The World’s Oldest Multicolored Printed Book

Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu

This is the earliest Chinese book printed by the technique of polychrome xylography known as douban invented and perfected by Hu Zhengyan 胡正言 (1584-1674). The method involves the use of multiple printing blocks which successively apply different coloured inks to the paper to reproduce the effect of watercolour painting.

Great skill is required to achieve a convincing result, but the beautiful gradations of colour in this work have led to its reputation as “perhaps the most beautiful set of prints ever made”.

The work is divided into eight categories: birds, plums, orchids, bamboos, fruit, stones, ink drawings (round fans) and miscellany. Each category is divided into two fascicles. The leaves are printed on one side only, folded in half and glued together along the outer fold (the so-called ‘butterfly’ binding). With the exception of one category, every image is followed by an accompanying text, in most cases a poem.

This copy 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.

This is the earliest Chinese book printed by the technique of polychrome xylography known as douban invented and perfected by Hu Zhengyan 胡正言 (1584-1674). The method involves the use of multiple printing blocks which successively apply different coloured inks to the paper to reproduce the effect of watercolour painting.

Great skill is required to achieve a convincing result, but the beautiful gradations of colour in this work have led to its reputation as “perhaps the most beautiful set of prints ever made”.

The work is divided into eight categories: birds, plums, orchids, bamboos, fruit, stones, ink drawings (round fans) and miscellany. Each category is divided into two fascicles. The leaves are printed on one side only, folded in half and glued together along the outer fold (the so-called ‘butterfly’ binding). With the exception of one category, every image is followed by an accompanying text, in most cases a poem.

This copy 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.

The earliest example of multicolor printing is now available for the public eye, digitally available through Cambridge University Library’s Digital Library site. The 17th century book, Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu), is so fragile that it was previously forbidden to be opened, its contents a total mystery before its recent digitization.cambridgecalligraphy1 cambridgecalligraphy2 cambridgecalligraphy3 cambridgecalligraphy4 cambridgecalligraphy5 cambridgecalligraphy6 cambridgecalligraphy7 cambridgecalligraphy8 cambridgecalligraphy9 cambridgecalligraphy11 cambridgecalligraphy12 page-extra-1 page-extra-2

In addition to Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu, the library has also digitized other selections from its Chinese collections including the oracle bones (the earliest surviving examples of Chinese writing anywhere in the world), a Buddhist text dated between 1127 and 1175, and a 14th century banknote that threatens forgers with decapitation. (via Hyperallergic) Via This Is Colossal