Old books from imperial China are not only appealing for their content but also for their superb craftsmanship in production, exquisite decorations, and fine layout designs. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Because of China's unique writing system and geographical environs, bamboo and wood were adopted as the earliest media for carrying written characters. The text was written vertically on wood or bamboo strips, starting from the right, one line a strip, moving on to the left. The strips were then strung into a(cè), the character denoting pictorially a volume, later expressed in another ideographic form:(shu), meaning book. Then paper was invented; next, block printing came along, and books went from strung strips to rolled-up scrolls to finally an album format of bound pages. Once reaching this stage, how to achieve a pleasing layout on a printed page became the major concern of the printer-cum-cutter. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“In the many history of Chinese printing, the system of one-spread-a-block seemed to have persisted without much change. In fact, the size of the text area, the margin and spacing, the choice of fonts, the design of the "heart" section, the placement of the illustrations, and even the use of colors, all had been critical success factors of a given book, contributing significantly to its readability. Layout design, after all, is a form of visual art. The wisdom and techniques accumulated over the time in this field help shape the book culture of a particular place, even of an era.

“Layout design in the study of the Chinese book is termed "imprint style," literally translated. It involves the following components: text frame, column border, word count (numbers of columns and characters), "heart" (central fold), "fishtail" (folding mark), "elephant trunk" (additional markings between the heart and fishtail), "book ear" (tags near margins), font, and so on. Format variations in the use of these elements provide important clues to the authentication of old books at a time when they are becoming fewer and fewer by the day. Some imprints come illustrated to enhance visual effects. Others allow a glimpse into how the color printing had emerged and evolved. An examination of the various "imprint styles" over the time, especially their copyright proclamations versus ours, helps us put into perspective the connections between old books and their modern counterparts.

“The National Palace Museum houses a collection of old books, numbering over 214,000 volumes, from the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. Mainly formed and assembled by the Qing court, the collection is impressive in both quality and quantity. When the Manchu came to rule over the Han China, the new dynasty also took over the entire court library left by the defeated Ming. The palace collections further expanded in scale and contents. Compilations of imperial writings and various other works were commissioned per imperial orders; great effort was put in to actively pursue the Song and Yuan old books. Collated by court scholars for imperial perusal only and titled collectively Tianlu Linlang (Resplendent Voluminosity), these old books reveal the extent of Qing emperors' cultivated erudition. Twists and turns in history have made the once exclusive sets an important part of the National Palace Museum's collections.

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press); “Anthology of Chinese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Fourteenth Century” edited by Cyril Birch; Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture,” translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)].

Traditional Classifications of Chinese Old Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In ancient times, books in China were known as "tien-chi (classic texts)." They were also called "wen-hsien (textual documents)," a term encompassing the three categories of records, files, and books. With developments over time, documents recording events were arranged so that they could be read later, thereby coming to serve the purpose of disseminating knowledge and experience. They took on the form of books as their range of contents increased and the media for presentation became more varied. Methods of production constantly advanced, and texts with different binding techniques were made for the convenience of reading, such as "chien-ts'e (slip bindings)", "chüan-chou (scrolls)", "ts'e-yeh (albums)", and "hsien-chuang shu (thread-bound books)". However, what exactly is a "ku-chi (old text)"? The character "ku (old)", as opposed to that for "chin (new)", indicates that any book not produced using current printing techniques can be called a "rare book". [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“The traditional method of classifying old books in China employs the four categories of "ching (classics)", "shih (histories)", "tzu (philosophies)", and "chi (compilations)", which are further divided into 44 sub-categories. The classics comprise mainly the texts of Confucian scholars and their commentaries, but they also incorporate books on ancient music and writing. The histories consist of all forms of historical texts, but they also comprise geographical and government texts as well as catalogues. The category on philosophies is broader and incorporates such sub-categories as the texts of various philosophical schools of thought, arithmetic, astronomy, biology, medicine, military affairs, art, religion, divination, geomancy, fortune-telling, the writing of notes, fiction, and collectanea. The section on compilations comprises such texts as poetry anthologies, literary criticism, and songs. Compilations of works by authors were known as "pieh-chi (individual anthologies)", while those of collected authors were called "tsung-chi (general anthologies)".

