Leiden University Libraries (UBL) has been able to acquire an exceptional two-volume Miao album. The acquisition was made possible by the Rombouts Fund for Chinese collections. The extraordinarily well-preserved work contains 70 full-page paintings on silk, depicting non-Chinese peoples in the area of China now known as Yunnan province, and 10 full-page painted maps of the region, which was then at the margins of the Qing empire. Miao albums depicting Yunnan province are relatively rare. Most known surviving Miao albums depict peoples from Guizhou province.
The albums are undated and unsigned. According to the inscriptions on the wooden box in which they are kept, these albums seem to have been originally acquired in Nagasaki (Japan), in 1880, by a family of British merchants. Judging by its format (37×30 cm) and the fine quality of the drawings, it was most likely intended for a high-ranking official or the imperial court.
The so-called Miao albums acquired by the UBL are a product of the territorial expansion under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They are named after the Miao people, even though the subjects depicted in these works are not necessarily limited to the Miao. The albums present non-Chinese peoples living in newly conquered territories of the empire. Most images are accompanied by a short Chinese text summarizing the habits, culture and environment of the peoples represented. The album can therefore be seen as an ethnographic illustrated work, made by Chinese local officials for Chinese viewers and the Manchu ruler. The paintings in the album contributed to the control, administration, and imagination of these new parts of the empire. Maps indicate villages and towns, rivers and mountains, roads, fields and forests. The exquisitely executed paintings often give an idealistic depiction of industrious pastoral life and sometimes borrow background landscapes from ‘Chinese’ areas of the empire. The albums are a valuable and unique primary source, rich in information still to be explored.
A project is currently being set up to enable a group of PhD students to start doing research on the albums. The aim of the project will be to place the albums in the context of the political and administrative expansion of the Qing empire. Findings will hopefully include a date for the album and provide insights as to peoples depicted in the paintings and their relations to to the maps.
Rombouts fund for Chinese collections
The acquisition of the Miao albums was made possible by the Rombouts Fund for Chinese collections. The founder of this Named Fund, alumnus Piet Rombouts, intends to enable the UBL to make important acquisitions, and to further stimulate education and research into the history and culture of China. Piet Rombouts worked in China for years. This is the seventh object acquired by the UBL thanks to the Rombouts Fund. Previous acquisitions included a unique Ming-Dynasty edict and several rare, illustrated books.