Sunday, 23 December 2012

Encounter with a Tiger Travelling West

Just over a century ago, in 1909, the French linguist, explorer and possible spy, Paul Pelliot (1878–1945), arrived in Beijing with a small sample of texts from Dunhuang, having already sent the bulk of his “purchases” from the famous Cave 17 at Mogao back to Paris with his associate, the photographer Charles Nouette.
While traveling through Urumchi on his way to document the cave paintings of Mogao, Pelliot heard of the discovery of a cache of manuscripts. In Urumchi he met with Duke Lan, former Beijing Deputy Chief of Police, who had been exiled to Central Asia for his involvement in the Boxer Uprising. Pelliot, who had been sent to Beijing from Hanoi, had himself been trapped in the French Legation, earning the Legion d’honneur for his exploits (Hopkirk 1980, 181). The two former enemies found themselves happily in accord, and Lan presented Pelliot with a manuscript from Dunhuang that Pelliot recognized as pre-eighth century, confirming rumors that circulated about it, and firing a determination to explore the document cache himself. He reached the caves of Mogao early in 1908 (figure 2), mere months after Sir Marc Aurel Stein. However, where Stein, an otherwise accomplished oriental archaeologist and linguist, did not know Chinese, Pelliot, a professor of Chinese at the École française d’Extrême Orient in Hanoi from the age of twenty-two, was capable of reading and assessing the higglety-pigglety bundles of manuscripts and making a more measured selection. But, handicapped by having a mere three weeks to make a selection, and forced to unroll the scrolls at a rate, he claimed, of some thousand a day, it is hardly surprising that he returned to Paris to find, in addition to acclaim, considerable vilification and accusations of forgery from vitriolic rivals.
Among the manuscripts that found their way to the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Museé Guimet in Paris were two painted on silk dating from the ninth–tenth centuries (Five Dynasties, Northern Song). Very similar in style and composition, both show a wandering monk with a large pack of scrolls on his back, walking through an arid Central Asian landscape, accompanied by a tiger (Figures 1, 10); the monk is frequently identified, more by desire than logic, as the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602–664). A similar, though much less sophisticated image (figure 3), in ink and pigment on paper, also from the Library Cave (Cave 17), had been acquired a few months earlier by Marc Aurel Stein (Whitfield 2004, 128), and it is now in the British Museum. Several other examples also exist, including the famous Kamakura (1185–1333) version now in the Tokyo National Museum, and three or four similar to the Stein image, also from Dunhuang, including one in the Korean National Museum and one in the Tenri Library of Nara Prefecture (Mair 1986, 29 ff.). 

Read further at the source: Sino- Platonic papers number 231, edited by Victor Mair

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