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The Chinese New Year Almanac and an Early Publication Ordinance

By Susan Whitfield 3 February 2014

This is one of my favourite items among the manuscripts found at Dunhuang even though only a small fragment of the original remains. It is a almanac or calendar dated to the ninth century and printed by the Dadao Family. It tells us that they were in the East Market in the capital of China, Chang’an (now Xian). The East Market was next to the imperial palace and mansions of high-ranking officials (merchants coming to Chang’an from the Silk Road traded in the West Market). Yet at the time the private printing of almanacs, such as this, was forbidden by law.

The New Year in China, which this year started on 31 January 2014, was traditionally the time for a new almanac to be calculated by the Imperial Astronomy Bureau and presented to the emperor before the official version was distributed. Almanacs were powerful documents in China as they could be used to predict political change. But they were also very popular and the law against private production was probably as much for economic as for political reasons. In either case, it seems to have been unsuccessful and there are a series of memorials throughout the next century reiterating the ban.

The memorial of AD 835 which led to the law mentions almanacs for sale in the south of China far from the centre of power:

‘In the provinces of Sichuan and Huainan, printed almanacs are on sale in the market. Every year, before the Imperial Astronomy Bureau has submitted the new calendar for approval and had it officially promulgated, printed almanacs have flooded the market. This violates the principle that the calendar is a gift of His Imperial Majesty.’

Yet this almanac was produced under the noses of the officials who were meant to be enforcing a ban on such activities. The evidence of this fragment and the reiteration of the ban suggests that the private printing of almanacs continued, presumably because there was a profit to be made.

Under the Censor’s Eye: Printed Almanacs and Censorship in Ninth-Century China by Susan Whitfield is available to download as a PDF (12MB).

Note: A more complete printed Chinese almanac from Dunhuang dating from AD 877 will be on display in the British Library Treasures Gallery from 8 March 2014.


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