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Too Fragile to Open, World’s Oldest Multicolor Printed Book Is Digitized

'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Cambridge University Library recently added selections from its Chinese collections to its Digital Library site. Among the ancient oracle bones used as a method of divination, a 19th-century “Manual of Famine Relief,” and a 14th-century mulberry paper banknote threatening decapitation for any forgery, is the 17th-century Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu). The book is so fragile that until digitization no one was allowed to open it.

'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library) (click to enlarge)

“It is important as both the earliest and the most beautiful example of multicolor printing anywhere in the world,” Charles Aylmer, head of the Chinese department at Cambridge University Library, told Hyperallergic. The revealed pages include eight categories of subjects illustrated by 50 different artists and calligraphers, with birds, plums, orchids, bamboo, fruit, stones, ink drawings, and other miscellaneous imagery, each followed by a text or poem.

“Everyone will have their own favorites, but many people like the birds best, as they are depicted with such economy of line and true understanding of the nature of the subject,” Aylmer added.

The manual was created in 1633 by the Ten Bamboo Studio based in Nanjing, and although it was reprinted several times, the example at Cambridge is one of the rare complete sets of an early edition in its original “butterfly” binding. The prints look like watercolors with their gradients of hue, the result of a technique called polychrome xylography, or douban, invented by artist and printmaker Hu Zhengyan. The manual is the earliest known book with polychrome xylography, where each image involved several printing blocks with different colors of inks, giving the completed print the appearance of having been painted by hand.

The Cambridge Digital Library site states that this edition “has been identified by the leading scholar of this work as the finest and only extant complete copy in the original binding of what he describes as the ‘second superstate’ of the first edition.” Below are some selections from this 17th-century work, and the complete 356 pages of the manual are now digitized in high-resolution, allowing viewers to leaf through them for the first time.

'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
'Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu' (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)
‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’) (Chinese, 1633), polychrome xylographic print (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

View more from the 17th-century Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu) online at the Cambridge Digital Library

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