Stephen Wootton Bushell

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Stephen Wootton Bushell
Portrait of Stephen Wootton Bushell
Portrait of Stephen Wootton Bushell (c. 1880–1890)
Born (1844-07-28)28 July 1844
Ash-next-Sandwich, Kent, England
Died 19 September 1908(1908-09-19)
Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, England
Residence England
Citizenship United Kingdom
Fields Medicine
Known for Books on Chinese art and Chinese ceramics

Stephen Wootton Bushell CMG MD (28 July 1844 – 19 September 1908) was an English physician and amateur Orientalist who made important contributions to the study of Chinese ceramics, Chinese numismatics and the decipherment of the Tangut script.


Bushell was born in Ash-next-Sandwich in Kent, the second son of William Bushell and Sarah Frances Bushell (née Wooton). He was educated at Tunbridge Wells School and Chigwell School.[1] His father owned a large farm, but as the second son he needed to seek a career outside farming, and so he studied medicine at Guy's Hospital Medical School), University of London, where he excelled, winning prizes and scholarships in Organic Chemistry and Materia Medica (scholarship and gold medal, 1864), Biology (scholarship, 1865), Geology and Palaeontology (first class honours, 1865), Medicine and Midwifery (first class honours, 1866), and Forensic Medicine (gold medal, 1866). After graduation in 1866, he worked as a house surgeon at Guy's Hospital, and then in 1867 he worked as a resident medical officer at Bethlem Royal Hospital.[2] He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine (MD) from the University of London on 13 May 1868.[3]

In January 1868, at the recommendation of Dr William Lockhart, Bushell was offered a position as physician to the British Legation in Beijing, China, with an annual salary of £600 and the promise that he could also engage in private practice at Beijing if he wished. He set sail for Shanghai on the last day of the next month, and except for a few periods of leave, he remained there for the next thirty-two years. On his first return to England, in 1874, he was married to Florence Jane Mathews, the daughter of a doctor from Bickley in Kent, and they returned to China together the next year.

Whilst in China he learned to read and speak Chinese, and published a number of articles on the art, numismatics, geography and history of China. He finally retired and returned to England in 1900, due to ill-health. After returning to England he published a number of books on Chinese porcelain and other subjects.

In 1897 he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.[2]

Travels in China[edit]

In autumn 1872, Bushell and Thomas G. Grosvenor (1842–1886), a secretary at the British Legation, went on a journey beyond the Great Wall of China to Inner Mongolia, and visited the ruins of Shangdu (Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Xanadu), the fabled summer capital of the Yuan dynasty.[4] They were the first Europeans to visit Shangdu since the time of Marco Polo.[5]

Study of ancient scripts[edit]

Bushell's decipherement of 37 Tangut characters

Bushell made important contributions to the study of the extinct Tangut, Khitan, Jurchen and 'Phags-pa scripts.


One of Bushell's many interests was numismatics, and he collected a number of coins issued by the Western Xia state with inscriptions in the Tangut script. To read the inscriptions on these coins he attempted to decipher as many Tangut characters as possible by comparing the Chinese and Tangut texts on a bilingual stele from Liangzhou. Using this methodology, in 1896 he was able to determine the meaning of thirty-seven Tangut characters (see adjacent image), and could thereby identify the inscription on one of his Western Xia coins as corresponding to the Chinese Dà'ān Bǎoqián 大安寶錢 (Precious Coin of the Da'an period, 1076–1085).[6] Although Bushell did not try to reconstruct the pronunciation of any of the Tangut characters, he was the first scholar to be able to decipher the meaning of any Tangut characters.[7]

Bushell was also able to confirm that the unknown script on the six-script inscription on the Cloud Platform at Juyongguan on the Great Wall of China was Tangut, and not Jurchen, as had been asserted by several previous authors, in particular Alexander Wylie in an 1870 paper entitled "An ancient Buddhist inscription at Keu-yung Kwan".[8]


Bushell discussed the Jurchen script in an article he published in 1897 entitled "Inscriptions in the Juchen and Allied Scripts". In this article he analyses in detail the Jurchen inscription on a stele from Kaifeng that has a list of "metropolitan graduates" (the stele is thus known as the Jinshi Bei 進士碑 'Metropolitan Graduates Stele').


