- Catalogue of Yao Manuscripts by Bent Lerbæk Pedersen
This illustrated catalogue of the collection of thirty-seven Yao texts in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, will interest not only those who specialize in Yao studies. Anyone curious about manuscript cultures and how they support religious practice and other social priorities will find the material in this collection fascinating. The examples of student exercises and primers, and of manuscript copies of printed books, provide insights into how a manuscript culture sustained itself until very recently on the linguistically and ethnically diverse periphery of the print-dominated Chinese world.
The texts are in an accessible script and language: an unelaborate variety of written Chinese, written in plain though sometimes idiosyncratic hands. This is not to deny that the texts present many challenges of reading and interpretation that require an expertise in Yao studies. However, by providing many photographs of select manuscript pages, Pedersen’s catalogue offers a point of entry to the culture of these documents to many interested observers.
“Yao (瑤)” is a traditional Chinese-language ethnic classification, still in use officially today, applied to a population of about three million distributed [End Page 573] in southern China and in adjacent areas of northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The same term refers also to a sub-family of Hmong-Mien languages spoken by some of the groups classified as Yao. Traditionally for the Yao, acquiring literacy has meant acquiring literacy in Chinese, specifically in the written form sometimes loosely referred to as “classical Chinese.” This is in contrast to some other groups of the Chinese south, most importantly the Yi (彜), or Lolo, who developed and sustained over many centuries a writing system that is both distinct from Chinese and unrelated to the Indian-derived phonetic systems of Southeast Asia.
Varieties of classical Chinese provided a near-universal written model for literature and administration in China, independently of linguistic variation within spoken varieties of Chinese. Classical Chinese retained this role until new written standards based on more up-to-date Chinese vernaculars were adopted by policy in the twentieth century. At various times, versions of the classical written standards have been in use for administrative, literary, and religious purposes in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. There is nothing exceptional, then, about the Yao adopting a written language, and aspects of literate culture, that derive from their Han Chinese neighbors.
The “Yao manuscripts” published in the book under review are thus “Chinese” in the sense that they are all legible as Chinese texts, and in many cases are versions of well-known texts composed in a Chinese cultural context. Among the pages reproduced in the book, I saw no sign of the systematic representation of any non-Chinese language. The texts are “Yao” in the sense that they are likely to have been possessed and used by Yao individuals, and in some cases copied or composed by Yao transcribers or authors. Unfortunately, beyond the fact of a 1970 purchase in northern Thailand, the history and geography of their ownership prior to acquisition by the Royal Library seems to be unknown. Nevertheless, the content of many of the texts and the physical format of the manuscript books is comparable to those in previously catalogued European collections, most notably that of the Bavarian State Library, where some twenty-seven hundred Yao manuscripts are held, and to books studied while still in the possession of Yao individuals. Höllman and Friedrich’s Botschaften an die Götter (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999) provides photographs of fifty of the best-preserved and most visually appealing manuscripts in the Bavarian collection. [End Page 574]
The provenance of the Copenhagen manuscripts is given in all cases as either “from a private owner in Parkiew, Northern Thailand,” or “from a private owner in Parle Yao, Northern Thailand.” I was unable to identify either of these locations with any confidence. Here, and in other places, there is the sense that the cataloguer...