Dunhuang at the Bibliotheque Nationale (Richelieu)


A review of the Oriental Manuscripts Reading Room of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France.

I am a PhD candidate in Chinese religion at Princeton University’s Department of Religion currently writing up my dissertation on apocalyptic interpretations of the future descent of Maitreya Buddha from the fall of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) to the middle of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). My project makes use of canonical scriptures, apocryphal texts discovered at Dunhuang, imperial and Buddhist historiographical records, as well as visual evidence in the form of Buddhist stelae, statuary, and Dunhuang mural paintings. I spent several days in the Oriental Manuscripts Reading Room of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in June 2012 examining Chinese-language manuscripts from Dunhuang in the Pelliot collection for my dissertation research.

Despite the vast holdings accessible in the Oriental Manuscripts Reading Room, this review addresses only my experiences with the Chinese language manuscripts in the Pelliot collection. This collection was named after Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), who traveled to Dunhuang in 1907 and collected thousands of manuscripts as well as paintings and other materials. Dunhuang is the site of a cave temple complex located on the Silk Road in northwestern China where a large cache of manuscripts, paintings and scrolls dating from the fifth to the tenth centuries was discovered in the early twentieth century. Today, the manuscripts and other objects that came from Dunhuang are spread all over the world in various museums and libraries. The manuscripts that Pelliot acquired are now part of the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Oriental Manuscripts Reading Room is located at 5 rue Vivienne in the 2nd arrondissement and is part of the Richelieu branch of the BnF. Please note that this particular reading room is not located within the larger and more famous François-Mitterrand branch of the BnF in the 13th arrondissement. The reading room on rue Vivienne is easily accessible by subway: for line 3 exit at Bourse; for lines 1 and 7 exit at Palais-Royal; and for lines 7 and 14 exit at Pyramides. It is open from 10:00am to 6:00pm from Monday to Friday. On Saturdays the reading room closes at 5:00pm and it is closed all day on Sundays. Please consult the BnF’s website for information on holiday and annual closures. The reading room itself is located on the bottom level of the building located directly behind the main building. The room is equipped with carrels and has a small but useful reference book section.

In the main building where you enter from rue Vivienne, there is a coat and bag check. Bulky coats are discouraged but I found the room a bit cold (during a rainy and cool week in June) and would recommend a cardigan or light jacket to stay comfortable. Since bags are not allowed into the reading room, researchers are given a clear case large enough to carry a laptop and some personal items. Please note that only pencils are allowed as writing instruments. There is also a bathroom located next to the coat check. No food or drinks are allowed into the reading room, not even bottled water. There are places within a 5-10 minute walk to get refreshments. Occasionally (usually Tuesday and Friday afternoons) there is even a farmers’ market complete with food stalls near the Bourse subway entrance.

Researchers must obtain a reader’s card in the main building in order to request manuscripts and receive a carrel in the reading room. A passport and letter of introduction from your home institution are required to obtain a reader’s card. Filling out a pre-registration request four to six weeks prior to your visit is an important step to help ensure that you will gain access to the actual manuscripts and not facsimiles. The Reader Registration form can be filled out online by clicking on “pre-registration request” on this webpage. You should describe who you are, your project in detail, which days you expect to visit the collection, as well as why viewing the manuscripts first-hand is necessary for your project to be a success. This is particularly the case with the Pelliot collection, which has been fully digitized on the International Dunhuang Project website as well as the BnF’s Gallica website (see the last paragraph below for more details on the Gallica website). You should acknowledge where the manuscripts have been published and explain why those reproductions (both on the websites and in book form) are insufficient for your research. If you have previously been in touch with the curator, as I was, you may also try to make contact directly, providing the same information as described above.

In your correspondence, be sure to clearly write out the shelf mark of the manuscripts (e.g. Pelliot chinois ####) you are interested in viewing as well as the titles of the specific texts. The main print descriptive catalogue is the multi-volume set Catalogue des manuscrits chinois de Touen-houang, fonds Pelliot chinois (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1970-2001). It is available in the reading room as well as online. For more on the Pelliot collection, also see this webpage, by first clicking on Département des Manuscrits, and then Pelliot chinois.

Even if your viewing of specific Dunhuang manuscripts is arranged and approved in advance, you will still need to request the manuscripts in person. Only three manuscripts may be requested per day, and they must be requested the day before you wish to use them. There are two forms that must be filled out in pencil for each manuscript you request. The next day those requested manuscripts should be available for viewing. When you arrive at the reading room, you can ask to see one of the requested manuscripts. You will have to submit your reader’s card, after which you’ll be assigned a carrel. You will only be allowed one manuscript at a time; however, there is no time limit on how long you can spend with each text. When you return one manuscript you may then see another that you had previously requested. If there is a chance you will want to look at a returned manuscript again that same day, be sure to tell the reading room staff not to return it to the stacks until the end of the day. Otherwise the librarians might return the manuscript, thus making it unavailable until you re-request it for the following day.

As mentioned above, the Dunhuang manuscripts from the Pelliot collection are reproduced on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. In addition, they are also digitized on the BnF’s Gallica website, which has some useful functions not currently available on the IDP website. First go to the Gallica website and click “manuscripts” in order to limit the search to the manuscript collections. It is best to search for a particular manuscript by using the following shelf mark: Pelliot chinois ####. For example, if you want to find a digitized image of the Pelliot manuscript 2136, then you should search for Pelliot chinois 2136. Once you get the digitized image you can enlarge it by clicking on the magnifying glass icon on the upper left and then the magnifying glass icon with the plus sign on the upper right that appears on the next screen. This will allow you to zoom in on specific sections of the manuscript. Another useful function that is accessible after the upper left magnifying glass icon is clicked is the magnifying glass with the dashed lines icon on the upper right. After it is clicked, this icon will allow you to first outline and then download desired sections of the manuscript for your personal use. This is extremely useful when comparing handwriting or focusing on specific portions of the manuscript. Because of these online functions, it is unnecessary to order reproductions on-site for personal use. Publication-quality images and permissions (when needed) may also be ordered through Gallica.

April D. Hughes
PhD Candidate
Department of Religion
Princeton University

Image: “Bibliothèque nationale de France – site Richelieu” by Remi Mathis. Wikimedia Commons.

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