Works include the Song government-sponsored Erya (The Literary Expositor), the Xinkan Jizhu Dushi (New Imprint of Du Fu's Poetry with Annotations), and the Xuanhe Fengshi Gaoli Tujing (Illustrated Text of the Xuanhe Emissary to Korea), a Yuan literatus' manuscript of his own works, the Jiangyue Songfeng Ji (River Moon and Pine Wind: the Collected Literary Works of Qian Weishan), as well as the Mingjieh Zenghe Qianjiashi zhu (Poems of 1000 Masters) and the Yongle Dadian (Vast Documents of the Yongle Era), both exquisitely produced by the Ming court.

From Bamboo Slips to Paper

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei:“Xu Shen of the Eastern Han (25-220) wrote in his “Shuowen Jiezi “ (“Explaining Phrases and Expounding Characters”) that “texts written on bamboo or silk are called books.” It may thus be inferred that bamboo slips, wooden strips, and silk scrolls with in-scribed and written texts are the primitive forms of the Chinese book. Bamboo slips and wooden strips are hard, and when tied together in sequence with two lines of cords they become jiance or, or books in bound tablets. Silk, on the other hand, is light and soft, and pieces can be horizontally sewn together at the edges. One wooden roller would then be attached to one end to form an axis around which the scroll can be rolled up and unrolled, making it a variant form of early books. This explains why the character juan(meaning “roll”) was applied to count the number of rolls a title was composed of in historical times. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“To prevent damages to the texts, the first two slips of the jiance, the zhuijian, and the top margin of the juan, the tiantou, were purposely left blank. An additional labeling slip attached to the front upon which the title of the work was written, the jianor qian served as an identifier, and the entire work was protected by a wrapper, the zhi ?. It may be concluded that in China it was on the basic requirements for preservation and utility that book binding techniques began to develop.

“The manufacture of paper took an unprecedented leap in the early 2nd century, and paper began to act as a substitute for bamboo slips, wooden strips, and silk fabrics, becoming a common writing and painting medium. The new material was light in weight and more convenient to carry about, and prior to the invention of woodblock printing the book bind-ing format of paper rolls, considered to have been identical to that of calligraphic works and paintings, spread quite rapidly throughout the land. The paper roll was followed by such binding styles as “pasted-leaves,” “inner stitched,” “sutra (jingzhe ),” and “whirlwind.” Not only did the emergence of these binding techniques mark the end of the age of bamboo and wooden slips, it also exemplified the evolution, out of reading and preservation needs, of the physical appearance of books. By the 9th century woodblock printing had matured, and along with it came the switch from paper rolls to flat sheets of leaves, resulting in the “butterfly” and “wrapped back” binding styles. The “Sanskrit” binding applied to scriptures written on palm leaves, introduced from Southeast Asia, was used on works of the ethnic minorities as well. During the Qing dynasty, the approach of binding books with stitches was thought to be more economical and books thus bound would last for a long time, and what has become known as “stitched binding” was the prevalent technique employed by book binders. As opposed to today’s books of western-type binding, the so-called yangzhuangshu, works of stitched binding are now synonymic to antiquarian books.

Evolution of Printing and Bookmaking in China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The carving of characters into flat blocks of wood, which are then rubbed with ink and then pressed on paper (a technique known as woodblock printing), began during the T'ang dynasty (618-907). Starting in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it became the major means of producing traditional printed matter in China. Early woodblock prints could only be printed in one color (usually black ink) and were known accordingly as "tan-yin (single print)". If several woodblocks for the same print are made, with a different color intended for each part, then repeated printing on the same piece of paper can yield a print with two, three, four, or even five colors. This is known as a "t'ao-yin (set print)". Books printed using the "t'ao-yin" method are called "t'ao-yin pen (set-print books)" and represent the distinctive technique of color printing in ancient China. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

Movable type printing, on the other hand, uses copper casts or wood engravings of individual characters that are assembled before printing together on a page (figure 4). The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) referred to books produced at his court using movable wood type as "chü-chen pan (gem ['assembled treasure'] editions)". Lithography is a Western technique that was brought to China in the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and rapidly spread as a result of its high speed of production and low cost.

