Academician V. Alekseev’s Collection
of the Chinese popular woodblock prints
from the State Museum of the History of Religion

The project has been supported by the Russian Humanitarian Research Foundation scientific grant No. 15-21-10001.

The State Museum of the History of Religion (Saint-Petersburg, Russia) holds unique collection which was handed over to the Museum by a prominent Russian sinologist Vasiliy Alekseev (1881–1951). It includes his collection of Chinese popular prints numbering about 1,000 sheets and a part of his personal handwritten archive.

Vassily Mikhailovich Alekseev (1881–1951) was an outstanding Russian sinologist, translator, and a full member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR since 1929. Ever since his first visit to China in 1906 as part of his master’s studies at the Chinese-Manchurian Department of St. Petersburg University, he has been collecting Chinese popular woodblock prints, epigraphy (inscriptions and charms), engravings, calligraphy, artistic postal paper, rubbings (impressions) of ancient stone slabs. V. M. Alekseev’s collection grew substantially after he took part in the archeological expedition across regions of North China organized by his teacher at Collège de France Édouard Chavannes (1865–1918) in 1907. It is known that during this trip young scholar not only acquired a vast amount of pictorial data for further research on religious syncretism of late Imperial China, but also kept a travel diary — handwritten notes in Russian and Chinese.

Apart from making travel notes during his studies in China in 1906–1909, V. M. Alekseev paid special attention to “obtaining explanations” to the popular prints he had acquired. To be able to understand the meaning of Chinese inscriptions and popular prints, V. M. Alekseev referred to what he labeled as “living tradition”: he did not only strike conversations with artists, salesmen, and common workers, but also referred to the services of “professional consultants” — xiansheng 先生 (Chinese mentors), whom he hired to provide an interpretation of handwritten and visual material that he had previously collected.

A joint Russian-Taiwanese research project conducted at the Research Historical Archives and the Fund “Oriental Religions” of the State Museum of the History of Religion identified xiansheng’s explanations for Chinese popular prints from academician V. M. Alekseev`s collection, which have not been previously studied and published.

The comprehensive study of the manuscripts from the archives of Academician V. M. Alekseev currently preserved at the Research Historical Archive of the State Museum of the History of Religion included their translation from Chinese and their comparison to the popular prints from the Museum`s collection and to pieces published in the works by V. M. Alekseev, this research allows to conclude that these archival materials constitute an invaluable source for the study of Chinese popular beliefs of the late imperial period (late XIX — early XX centuries).

The comparative study of explanatory notes for Chinese popular woodblock prints from the Museum’s collection shows that handwritten and art materials complemented each other. The vast majority of explanation notes written by academician’s Chinese mentors stored in the Alekseev’s Archive at the State Museum of the History of Religion match Chinese popular prints from the collection kept at the same Museum.

The main result of this joint is the first publication of the full catalogue of academician V. Alekseev’s collection of the Chinese popular woodblock prints from the State Museum of the History of Religion with accompanying explanatory materials from the Research Historical Archive of the Museum.