Working with primary sources.

Some months ago I was introduced to working with original handwritten manuscripts as primary sources. Needless to say despite having some skill in reading Classical Chinese, when it comes to reading the handwriting of anonymous scribes from the Tang Dynasty, I lack self-confidence. Nevertheless, it is quite a fascinating pursuit that brings the scholar to an almost intimate relationship with their work. We are no longer dealing with neat yet faceless typeset editions of texts, but the original texts written out by hand. The handwriting of an individual can reveal their age and social circumstances. Some texts are obviously copied out by adolescents while others display fine calligraphy which probably reflects a well educated scribe.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. Below is part of a Dunhuang manuscript with digital version below:



Indeed reading the original can be difficult. One problem I've encountered is that scribes in medieval China were free to use many variants of common characters. At times their messy handwriting amplifies the problem several fold making characters quite unreadable. I often find myself wondering if their peers could really read all their writing or not. In any case when I look at the original manuscripts it feels less like a faceless study of texts and the human side of the text appears in the handwriting, mistakes and various brush marks.

I invite you to visit the International Dunhuang Project which has a searchable database of digitized texts including manuscripts in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and other languages.