The Bilingual Manuscript with the Irk Bitig

My paper on the tenth-century Old Uyghur codex known as Irk Bitig (Irq Bitig) is finally out. It is in a fantastic volume edited by Michael Clarke and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, called Medieval Multilingual Manuscripts: Cases Studies from Ireland to Japan. The book is part of the Hamburg series Studies in Manuscript Cultures, and is the result of a collaborative project that began several years earlier. This has been one of the most interesting scholarly projects I have been part of, and I am proud to be in the volume, in the company of wonderful colleagues who share an interest in multilingual manuscripts.

British Library Or.8212/161.


This tenth-century manuscript from Dunhuang is celebrated for the Old Turkic divination text known as Irk Bitig, the Book of Omens. However, the same manuscript also contains two Chinese Buddhist hymns added to the beginning and the end of the Old Turkic text. Close examination of the manuscript in all its aspects sheds new light on the close interaction of texts, languages and religions in the Silk Road environment.

The Bilingual Manuscript with the Irk Bitig.” In Michael Clarke and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, eds., Medieval Multilingual Manuscripts: Cases Studies from Ireland to Japan. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2022, 83–97.

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New paper: Travel writings in Republican China

My new paper is out — at least digitally:

Foreign Travel Writings in Republican China.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 1–22.

This article examines a collection of manuscripts of travel writings kept in the National Library of China. Many of the texts are copies of articles and travel accounts published in magazines, papers, or books during the first decade of the Republican period. Although the majority of texts are by Chinese authors, nine of them can be verified as translations from other languages, even though almost no information is available regarding their source texts and original authors. Identifying the sources of the translations permits a better understanding of how this group of writings ended up as a collection. More importantly, we can consider how their content and function changed when they became adopted into an entirely different environment.
Keywords: Travel writing; Republican China; Commercial Press; translation; Xiaoshuo yuebao

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Dunhuang Studies Conference – Cambridge 2019

We just finished the Dunhuang Studies Conference held at St. John’s College, Cambridge on 17-18 April 2019. This was a major event, the first such conference in Cambridge. It was organised by the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (University of Cambridge) and the International Liaison Committee for Dunhuang Studies. Sponsors included the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (Hamburg University), the Needham Research Institute, the Glorisun Global Network, the Dhammachai International Research Institute and the 60th Dhammachai Education Foundation.

There were nearly fifty presentations from scholars from China, Taiwan, Japan, France, the UK, USA, Russia and Denmark. For the full programme of the conference click here.

I would like to thank all participants and our sponsors. Special thanks to Dr. Joe McDermott and St. John’s College for taking care of the logistics of the conference. Finally, I want to thank our PhD students at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, i.e. Jing Feng, Phra K. Ponampon, Kelsey Granger, June Zhang, Mia Ma, Flavia Fang, and Junfu Wong, all of whom worked very hard to make this conference happen.

Professor Onishi

Professor Onishi Makiko talking about the relic worship of Empress Wu

Professor Iwao Kazushi chairing a session, introducing Professor Akagi Takatoshi’s paper.

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Graphic variation in early Chinese writing

Imre Galambos, “Graphic variation in early Chinese writing.” In Gábor Kósa, ed., China Across the Centuries: Papers from a Lecture Series in Budapest. Budapest: Department of East Asian Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, 2017, 33–59.

Reading Warring States manuscripts we are confronted with a number of graphs that are not only structurally different from modern characters and the small seal forms of the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 but show variation even among themselves. While some of these graphs may be characters that have since disappeared, the majority of them are variants of known ones and represent words in much the same way as seen in transmitted sources. In early manuscripts we often see character structure varying within the same corpus or, at times, even within the same document. In most cases, the context provides enough information for deciphering the meaning of graphs, yet it is always a question whether we can link structural discrepancies with grammatical differences or shades of meaning. In other words, do graphic differences have any relevance to how the word is to be interpreted? Or are they inconsequential errors committed by scribes working in a hurry or perhaps possessing lower literacy skills?

