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Harvard-Yenching's Tibetan Canon Exhibited at Museum of Fine Arts

Rare 15th-century volume part of “Chinese Lacquer 1200–1800.”


November 13, 2012—A rare 15th-century volume of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon from the Harvard-Yenching Library collection is included in “Chinese Lacquer 1200–1800” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA).


This volume of the Canon is one of only 12 believed to be in existence, and is one of two volumes discovered a few years ago among uncatalogued items at Harvard-Yenching.  


“The 12 volumes disappeared after the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing in 1900,” said Xiao-He Ma, librarian for the Chinese Collection at Harvard-Yenching. “They were later discovered in the Museum of Hamburg in West Germany.” He added that a note that accompanied the two volumes indicated they dated to 1410.


Katherine Beaty, a book conservator at Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center who treated the 30-pound volume before it was installed at the MFA, explained that the canons are huge stacks of paper, unbound and sandwiched between two boards. Often the edges of the pages are painted, revealing an image when the books are closed. To read the book, she said, a Buddhist monk sits in front of the horizontal stack, flipping the pages over, creating a new stack page by page.


The second of Harvard’s two Tibetan volumes was recently exhibited at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and is now on exhibition at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art.


"We are delighted that two venerable Boston-area institutions—the MFA and the Harvard Library—have cooperated to give this 15th-century treasure a wider viewing in the broader context of the Museum's exhibition,” said Raymond Lum, librarian for western languages at Harvard-Yenching. "This is part of our outreach to make our collections better known to researchers beyond Cambridge."


“Chinese Lacquer 12001800” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts runs from November 16, 2012 through September 8, 2013. Read more about the exhibit here.