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Buddhist manuscript textiles: East Asia (2)

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The previous articles on Buddhist manuscript textiles focused on manuscript wrappers, bags and textile book covers from mainland Southeast Asia and manuscript textiles from Nepal, Tibet, northwest China and Mongolia. All these rare textile objects came to light during the curation of an exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020).

Paper scrolls and bound books with silk covers were particularly popular in the manuscript traditions of the regions and countries in East Asia. This article focuses on manuscript textiles from China, Korea and Japan in the British Library collections which are unique and outstanding in their artistic presentation. In contrast to manuscript textiles from Southeast Asia, which are often of a more recent date than the manuscripts they belong to, East Asian manuscript textiles can sometimes be significantly older than the manuscripts they are attached to.

Or. 13926

Silk scroll cover of the Lotus Sutra (Myōhō rengekyō), containing chapter 8 ‘The Prophecy of Enlightenment to Five Hundred Disciples’, Japan, dated 1636.
© British Library, Or. 13926

Scroll covers made from silk damask and fine brocades can be found across East Asia. Especially copies of the most important and popular Sutras and other sacred texts commissioned by emperors or empresses are often equipped with impressive silk covers of outstanding quality.

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, seen by many Buddhists as the summation of the teachings of the Buddha. The scroll depicted above is believed to be part of a set of 28 commissioned by the Japanese Emperor, Go-Mizunoo (1596–1680), to commemorate his grandfather-in-law, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). The silk brocade scroll cover in pale saffron colour is decorated with floral patterns woven in continuous supplementary weft technique. Attached is a hand-woven silk binding tape. Since this is a specially commissioned manuscript, it can be assumed that the scroll and the silk cover are of the same date.

Or. 13839

Silk brocade cover of a paper scroll containing the story of the ‘Palace of Tengu’ (Tengu no dairi) in Japanese language, Japan, 1560-1600. © British Library, Or.13839, vol. 1

Another outstanding example from Japan is a silk brocade scroll cover in pale brown, blue and grey tones depicting figures of the dragon, phoenix as well as lotus blossoms with eight petals which also represent the Noble Eightfold Path; all incorporated into a vibrant geometrical pattern. The illustrated text contained in this paper scroll, Tengu no dairi, recounts an episode from the life of the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune, younger brother of Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–99).

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Silk brocade cover of a paper scroll containing the Sutra of Filial Piety (Bussetsu daihō bumo onjūgyō) printed in Chinese characters. Japan, c. 17th century. © British Library, Or. 16331

The Sutra of Filial Piety was composed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–917), and incorporates ideas about honouring one’s parents and ancestors. It may have come as a response to claims that Buddhist beliefs could undermine this filial piety which plays an important role in Confucianism. From China the Sutra travelled to Korea then Japan, where it appeared at the end of the 14th century.

The paper scroll shown above contains a printed copy of the Sutra of Filial Piety with twenty hand-coloured illustrations extolling the love of parents for their children and the obligation of children to repay it. A square shaped piece of hand-woven silk brocade with a floral design in striking colours – cream-white, indigo, light blue and mint green on light brown background – was added as a protective cover on the back side of the frontispiece.

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A miniature paper scroll with textile cover containing the ‘Daihannya rishubun o-mamori’ (Sanskrit: Prajñāpāramitā-naya-śatapañcaśatikā) for use as an amulet. Japan, c.1960. © British Library, ORB.Misc/95

Miniature scrolls containing Buddhist texts are very popular, but usually not made for reading but to be worn on the body or carried as protective amulets. The scroll shown above with a printed copy of a short text belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras dates back to the 1960s and is only four cm wide. The scroll cover is made from a small piece of industrially woven silk with red and gold metal threads to which a purple coloured binding tape is attached.

Folding books, also known as leporello or concertina books, as well as bound books are other popular formats to contain Buddhist scriptures in East Asia. Like in the Southeast Asian manuscript tradition, folding books often have elaborately decorated front and back covers. However, in East Asia the covers are preferably equipped with textiles whereas in Southeast Asia they are usually lacquered, gilded, painted or decorated with mirror glass inlay.

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A folding book containing a copy of the Diamond Sutra (Korean: Kŭmgang panyak p’aramil kyŏng) in Chinese characters, with front and back covers layered with silk brocade with a gold floral pattern. Korea, 18th century. © British Library, Or. 15263

Being a key text in Mahayana Buddhism, the Diamond Sutra was (and still is) copied frequently, often in beautiful calligraphy or with added illuminations and decorated silk scroll covers or book covers, depending on the book format.

The outstanding copy of the Diamond Sutra from Korea shown above was written in gold ink in Chinese characters, the lingua franca of Buddhism across East Asia, on indigo-dyed paper. The sturdy paper covers are layered with a grey coloured silk brocade, decorated with gold scrolling flower ornaments which are typical of the mid-Ming period (16th century). This suggests that the textile element in this case may be older than the hand-written manuscript itself. It was common practice to re-use old silks for book covers, and in some cases these silks may have been imported from other places.

Add 22690

Imperial book with silk brocade covers containing the Guan Yin Sutra (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara Sutra) in Chinese. China, 1705. © British Library, Add MS 22690

Buddhists across East Asia recite the Avalokiteshvara Sutra to invoke protection against accidents, illness, dangerous animals, theft, untimely death and issues around conception, pregnancy and childbirth. Known under the title Guan Yin Sutra in China, it has become one of the most popular Buddhist texts which is often illustrated with an image of Guan Yin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara).

