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:

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如是我聞。一時佛在室羅筏城祇桓精舍。與大比丘眾千二百五十人俱。皆是無漏大阿羅漢。佛子住持善超諸有。能於國土成就威儀。從佛轉輪妙堪遺囑。嚴淨毘尼弘範三界。應身無量度脫眾生。拔濟未來越諸塵累。其名曰大智舍利弗。摩訶目乾連。摩訶拘絺羅。富樓那彌多羅尼子。須菩提。優波尼沙陀等而為上首。復有無量辟支無學并其初心。同來佛所。屬諸比丘休夏自恣。十方菩薩諮決心疑。欽奉慈嚴將求密義。即時如來敷座宴安。為諸會中宣示深奧。法筵清眾得未曾有。迦陵仙音遍十方界。恒沙菩薩來聚道場。文殊師利而為上首。

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.

http://idp.bl.uk/

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