There is a book so old and so fragile, no one was allowed to open it. And now it is available for the world to see. Cambridge University Library recently added a selection of ancient Chinese books to their digital collection, including the stunning ‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ (‘Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu’), created in the 17th century and believed to be the earliest example of polychrome xylography. Depicting beautifully painted birds, plums, bamboo, insects and other natural phenomena, the book is full of treasures very few people could access before now.
Ten Bamboo Studio crafted the mysterious ‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ in 1633, in Nanjing. It is the earliest known example of polychrome xylography, which was invented by Hu Zhengyan. The technique, also referred to as Douban, achieves stunning gradations of color and a hand-painted watercolor aesthetic thanks to the use of several printing blocks (applied in succession) and inks.
Described as ‘perhaps the most beautiful set of prints ever made,’ the softly colored manual was a mystery until now. The stunning illustrations, which are also poems, are now available online for anyone to see, and it won’t cost a dime.
The digitalized Chinese collection also includes the Oracle Bones, known as the earliest example of Buddhist text written in Chinese script, and a 14th century banknote that threatens thieves with decapitation.
Photos by Cambridge University Library