The manuscript in the illustration above and below (detail) is an outstanding example dated 1705 CE containing a gold illustration of Guan Yin, with the text in Chinese characters written in gold ink on natural cream coloured silk. The silk was carefully glued on paper to form a folding book whose sturdy paper covers are layered with silk brocade of the finest quality. The complex design of the silk brocade depicts dragons in blue coloured roundels which are connected by lines in the same colour. There are also stylised flowers formed of interlocking squares with bent sides and curled extensions on the corners. The dragons and flowers are in pale blue and brown tones, whereas the ground is of a natural cream colour with a stunning geometric star design in light blue colour.

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Detail depicting a dragon roundel on the silk brocade cover of a folding book containing the Guan Yin Sutra in Chinese language. China, 1705. © British Library, Add MS 22690

Another fine example of a folding book with silk-layered covers is a miniature album containing a small collection of brush-painted paper amulets (below). Amulets are very popular in all Buddhist traditions: some types are believed to provide protection from negative thoughts and harmful influences, others are thought to bring good luck to the owners. Amulets can be made from paper, wood, metal or cloth, on which are written, stamped or printed short Buddhist texts or drawings of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, high-ranking monks, auspicious symbols etc.  They are usually issued by individual monks or Buddhist temples for their lay followers. The owner of such an amulet can make devotional visits to the places from which they received the amulet to pray and renew its protective power on a regular basis.

The album is made from paper in folding book format. The surface of the paper is layered with silk damask in old rose colour, on which the paper amulets are affixed. The thicker and sturdier book covers are layered with silk brocade whose design is dominated by flowers with four petals and svastika symbols, which stand for well-being in the Buddhist tradition; all on a bright blue background.

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Miniature album in folding book format with silk-layered covers containing brush-painted Buddhist amulets. China, early 20th century. © British Library, ORB.Misc/111

Besides paper scrolls and folding books, printed bound paper books played an important role for the spread of Buddhism across East Asia. A popular binding method was the stitched binding, which allowed for relatively thin book covers consisting of multiple or even single layers of paper only. To provide some form of protection for these books, they were often equipped with sturdy book cases. Such book cases could be made for single volumes or multiple volumes.

The example shown below was made for a single volume containing a Japanese Buddhist story, Tada no Manju, dating back to the early seventeenth century. It contains a story derived from Konjaku monogatari (‘Tales of the Past’) that is telling of the hero Manju and his conversion to Buddhism, with hand-coloured illustrations reflecting the message “Life has suffering”. The book case is layered with silk brocade with a floral design in yellow and light green colours. Small bone clasps prevent the book from falling out of the case.

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Woodblock-printed book containing the story ‘Tada no Manju’ in Japanese language, with a silk-covered bookcase. Japan, 1605-1610. © British Library, Or.64.b.26

Another type of manuscript textile worth mentioning is the mounting scroll. This is a paper scroll that is usually layered with three different silk brocades. Its purpose is for mounting votive paper objects carrying either sacred Buddhist images or sacred texts from the Mahayana tradition. Such images and texts could be printed or hand-written/-painted. To be hung up in temples or in private homes, for example in prayer or meditation rooms, the paper object was affixed in the middle of the three layered silk brocade as shown in the example below.

This modern calligraphy of the Heart Sutra in block script style was made by master calligrapher Miyamoto Chikkei (1926–2002) and mounted on a silk brocade scroll. The Heart Sutra is popular for recitation and calligraphy across East Asia.

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‘Hannya shingyō’ (Heart Sutra) calligraphy by Miyamoto Chikkei mounted on a triple layer silk scroll. Japan, 1995. © British Library, Or. 15542

To see Buddhist manuscript textiles as well as textile artefacts and colourful paintings on silk visit the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library which will be open until 23 February 2020.

By Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections, British Library

Further reading and references

Eric Boudot and Chris Buckley, The roots of Asian weaving: The He Haiyan collection of textiles and looms from Southwest China (Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015

Anna Jackson, Japanese Textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications, 2000

Helen Loveday, The Baur Collection Geneva: Japanese Buddhist Textiles, Textiles Bouddhiques Japonais (Milan: 5 Continents, 2014)

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Ofuda: in with the good, out with the bad (Part 1) (retrieved 13.02.2020)

Liz Rose, Assessment and conservation of Buddhist textiles for a major exhibition (In: Arts of Asia, January-February 2020) pp. 151-7

Shelagh Vainker, Chinese silk. A cultural history (London: British Museum, 2004)

Mother-of-pearl inlay in Thai manuscript art

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Thai manuscript art and crafts feature several characteristics that reflect sophisticated and refined craftsmanship. Mother-of-pearl inlay is one aspect of such fine art that reveals the painstaking efforts and the refined minds of the Thai manuscript makers. The mother-of-pearl’s exquisite patterns are created by pearl-shell chips in silvery pink, purple, blue and other shiny colours embedded in lacquered wooden boards to be used as manuscript covers, or in very rare cases, even the text in a manuscript could be created by using mother-of-pearl inlay on black laquered sheets. Mother-of-pearl was also used to decorate manuscript chests and cabinets to store the most valuable Tipitaka scriptures.

Manuscript covers with mother-of-pearl inlay, British Library, Manuscript number Or.1245

Manuscript covers with mother-of-pearl inlay, Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library Manuscript number Or.1245)

Buddhist and traditional Thai motifs were selected to befit the materials used and to suit the shape of the items being decorated. In many cases the Kranok and the Krajang designs were utilized as the themes for manuscript covers as well as for smaller manuscript boxes and containers, while stories from traditional literature like Sudhana and Manohra and the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana), or subjects related to Buddhism were depicted on chests and cabinets with a larger surface. Chinese designs became more and more popular during the 19th century to decorate manuscript chests and covers, as shown in the example above.

The National Museum of Thailand holds the most important collection of Thai manuscript cabinets, including some decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay

An interesting article about Thai mother-of-pearl inlay by John J. Toomey can be found in the January/February 2013 issue of Passage, the magazine of the Singapore Friends of the Museums.