections in medieval manuscripts written on paper but much fewer on bamboo slips documents from the Warring States period. One of the reasons for this might be that it was very easy to replace a bamboo slip if a scribe made a mistake, and he only had to redo a few characters. In addition, we know from transmitted sources that scribes could also shave off a tiny layer of bamboo to remove the mistaken character. When such a drastic intervention is done on paper, it is quite visible and we have examples of this from the medieval period. But on bamboo or wood, this would not produce a very conspicuous result and considering that we almost never have a chance to analyze such manuscripts personally, let alone touch them by hand, we can see that even if there have been many corrections like this, they would probably remain unnoticed.

In contrast with this, the Houma covenant texts were written on jade and stone tablets. Replacing the tablet every time the scribe made a mistake would not have been a practical solution, as these were obviously much more valuable than thin slips of bamboo. And indeed, there are corrections on the tablets. The examples below all show the section from the beginning of the formula which is essentially the same on each tablet. There is no variation in the text, apart from the name of the oath taker, which is not shown here anyway. This part of the oath says, “Should Zhao (i.e. the name of the oathtaker) dare not split open his abdomen and heart in serving his lord…” 趙敢不判其腹心以事其主. (Here the word written as 判 has an additional 門 around it and is understood by most researchers to mean something like “to split open” or “to bare”.) But the part shown below consists of the words “not split open his abdomen and heart in serving …” 不判其腹心以事.

In example A, you can see that the character 其 (‘his’), written in its early orthography as 亓, has been inserted in small script on the right side, between two characters. This clearly shows not only that it was omitted but also that contemporary scribes considered this a problem and felt the need to rectify the omission. Example B shows a similar case, only here it was the character 之 mistakenly written instead of 以 (‘in order to’). The wrong character does not seem to have been marked in any way but the correct one was inserted in small script.

Example C shows the same mistake as in A, only here the mistake was not corrected, probably because it remained unnoticed. Otherwise it is hard to explain why the same mistake in A was corrected. Finally, example D is yet another case with an unnoticed omission, only here two words were omitted: 腹心 (‘abdomen and heart’). This, of course, renders the sentence completely ungrammatical so it clearly is a mistake that should have been corrected. Especially considering that in A the omission does not actually make much of a difference grammatically and the reason why it became corrected was simply that it deviated from the formula. Thus in D we have a significant problem.

Corrections in the Houma texts

Corrections in the Houma texts

The above cases are only a few cases that show what are possibly the earliest examples of corrections in Chinese manuscripts. A thorough analysis of bamboo slip manuscripts from the Warring States period would enable us to follow the evolution of these scribal techniques and see whether traditions or lineages can be traced at all. But this will have to be done elsewhere.

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Graphic variability in a Ming printed book

Lately, I have been working with Ming editions of Zhuge Kongming Xinshu 諸葛孔明心書, a military text attributed to Zhuge Liang but which is most likely an early Song forgery. The earliest edition I was able to inspect was a moveably type booklet from Zhengde 正德 13 (i.e. 1518) at the Shanghai Library. Unfortunately the price for copies or scans was 100 yuan per page so I could not afford to make a copy. Yet even while at the library, I noticed that there were lots of vulgar character forms, some of them completely unattested. So when I found a facsimile publication of an edition from Jiajing 嘉靖 43 (i.e. 1564), I decided to look at these suzi in more detail. Of course, these unorthodox forms are not particular to this text, there are just as many of them in printed copies of other texts from the early modern period. They are a peculiarity of print culture of this time period and should be studied on a much larger scale, in hundreds of books together.

An early attempt to gather the vulgar forms — amidst the intellectual campaign directed at the simplification of Chinese writing — was a work called Song-Yuan yilai suzipu 宋元以來俗字譜, compiled and published in 1930 by Liu Fu 劉復 and Li Jiarui 李家瑞 on the basis of twelve popular (minjian 民间) books printed during the Song-Qing period. Of course, twelve books is a fairly limited corpus, especially since they come from an 800-year interval.

In any case, my own study is even more limited as I used a single text and gathered only about 500 different characters with some 2,500 concrete examples. Apart from the general impression that there is an incredible number of non-standard forms, the most surprising thing is that the same character is often written with orthographically different forms. This is of course not true for the majority of characters but there are still plenty that have two or more structurally distinct forms. Below I only list a few of them that are graphically different from each other (not all examples are).

Of these the character 懼 (ju ‘to fear’), for example, appears in its standard orthography, plus one that is today its simplified form: 惧. The same is true for the characters 辭 (which has three distinct forms), 後 (always used in thesense of ‘after’) and 並. The vulgar forms of other characters, such as 從 (cong ‘to follow’), do not match modern simplified characters. In addition, there are also lots of characters not included here that appear in the book only in their vulgar form and their standard form is never used.

What do these variations tell us? That even though we are looking at printed culture, which in our minds is often associated with an increasing level of consistency, in these minjian publications we do not see any sign of moving in that direction. Perhaps the study of shanben prints would lead to very different results, but the truth is that these popular publications comprised the overall majority of printed books at any given period. In this sense, they are more representative of how people wrote or what degree of graphic consistency was tolerated in their daily application of writing.

Graphic variant - 並

Graphic variant - 並

Graphic variant - 懼

Graphic variant - 懼

Graphic variant - 經

Graphic variant - 經

Graphic variant - 解

Graphic variant - 解

Graphic variant - 後

Graphic variant - 後

Graphic variant - 侯

Graphic variant - 侯

Graphic variant - 鬥

Graphic variant - 鬥

Graphic variant - 敵

Graphic variant - 敵

Graphic variant - 從

Graphic variant - 從

Graphic variant - 此

Graphic variant - 此

Graphic variant - 辭

Graphic variant - 辭


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The role of A. O. Hobbs in the third Otani expedition

Putting my earlier articles online:

An English participant in the Japanese exploration of Central Asia: The role of A. O. Hobbs in the third Otani expedition
(Imre Galambos)
In I. F. Popova, ed., Russian Expeditions to Central Asia at the Turn of the 20th Century. St. Petersburg: Slavia, 2008: 188-202.


“The history of the exploration of the Silk Road is pieced together into a narrative from the stories of great explorers and scholars who acquired magnificent collections, today housed in leading museums and libraries worldwide. Many of these explorers, like Sergei Oldenburg, Sven Hedin and Marc Aurel Stein, were at the center of public attention at the time and their names are still well known today. However, we tend to forget that these great personalities never worked alone but had many, mostly locally hired, assistants who worked under their supervision, travelling through the same distances and seeing the same things as their employers.

“Among the “supporting actors” who contributed to the exploration of the Silk Road early in the 20th century, A. O. Hobbs (1892-1911) stands out as a special case. Albeit a British citizen, he accompanied Tachibana Zuicho, a Buddhist priest from Japan, on an ambitious expedition to Chinese Turkestan and thus contributed to further growth of Japanese collections…

— Read the entire article here: An English participant in the Japanese exploration of Central Asia: The role of A. O. Hobbs in the third Otani expedition

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