World’s Oldest Multicolor Book, a Chinese Calligraphy & Painting Manual, Now Available Online

history of printing Oldest Book MultiColor - Manual for Painting and Calligraphy

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 Calligraphycontains 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.”

This historic Chinese artist manual, printed in 1633, is the oldest multi color book in history. The printed images give the feel of watercolor paintings.

Oldest Book MultiColor - Manual for Painting and CalligraphyOldest Book MultiColor - Manual for Painting and CalligraphyOldest Book MultiColor - Manual for Painting and CalligraphyOldest Book MultiColor - Manual for Painting and Calligraphyoldest multicolor book chinese woodblock printingHu Zhengyan - Ten Bamboo Studio collection of calligraphy and paintingartist manual onlineHu Zhengyan Ten Bamboo Studio collection of calligraphy and paintingHu Zhengyan - Ten Bamboo Studio collection of calligraphy and paintingUniversity of Cambridge Digital Library: Website
h/t: [Open Culture]

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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