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:

央掘魔羅經. 卷第一,宋元祐五年(1090)福州東禪寺刻本<br />
Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra, 1 volume<br />
Song dynasty, Yuanyou 5 (1090)<br />

央掘魔羅經. 卷第一,宋元祐五年(1090)福州東禪寺刻本

Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra, 1 volume

Song dynasty, Yuanyou 5 (1090)

Woodblock print, sutra folded binding, 29.5 X 11.5 cm

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

大方廣佛華嚴經卷第五十一,扉畫<br />
Avataṃsaka sūtra, frontispiece illustration<br />

大方廣佛華嚴經卷第五十一,扉畫

Avataṃsaka sūtra, frontispiece illustration

Woodblock print, sutra folded binding, 31 X 11.5 cm

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

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:

春秋屬辭十五卷,元至正二十四年(1364)休寧商山義塾刻明修本<br />
Study on Spring and Autumn Annals<br />
Yuan dynasty, Zhizheng 24 (1364)<br />

春秋屬辭十五卷,元至正二十四年(1364)休寧商山義塾刻明修本

Study on Spring and Autumn Annals

Yuan dynasty, Zhizheng 24 (1364)

Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper, 10.4 x 6.2 in. (26.5×15.8 cm)

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

宋刊孟子,涵芬樓假内府本印行,1918<br />
Facsimile Reprint of Song Edition of Mencius<br />
Early Republican Era, circa 1918<br />

宋刊孟子,涵芬樓假内府本印行,1918

Facsimile Reprint of Song Edition of Mencius

Early Republican Era, circa 1918

Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper, 13.7 x 9.6 in. (35 x 25cm)

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

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:

古列女傳,清道光五年(1825)揚州阮福影印南宋余氏刻本<br />
Biographies of Outstanding Women<br />
Facsimile reprint in 1825 of Southern Song edition (circa 1127-1279)<br />

古列女傳,清道光五年(1825)揚州阮福影印南宋余氏刻本

Biographies of Outstanding Women

Facsimile reprint in 1825 of Southern Song edition (circa 1127-1279)

Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper, 12 x 6 in. (30 × 16 cm)

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

盛明雜劇三十種,民國七年(1918)誦芬室仿明本精刊<br />
Thirty Short Plays from the Prime Time of Ming Dynasty<br />
Facsimile reprint in 1918 of the Ming edition of Chongzhen 2 (1629)<br />

盛明雜劇三十種,民國七年(1918)誦芬室仿明本精刊

Thirty Short Plays from the Prime Time of Ming Dynasty

Facsimile reprint in 1918 of the Ming edition of Chongzhen 2 (1629)

Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper, 12.6 x 8 in. (32 × 21 cm)

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

皐鶴堂批評第一奇書金瓶梅, 康熙三十四年(1659)影松軒序刊本<br />
Plum in the Golden Vase<br />
Qing dynasty, Kangxi 34 (1659)<br />

皐鶴堂批評第一奇書金瓶梅, 康熙三十四年(1659)影松軒序刊本

Plum in the Golden Vase

Qing dynasty, Kangxi 34 (1659)

Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper, 13 x 6.5 in. (33 × 16.5 cm)

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

鴻雪因緣圖記三集,清道光二十七年(1847)揚州刻本<br />
Tracks in the Snow, in 3 Parts, with illustrations<br />
Qing dynasty, Daoguang 27 (1847)<br />

鴻雪因緣圖記三集,清道光二十七年(1847)揚州刻本

Tracks in the Snow, in 3 Parts, with illustrations

Qing dynasty, Daoguang 27 (1847)

Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper, 11.6x 6.75 in. (29.5 × 17 cm)

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

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.

欽定四書圖説,清光緒三十二年(1906)内府寫本<br />
Imperially Commissioned Four Classics with Illustrations and Annotations<br />
Qing dynasty, Guangxu 32 (1906)<br />

欽定四書圖説,清光緒三十二年(1906)内府寫本

Imperially Commissioned Four Classics with Illustrations and Annotations

Qing dynasty, Guangxu 32 (1906)

Manuscript, ink on paper, 13.2x 8.3 in. (33.7× 21.2 cm) 

Special Collections & Libraries, The Claremont Colleges Library

CHARACTERFUL AND ILLUSTRATIVE