ACCESS | Asia 's Newspaper on Electronic Information Product & Service
December 2002 No.43  
   In this issue

China and UK joint web project brings 'Silk Road' treasures to life  
 
 
Over 50,000 manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from ancient caves and temples along the Silk Road were reunited, in digital form, on a unique integrated Chinese/English website launched in November.
The website is the result of a successful collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of China. Produced as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP), the website will enable researchers, travellers and anyone interested in life along the Silk Road to search an unrivalled treasure-trove of information on items now held in museums and libraries around the world. The website is accessible via a single interface in Chinese and English (available free at here.)
 
Aurel Stein with his companions on his second expedition at Ulugh Mazar, in the desert north of China.
 
  World's earliest dated printed book
 
A hidden cave, located at a Buddhist temple near the garrison town of Dunhuang in Chinese Central Asia, yielded many of the finds when it was discovered in the early 20th century. Inside were hundreds of paintings on silk and tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 5th to 11th centuries, forming the world's earliest and largest paper archive. Among these were the world's earliest dated printed book - a Buddhist sacred text - paper scrolls and fragments, woodslips, wooden tablets and documents in over 15 languages and scripts, including Indo-European, Semitic and Altaic languages. More manuscripts, paintings and artefacts were discovered at other ancient, abandoned Silk Road towns, which were half-buried by desert sands.
 
Together, these materials offer a glimpse into the daily life of the thriving communities of merchants, officials, soldiers, monks, farmers, and workmen in these Silk Road towns as well as revealing the movement and history of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions.
 
Among the documents are early feng shui texts, military reports about the altitude sickness suffered by soldiers fighting in the Pamirs; and prescriptions for arthritis, period pains and other everyday ailments. Also included are letters apologising for getting drunk at a dinner party; the rules for various social clubs - many of them for women; contracts for the loan of a donkey or a cooking pot; census reports; tax documents; prayers for a good life and much more.
 
 
Frontispiece to the earliest dated printed book in the world, a copy of the Buddhist text, 'he Diamond Sutra' dated 868.
 
  Silk paintings and manuscripts
 
The website also includes hundreds of delicate silk paintings from the Dunhuang cave, now housed in the British Museum; as well as manuscripts and paintings from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the University of California at Los Angeles and the Freer Gallery, Washington DC. Alongside these materials are hundreds of early 20th century photographs from the British Library's collections showing the ancient sites, scenery and local peoples. Users can search the IDP database by the item type, title, subjects, language/script, or archaeological site where it was found; or simply by browsing the easy-to-use map interface.
 
'Recreating a virtual Dunhuang cave to give scholars worldwide free access to this geographically scattered material from their laptops has always been the aim of IDP', says Dr Susan Whitfield, Director of the Library's International Dunhuang Project. 'This would not have been possible without the vision of The National Library of China which, through its collaboration on this project, is showing itself to be a leading player in the digital revolution.'
 
Susan continues, 'The Sino-British Fellowship Trust had the confidence to support the opening of an office at the National Library in Beijing in May 2001. We are also grateful for support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, which provided generous help to allow us to accelerate our digitisation programme in the UK. Thanks to them 20,000 images are being added to the website annually in Britain and China.'
 
  IDP website model of international collaboration
 
'The creation of the IDP website provides an excellent model of international collaboration in the library community,' comments Ms Sun Liping, Head of the Department for International Co-operation at the National Library of China. 'The British Library's team of experts worked closely with our staff to help them acquire the skills to prepare archival quality and web images of our Silk Road treasures. This significant website illustrates the value of integrating innovative concepts, imaginative processes and international team working. It not only presents academic information to researchers and scholars but also allows the public to explore China's history and rich culture.'
 
Cave 16 in Dunhuang, with scrolls removed from the library cave piled up outside the door.
 
The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is a compelling example of how computer technology can be applied to make resources available in a manner previously unimaginable. The manuscripts from the cave are now largely housed in four major institutions: the National Library of China, the British Library, the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg, with smaller holdings elsewhere. At present there is no complete catalogue and none of these institutions can offer full access to its collection. Although microfilms and other facsimile forms of the manuscripts exist, these are still incomplete and often of poor quality. IDP was founded in 1994 to create a virtual library, bringing together all the cave documents in high-quality digital format.
 
In late 1998 an IDP Interactive Web Database in English went online, providing scholars and educators with access to high quality digital images of the manuscripts, along with textual descriptions, previous research, and other scholarly tools such as bibliographies. Since then it has been accessed by thousands of scholars worldwide and is recognised as a excellent example of how modern technology and genuine international collaboration can provide new solutions to accessibility of delicate, valuable and dispersed resources. On 11 November a completely new site was launched, not only offering more functionality and access to many more records and images, but also offering a Chinese version. To put the collections in context, the website also allows researchers to retrace the steps of the British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein, one of the first to travel to the region. Using interactive maps, researchers can view hundreds of Sir Aurel's photographs showing the ancient sites he visited, the scenery and local peoples.
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