(Some of the discussion in this chapter relies on my book on the orthography of the early Chinese script [Galambos 2006], although most things have been re-thought and emphases have shifted. My analysis of graphs is also different and geared towards providing a more balanced and comprehensive representation of the corpus.)

Posted in archaeology, Character variants, Chinese manuscript, Chinese writing, Corrections, Mistakes, Orthography, Scribal habits | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Confucius and Laozi at the altar

Imre Galambos, “Confucius and Laozi at the altar: Reconsidering a Tangut manuscript.” Studies in Chinese Religions (2016) 2.3, 237–264.

In the Russian collection of Tangut material there is a manuscript which describes a meeting between Confucius and an old sage. It is generally assumed that it is a translation of a Chinese work but attempts at identifying the source text have not been successful. The Tangut title survives on the last page and it has been translated as the Altar Record of Confucius’s Conciliation. This paper identifies the Chinese original among Ming-Qing religious scriptures of secret societies and suggests a new interpretation for the Tangut title. Connecting the title and the text with Chinese religious and intellectual traditions of the Song period also enables us to date the Chinese source text to the late eleventh or early twelfth century.

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Sir Gerard Clauson and his Skeleton Tangut Dictionary

Imre Galambos, “Introduction: Sir Gerard Clauson and his Skeleton Tangut Dictionary.” Gerard Clauson’s Skeleton Tangut (Hsi Hsia) Dictionary. With an Introduction by Imre Galambos, with an Index by Andrew West; Facsimile Edition Prepared by Michael Everson. Corpus Textorum Tangutorum, v. 2. Portlaoise: Evertype, 2016. vii–xxvi.

Sir Gerard Leslie Makins Clauson (1891–1974) worked most of his life as a civil servant and conducted academic research in his spare time. Only after retiring in 1951 at the age of 60 was he able to devote his full attention to scholarly endeavours, which were primarily focussed on Turkic languages. Thus as a scholar, today he is primarily remembered for his contribution to Turkic studies, and his Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Turkish is still an essential reference tool in the field. Yet in addition to his study of Turkic and Mongolian linguistics, he also worked on a number of other Asian languages, including Tangut. Even though his extensive list of publications includes only a small number of items related to Tangut studies, he devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to studying the language and to compiling a dictionary. He never finished the dictionary but deposited a draft version along with his notes in seven large volumes at the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), so that they would be available to anyone who wished to study Tangut and perhaps continue his research. Eric Grinstead, who used the dictionary when working on the Tangut manuscripts at the British Museum, called it “a paragon of excellence” in comparison with high level of errors in dictionaries available at the time. Indeed, the erudition of Clauson’s dictionary is obvious even upon a cursory look at the manuscript version and had it ever been published, it would have undoubtedly made a major impact on scholarship. This introduction presents the available material in an attempt to shed some light on an unknown episode in the history of Tangut studies, a promising start that due to a variety of reasons never reached its potential.

The seven volumes of Clauson's Tangut dictionary

The seven volumes of Clauson’s Tangut dictionary

Clauson's Tangut dictionary on the inside

Clauson’s Tangut dictionary on the inside

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Composite manuscripts in medieval China: The case of scroll P.3720 from Dunhuang

Imre Galambos, “Composite manuscripts in medieval China: The case of scroll P.3720 from Dunhuang.” In Michael Friedrich and Cosima Schwarke, eds., One-Volume Libraries: Composite Manuscripts and Multiple Text Manuscripts. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016, 355–378.

Manuscript Pelliot chinois 3720 (hereafter: P.3720) at

the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) is a Chinese scroll from the Dunhuang 敦煌 cave library discovered at the beginning of the 20th century.x It is a collation of different texts, including appointment decrees, religious poetry, a funerary inscription, a short record of the history of the Mogao caves 莫高窟, etc. The texts come from distinct sources, and some had been written at different times by different persons as separate manuscripts, before they were all joined together into a single scroll. Thus the manuscript is also a composite object physically, consisting of separate pieces of paper glued together sometime during the 10th century. While the individual texts have been successfully used by scholars as primary sources for information about the history of Dunhuang and the cave complex at Mogao, it is clear that in order to fully understand the motivation behind the creation of the scroll, the arrangement of the individual components (i.e. sheets of paper) and texts must also be examined. A remarkable aspect of the arrangement is that some of the texts are dated and the dates range from 851 to 938, with an 87-year gap between the earliest and latest ones. The present study is an attempt to enhance our understanding of the date, authorship and composition of this manuscript, and at the same time also shed light on the practice of creating such composite scrolls in medieval China.

