CHARACTERFUL AND ILLUSTRATIVE
Characteristics of Chinese Woodblock Printed Books
The history of Chinese characters begins more than 4,000 years ago. Before paper was invented, Chinese texts were inscribed on objects of diverse materials and forms, such as turtle shells, bronze ritual vessels, bamboo, and silk (1300-256 BC). Around the 2nd century BC, paper was invented, and further developed around 1st century AD. Wood-block printing was invented in the late 7th century. Both inventions profoundly influenced the development of the Chinese book.
Traditional Chinese woodblock-printed books are characterful and often illustrative. Each book has its own characteristics in terms of block layout, illustration pattern, calligraphic style, block-cutting style, and quality of ink and paper used to produce the work. In particular, illustration is a long-standing feature of Chinese woodblock printed books. The first complete and dated Chinese book is the Diamond Sutra, dated in 868 (Tang dynasty), and printed on 5 single woodblocks and pasted to form a scroll over 5 meters in length. Ahead of the sutra text is a woodcut illustration (Frontispiece) depicting the Buddha preaching to disciples, which is a priceless illustrated record of early Buddhist teachings. The Diamond Sutra sets a model for later Buddhist publications, especially the production of multi-volume Chinese Buddhist canons during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Two items from our collection best demonstrate this. One item is the Chinese translation of Angulimaliya Sutra, woodblock printed in 1090, and the other is a frontispiece illustration of Avatamsaka Sutra, date unknown.
Woodblock Printed Religious Works:
Along with early religious printings is another major set of early woodblock printed books of classics, historical records, and Confucius teachings with comments and annotations, to meet the needs of candidates for imperial exams, and for private study or collecting. These books meant to be serious studies, usually heavily textual, with little or no illustrations. For books on Confucius teachings, the original words or teachings are printed in big characters, while comments and annotations are inter-printed in small characters. Two items from our collection best illustrate these characteristics.
Studies on Classics and Confucius Teachings:
As printing became increasingly commercialized in the Ming dynasty to meet the demand for various content and reading tastes, illustrations became a common feature in vernacular literature such as stories, dramas, novels, biographies, and garden sceneries. These illustrations were skillfully cut to align with text either precisely or in an exaggerated manner for artistic effect. On display here are a few representative works.
Illustrated Literary Works:
Although studies on classics and Confucius teachings are usually text only, without illustrations, there are exceptions, for instance, those meant for educating children or readers with less educational background. The item below is an example.