We often take the printed word for granted, with technology pushing information further and further into the digital realm. This makes it easy to forget that there was a time when color printing was not only a novelty, but cutting edge technology.
The University of Cambridge is helping us remember by placing the oldest color book online through its digital library. By making this beautiful, multicolor manual available online for free, they are combining the best of new technology with old world techniques.
Published in 1633, the Chinese text was printed using a technique called xylography. It was a method also common in Korea and Japan, where woodblocks were carved with text and images for each page. In this case, the Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu (The Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting and Calligraphy) contains multicolor images that appear like watercolor paintings. This perfection of color xylography is known as douban and was invented by Hu Zhengyan.
Zhengyan refined his color technique during the Ming dynasty, with the Studio Manual of Painting and Calligraphy being his most successful work. This artist primer remained in print for 200 years. The lengthy process of color printing with woodblock required patience, as multiple blocks for each page were carved and then printed, layer by layer, in different colors to build up the final effect.
The book is divided into eight categories—birds, plums, orchids, bamboos, fruit, stones, ink drawings, and miscellany. With the exception of one category, each subject has an image followed by text, most often a poem. The digitized copy has been certified by a leading expert as “the finest and only extant complete copy in the original binding.”
Surprisingly, this copy was just unsealed a few years ago after having been discovered in Cambridge’s vaults. “What surprised us,” Charles Aylmer, head of the Library’s Chinese Department says, “was the amazing freshness of the images, as if they had never been looked at for over 300 years.”