Palimpsest Portion of the Xian-fu Stone

Chinese palimpsest

In 1979 I was studying in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Dr. May had kindly invited me to review Syriac texts which turned out to be missing pages from Severius of Antioch. Syriacist Sebastian Brock later found a manuscript  to which these pages belonged.

During this time at Oxford I used to go across the street to a pub called the Kings Arms. It was here where I read some of the most interesting graffiti in the men’s rooms. The graffiti was extraordinarily clever. The most memorable one was “Oedipus, Your Mother wants you. Love Dad”

Graffiti offers us insight into the place and space where it is expressed. I was shocked but curious when I saw graffiti on the Xian-fu stone. Someone in 1859 had scrawled over a portion of the stone the following:

What was interesting about this graffiti is the utter blindness of the graffti writer to the text underneath. He probably could not read the ancient Chinese and he certainly could not read the Syriac. So he carves his message on the stone without a thought to the importance ofthe text underneath. In effect he created a palimpsest where original text is erased and written over. Some of the most interesting discoveries in recent times is the recovery of faint texts that were  once erased but recovered with modern technology. The Archimedes manuscript at Walters Museum in Baltimore is one of the most famous palimpsests.

Strangely, the Xian-fu stone is a palimpsest in several ways. First it has a portion that has been written over and the text underneath is partially hidden. Second, the inscription has been hidden and psychologically erased by the overlay of various interpretations and perceptions imposed upon it. Finally, until recently the message of the  stone has been occulted by the “Nestorian” shadow. It has kept people from seeing it as an authentic and unique Asian religion that once thrived in China under Tang Emperors.

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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