Bronze 'fish tally' with small Khitan inscription reading "Commander of the Heaven Cloud Army" owned by Bushell

Bushell discussed the Khitan small character and large character scripts in his article on the Jurchen script published in 1897, but did not attempt any decipherment or engage in detailed study of the two scripts. However he did publish a facsimile of a bronze 'fish tally' (yú fú 魚符) with a small character Khitan inscription that he had in his collection. Although he misidentified the script on the tally as "large Jurchen", the tally is an important example of the small Khitan script.


Page from the Chinese 'Phags-pa rhyming dictionary manuscript owned by Bushell

Although he did not actually publish anything relating to the 'Phags-pa script, during his time in China (probably on his 1872 trip to Inner Mongolia) he acquired the only extant manuscript copy of the early 14th century rhyming dictionary of Chinese written in the 'Phags-pa script (Menggu Ziyun 蒙古字韻), which was sold to the British Museum by his widow in April 1909.[9] This is the only surviving example of a dictionary written in the 'Phags-pa script, and is the single most important source for studying how Chinese was written in the 'Phags-pa script during the Yuan dynasty. This manuscript is now held at the British Library (callmark Or. 6972).

Study of Chinese art and ceramics[edit]

Bushell is best known for his books on Chinese art, and, in particular, Chinese porcelain. In 1883 he was appointed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to purchase Chinese porcelain on their behalf, and he acquired a total of 233 pieces for the museum.[1][10] He also acquired a number of items for the British Museum, including a Tibetan skull cup in 1887 and collection of bronzes in 1898.[11]

Shortly before his retirement, and in the years following his return to England in 1900, he produced a number of important books on Chinese art, including two handbooks for the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oriental Ceramic Art (1897) and Chinese Art (1904), and a catalogue of the Morgan Collection of Chinese porcelains (1907), which at that time was on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He also worked with Dr. George F. Kunz and Heber R. Bishop in writing producing the catalog of the Bishop Collection of Jade at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906.[12] His final work was a book about 16th-century Chinese porcelain with 83 coloured plates, incorporating a manuscript text in Chinese by Xiang Yuanbian 項元汴 (1525–1590), a wealthy art collector from Jiaxing in Zhejiang province, with a translation into English by Bushell. The final proof copy of this book was delivered to his home just a few hours after Bushell's death.[2]

After his death, his widow donated his collection of ceramics, antique pottery sherds, ancient Chinese knife and spade coins, hanging scrolls, and various other artefacts to the British Museum.[13]


With William Thompson Walters and William M. Laffan

With William M. Laffan


  1. ^ a b Pearce, Nick (2005–2006). "Collecting, Connoisseurship and Commerce: An Examination of the Life and Career of Stephen Wooton Bushell (1844–1908)". Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society. 70: 17–25. ISSN 0306-0926. 
  2. ^ a b c "Obituary of Stephen Wootton Bushell, C.M.G, M.D.". British Medical Journal. 1908 (2): 954. 26 September 1908. 
  3. ^ "University of London (List of Graduates)". Medical Press and Circular. 1868: 445. 20 May 1868. 
  4. ^ Bushell, S.W. (1875). "Notes on the Old Mongolian Capital of Shangtu". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 7 (2): 329–338. doi:10.1017/S0035869X00016518. 
  5. ^ Henry Yule; Henri Cordier (1993). The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. London: Courier Dover Publications. p. 304. ISBN 978-0-486-27586-4. 
  6. ^ Bushell, S.W. (1895–1896). "The Hsi Hsia Dynasty of Tangut, their Money and Peculiar Script". Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 30: 142–160. 
  7. ^ Nishida, Tatsuo (1966). A Study of Hsi-Hsia Language. Tokyo: The Zauho Press. p. 519. 
  8. ^ Bushell, S.W. (October 1899). "The Tangut script in the Nank'ou Pass". The China Review. 24 (2): 65–68. 
  9. ^ West, Andrew. "Phags-pa Script : Menggu Ziyun". Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  10. ^ "The Formation of the Ceramics Collections". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 1 May 2010. 
  11. ^ "Kapala". British Museum. Retrieved 1 May 2010. 
  12. ^ Bishop Collection, by Heber R. Bishop, George Frederick Kunz, Stephen W. Bushell, Robert Lilley, and Tadamasa Hayashi. The Bishop Collection. Investigations and Studies in Jade. New York: Priv. Print. [The De Vinne Press], 1906.
  13. ^ "Biographical details for Mrs Florence Bushell". British Museum. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 

External links[edit]