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A snapshot of Dunhuang studies, circa 2016

Imre Galambos, “A snapshot of Dunhuang Studies, Circa 2016.” Orientations (2016) 47.4, 33–38.

The Dunhuang manuscripts were discovered in the summer of 1900 in a sealed-off cave within the Buddhist cave-temple complex (also known as Qianfodong, or ‘Thousand Buddha Caves’), at Mogao, near the city of Dunhuang in present-day Gansu province. (The cave complex itself was ‘discovered’ by European scholars in 1879, when members of the expedition led and financed by Count Béla Széchenyi [1837–1918] reached the caves.) This revelation, made by a Daoist monk living at the caves, soon attracted the interest of foreign explorers and archaeologists, who purchased many of the manuscripts and paintings from the monk and shipped those back to their respective countries. The acquisition and dispersal of the Dunhuang manuscripts was part of the larger process of colonial exploration of Central and East Asia—events that have been viewed in radically different ways in China and the West.

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Scribbles on the verso of manuscripts written by lay students in Dunhuang

Imre Galambos, “Scribbles on the verso of manuscripts written by lay students in Dunhuang.” Tonkō shahon kenykū nenpō 敦煌寫本硏究年報 (2016) 10, 497–522.

The vast corpus of Dunhuang manuscripts includes a series of items with what we may call ‘educational texts’ (mengshu 蒙書), which comprise a body of written works used in pre-modern China as material for elementary education. Some of these were designed to teach students a set of basic characters, while others conveyed a didactic message, typically through recounting stories of exemplary figures from the Confucian tradition. By copying these texts, on the one hand, students practiced their literacy skills and, on the other hand, internalized the moral guidelines acclaimed in the literary tradition. The surviving manuscripts, however, also demonstrate that students copied not only educational texts in a strict sense but also works such as the Xiaojing 孝經and parts of the Lunyu 論語. Even though these texts would normally be categorized as Confucian classics, their surviving copies in most cases were written by students as part of their curriculum. In addition, students also seemed to have copied texts with religious content, most significantly the Buddhist narratives called ‘transformation texts’ (bianwen 變文).1 Added together, the body of texts produced by students in a school setting is considerable, amounting to hundreds of manuscripts.

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Confucian education in a Buddhist environment

Imre Galambos, “Confucian education in a Buddhist environment: Medieval manuscripts and imprints of the Mengqiu.” Studies in Chinese Religions (2015) 1.3, 269–288.

Although most of the surviving collections of medieval manuscripts and imprints are
of Buddhist nature, they normally include a smaller number of other types of material,
such as primers and didactic texts used for educational purposes. The Mengqiu 蒙求, a
primer attributed to Li Han 李瀚 (d. u.) of the Tang dynasty, is one of these. Following
the Song period the text fell into disuse, but early copies survived in Japan where it
remained in continuous use all the way through modern times. In addition, during the
twentieth century several copies of the text were discovered in regions which were at
the margins of Chinese civilization: among the texts excavated from the sealed off
library cave near Dunhuang; the ruins of the forgotten Tangut city of Khara-khoto; and
the Liao period wooden pagoda in Ying county (Shanxi province). All of these sites
belonged to border regimes that at the time were not part of China proper, and thus the
finds attest to the popularity of this text among the inhabitants of these states. This
paper examines the handwritten and printed versions of the Mengqiu discovered at
these sites in order to draw attention to the spread of Confucian education beyond the
borders of the Chinese states, and to assess the role of Buddhist monasteries in secular

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