Navigating the Dunhuang Manuscripts Databases

The Mogao Caves nearby Dunhuang were one of the most exceptional discoveries of the 20th century. Their textual, artistic and architectural richness are so well-known that it feels redundant to present them once again. Instead, I invite anyone unfamiliar with the subject to navigate Digital Dunhuang 數字敦煌, to take a look at the extraordinary beauty of these caves. 

Being a scholar of texts, I am most interested in the manuscripts discovered in these caves, known as Dunhuang manuscripts. These are rich in number, content, and languages in which they were written. Buddhist texts are prevalent among this group. There currently exists four major databases of the Dunhuang manuscripts (all of which allow you to copy and paste their data): 

These databases work on the assumption that the user is already familiar with the Dunhuang corpus. In many ways, this is logical: they are tools for research, not for individuals who decide to take an interest in medieval manuscripts produced in and around the Chinese empires. However, even for researchers, navigating them can be challenging. Let me give you an example using my own experience. I am a scholar of ancient Chinese texts, and have taken an interest in the textual history of the Exalted Writings 尚書, a collection of texts with a most fascinating story of copying, loss and recoveries, and forgeries. The textual histories of the Writing’s chapters begun to be written in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty 東周  (770-221 BCE) and stretched all the way into the 19th century, passing via the silk road – the Dunhuang manuscripts, precisely. There are around 50 manuscripts relevant to the Exalted Writings among Dunhuang texts. I knew that much – but I did not know their cataloguing number, how they were titled, and so on. In this piece, I share the research process and a couple of tips that may be useful to anyone who takes an interest in the Dunhuang collection and may feel a bit unclear about it. 

Let’s start with the IDP. Initially, I imagined that just searching for some keywords (as opposed to pressmarks) would be quicker than recovering the cataloguing information from books, speeding up my workflow. Not so – searching for “尚書” in the IDP “Free text search”  field results in 10 items, only some of which are what I am really looking for – i.e., manuscripts that record the text of the Exalted Writings, as opposed to manuscripts that mention the collection. I quickly realized, and had confirmation, that the best way to use the IDP database, in fact, is by inserting the pressmark that labels each manuscript. So having found the list of Writings-related Dunhuang manuscripts in the excellent Dunhuang jingji xulu 敦煌經籍敘錄 by Xu Jianping 許建平, I once again ventured into the IDP search functionality. It did not turn out as I hoped: as Imre Galambos mentioned in the beginning of this introduction to the database, the pressmark alone is of no help if you do not know how to use it. In the scholarship several manuscripts are labeled as P.0000, where P stands for Pelliot and the number provides a unique reference. After finding the relevant pressmarks, I naively entered “P.2516” in the IDP, to receive back no matches. You need in fact to spell out “Pelliot Chinois 2516” to find what you are looking for (also, be careful not to have extra spaces after the number, which will invalidate your search): 

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If however you already have read introductive scholarship on Dunhuang manuscripts and want to browse manuscripts from Dunhuang, my first suggestion is that you use the BnF “Archives et manuscrits” section. Click on “Département des Manuscrits”, and select the following collections: Chinois, Pelliot chinois, Pelliot tibétain, and Pelliot (autres collections). Clicking on the arrows next to these labels give you an overview of the content in that section:

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This list in itself tells you nothing of the content; you have to click on each item to be led to a page that introduces the manuscript and often includes the given Chinese title. Images of the digitized manuscripts here are of the highest resolution, they can be zoomed in without loss of quality. There are also options to download them, both as JPEG and PDF (but do read the conditions for using those images!). If then you are interested in seeing how the IDP presents this item, you also have the pressmark right there in front of you! 

Again, if your idea is to browse manuscripts and discover what kinds of manuscripts exist in the Dunhuang collection, but you want to focus on Buddhist texts, then the Database of Medieval Chinese Texts is your best option. Here as well you are given the pressmark (as P.0000, which you now know how to use!). The database has a very nice tab appropriately labeled “Texts”, which gives you the option to choose among three groups. A considerable perk of this database is the possibility to download the texts en-mass, via the link provided on the top right side of each group: 

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Clicking on any of these titles will provide a description of the text followed by two transcriptions: a “diplomatic transcription” that aims to represent the features of manuscripts and text (such as punctuation and variants) and a “regularized transcription,” where the text is given in modern, typable fonts. Both the transcription and the notes require some familiarity with the symbols and colors, but this is well explained in the database, 

The Dunhuang Documents Database, the last on my list, does not provide a link to the full list of the manuscripts included into the database so far. But if you go to the search tab 搜索遗书 and hit “search” (sousuo 搜索) leaving the field empty, you are given the entire list of manuscripts provided: 685 items. For each one of them, you are given a brief description, and you can then decide to see the transcription of the text (查看綠文), the photograph of the manuscript (進入圖版) – also in high quality, – an exhausting bibliography (相關文獻), and the possibility to see the text reproduced right next to the image (對照瀏覽). Both the bibliography section and the possibility to see the text reproduce right next to the image are what I find most appealing in this project. Another positive note for me is the simplicity of the interface. A downside of this database is the use of simplified characters. Since the text can be copied and pasted, it forces scholars who prefer to use traditional characters to retype some words in it. 

Example of text – image side by side view 對照瀏覽 from the Dunhuang Documents Database 

Much more can be said for all these databases. I have just started my journey to discover the Dunhuang manuscripts, and only for a small section of them, those related to my research projects. It is an extremely fascinating material, in my opinion also understudied outside Chinese scholarship, and the hope is that both this introduction as well as the development of new tools will aid more research in the area, knitting closer paper books and digital resources. 

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