From Mulberry Leaves to Silk Scrolls

New Approaches to the Study of Asian Manuscript Traditions

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Justin Thomas McDaniel, Lynn Ransom
Lawrence J. Schoenberg Studies in Manuscript Culture
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , October
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection, the inaugural volume in the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Studies in Manuscript Cultures published by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is a welcome contribution to the small but slowly growing field of Asian manuscript studies. As this book helps to show, this is a field of crucial importance not only to the better grounding of historical studies in their sources, but also to the development of cross-cultural studies of Asian traditions of many kinds. In his introduction, Justin McDaniel briefly but vividly evokes the particular contributions (and the particular pleasures) of manuscript studies, relating the happy discovery in a Dublin library that a Thai manuscript he had gone to study was not at all what he expected it to be. He makes clear how the encounter with the actual nature of the object illustrated “some of the questions that arise when a scholar unwraps a manuscript. The nature of the medium, the writing tools, the available materials, and the professionals that worked on the text all contributed to often cacophonous cultural products” (4). The best essays in the collection follow McDaniel’s lead, demonstrating the rich complexes of evidence found in the manuscripts they study.

The book is divided into three parts by discipline: art historical studies in “The Art of the Book”; philological investigations in “Inscribing Religious Practice and Belief”; and works of codicology, paleography, and digitization in “Technologies of Writing.” For the codicologically-minded reader, however, it might be more helpful to divide these studies into two groups broadly representative of trends in the contemporary study of manuscripts. First, studies that take manuscripts mainly as supports for other things (usually paintings or texts), which are understood as the primary objects of interest, and which are to be studied for the most part in traditional ways (visual or textual analysis). Such studies tend to give only passing attention to the nature of the manuscript itself. In this group (five of the first six studies in the book, to my mind) we find a set of very interesting art historical and philological studies that will likely be of significant interest to scholars in the particular regional fields they target. On the art historical side we have Hiram Woodward on a Thai manuscript featuring images of and texts on “The Characteristics of Elephants,” and Alexandra Green on a complex Burmese cosmological manuscript. On the philological side, the book contains studies by Angela S. Chiu on tales of the Buddha found in northern Thai manuscripts; Ori Tavor on “ritual reorientations” evidenced in the Shanghai Museum collection of ancient Chinese bamboo manuscripts; and Daniel Sou on methods of exorcism found in ancient Chinese “daybooks” copied on manuscripts from Shuihudi.

The second group is composed of studies that are either specifically codicological in procedure or that make clear contributions to the broader study of manuscripts as a separate field of study. In the language used above, they take manuscripts not merely as supports for the main objects of study, but—to varying degrees—as the main objects themselves. In the paleographic and codicological group, I would include Kim Plofker’s fascinating study of Sanskrit scientific manuscripts; Sergei Tourkin’s work on conventions of abbreviation in Persian and Arabic manuscripts (and the editors are to be commended for including an essay on this subject in the volume); and especially Susan Whitfield’s extremely helpful survey, “Creating a Codicology of Central Asian Manuscripts.” Also in this category I think we can include Peter M. Scharf’s detailed essay on the digitization of Sanskrit manuscripts.

Many studies in the volume make contributions both to particular fields of art or religious history, as well as to manuscript studies per se. Among these, along with Whitfield’s chapter, I would single out Sinéad Ward’s art historical study of Burmese Kammavācā manuscripts, which maintains a focus throughout on the ways the images at its heart were directly shaped by their manuscript contexts, and whose section on “style and dating” (90-96) strikes me as a model of how to think in these terms. Plofker’s study of Sanskrit scientific manuscripts also stands out for me in the fulsome detail in which it treats its manuscripts as integral constructions of physical materials, hand-written texts, and images. In the best traditions of manuscript studies, she shows how their physical structures, visual layouts, and scribal particularities (including errors) were integral to the texts inscribed on them, and integral, especially, to what those elements can tell us about histories of practice.

The book is handsomely and often effectively illustrated in rich colors. Thanks go to the press for publishing images of such high quality in such a reasonably priced book. To voice a complaint about them, however, it is only rarely that we get images that make clear that we are talking about full manuscript books here (in the broadest sense). The images of the first two chapters, for example, beautiful and helpful as they are, could simply be of paintings in any sort of material format. As a request for future volumes of manuscript studies, I think, at minimum, initial “establishing shots” of the books as books is crucial.

But such relatively minor complaints aside, this is a valuable collection, and I hope it inspires many more like it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Copp is Associate Professor in Chinese Religion and Thought, East Asian Languages and Civilizations at University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justin Thomas McDaniel is Professor of Buddhist Studies and Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lynn Ransom is Curator at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania Libraries.



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