Japan-RAMS Scholars Make Early Manuscript Reading Hallmark of Penn Program

October 2, 2013

Scholars at the University of Pennsylvania are on their way to making the skill of reading manuscript text a hallmark of the Japanese studies program at Penn.

The ability to read pre-modern calligraphy is recognized as one of the most challenging tasks in Japanese studies. It is typically not taught in graduate programs in the United States but is key to interpreting pre-modern texts. Two years ago, several Asian Studies professors at Penn began teaching themselves how to read calligraphy from pre-modern Japan.

Among those who initially comprised this ad hoc working group were Julie Nelson Davis, an Associate Professor of History of Art, and her colleagues Linda Chance, Graduate Chair and Associate Professor of Japanese Language and Literature in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Frank Chance, Associate Director of Academics at the Center of East Asian Studies. Today the small ad hoc group has grown into the Reading Asian Manuscripts, or RAMS, Faculty Working Group, supported by funds from the School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office. RAMS includes faculty, librarians and graduate students from all fields of Asian studies. 

Penn is among a very small number of institutions that organize and offer workshops to teach vital skills in Japanese orthography, and a year ago, the University hosted its first workshop on reading Japanese calligraphy. The entire RAMS group held their first pan-Asian conference on material texts last spring.

Last month a second workshop drew 20 scholars to campus from around the world. Over the course of four days, participants honed their ability to read printed and handwritten texts dating from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The group practiced reading diverse works such as humorous stories and broadsides, medical texts and letters, as well as the introduction to a book of kimono designs currently on display in Penn’s Special Collections Gallery. 

The Japan-RAMS group continues to meet weekly, drawing reading selections from members’ research projects in progress.

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