Cambridge University Library recently digitized the first multicolor printed book, a 17th-century artist manual that remained in print for over 200 years. Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu) was so fragile in physical form that it had previously never even been opened.
“This is the earliest and finest example of multicolor printing anywhere in the world, comprising 138 paintings and sketches with associated texts by 50 different artists and calligraphers,” Charles Aylmer, head of the Chinese Department at library, says in a statement. “Although reprinted many times, complete sets of early editions in the original binding are extremely rare.” The binding Aylmer mentions is a butterfly binding, meaning that one illustration is folded in half to create a two-page spread.
The manual was created in 1633 by the Ten Bamboo Studio using a technique of polychrome xylography invented by the studio’s owner, the pioneering artist and printmaker Hu Zhengyan. Making each image involved several printing blocks with different colored ink, though the end result looks like hand-painted watercolor images. That effect was very cutting-edge at the time, as Hu was the first to use printing techniques that allowed for more delicate gradations of color.
Essentially a massive archive of works from artists of 17th-century China, the book is divided into eight categories that cover calligraphy, bamboo, flowers, rocks, birds and animals, plums, orchids, and fruit. Each image is followed by a text or poem, interspersed with instructions for basic artist technique, like the correct way to hold a paintbrush. For the 200-plus years it stayed in print, the book had a huge influence on color printing all across China.
Hu’s manual was just one of many works from the library’s Chinese collection that was recently added to its digital library. Other wonders include oracle bones (the earliest surviving examples of Chinese writings), a manual for famine relief, and 14th-century banknote that threatens decapitation.