“The production of books in China developed along with society. During the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.), it tended to revolve around official documents. During the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), however, books became a medium for the dissemination of knowledge, and private collectors began to emerge. After Ch'in-shih-huang, the first emperor of China, unified the land in the Ch'in dynasty (221-207 B.C.), he put into effect a policy of standardizing the written language. After he had some private book collections brought into the imperial palace and other government institutions, China entered its "dark age" of books and knowledge, as books were burned and scholars buried alive. With the rise of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-AD 220), however, the production of books slowly recovered. By the time of the Sui (581-618) and T'ang dynasties, under the influence of the imperial examination system, the transcription of texts reached its zenith, as did the official organization of books. It was in such a climate that woodblock printing emerged, and China's book production entered a new era.

“The Northern Song (960-1126) and Southern Song (1127-1279) were also major periods in the development of book production in China. The fashion for compiling, engraving, and collecting books flourished as officials, private individuals, and street vendors alike became involved in the editing and printing of texts. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, the imperial court, with its vast financial, material, and human resources, came to play a leading role in book production. By the beginning of the twentieth century, with the encroachment of Western printing techniques, the book industry in China entered yet another completely new phase.

Layout of Old Chinese Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The one-spread-a-block model had remained the de facto standard for the Chinese old books ever since the block printing techniques were fully in place. The competitive nature of private business, however, inevitably forced the printers to bring some subtle changes to the scene, as described below. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“In the beginning there was no frame, which only came along after block printing fully matured. It is the border surrounding the text area, in either single or double lines. Ming printers added more varieties to it, as a whole referred to as "ornamental frame." Column means the column border, the straight lines dividing and aligning the columns. It is a relic from the remote days of writing on bamboo strips and the width of each column corresponds to that of the strip. Count actually counts two things: columns and characters, the numbers of which are subject to adjustments as necessary. As a matter of fact, common practices at different times and places, as well as intended uses and the block cutters' personal habits, had also dictated the counts, resulting in diverse visual effects.

“Heart refers to the center line of a spread (the block-page), another name being the "middle seam," by the guide of which a spread folds in perfect alignment. The Song printers folded their pages inwards, so the texts faced each other. The pages of neighboring spreads were then pasted back to back, and with a sheet of thicker paper attached to the spine, as the cover, a book in butterfly binding was born. Some people had better ideas and improved upon it. They reversed the fold so the texts faced "outside." The "Heart" now accordingly became exposed at the edge of flipping pages, so an alternate new name as the "Mouth." The change gave birth to new binding methods, and "wrapped back" and "thread-bound" came along. "Fishtail" swims above the heart at a quarter or so of the distance from the upper border, so named as it resembles a stylized fish tail. The mark not only adorns the page but also provides additional aid to aligning the fold. Book ears are a little pair of square tags one each at the left and right upper corners of the block, immediately outside the frame borders. An abbreviated title of the current text or volume number goes inside the box, serving the same function as the page headings of today's books, for quick access to the intended pages.

Such achievements are evidenced in particular in the imprints commissioned and released by the Imperial Printing Workshop for the exclusive review of the emperors (chenglanben ) and those intended for the sole purpose of display at various palaces (chensheben ). They were made with fine and luxurious materials, and the produc-tion was meticulously executed. The covers, identifier labels, corner wrappings, and silk strings, as well as such accessories as the inner and outer casings, were all exquisitely crafted, manifesting the highest level of achievement in book design, incomparable to that of the imprints intended as imperial reward copies (shangsiben ) or those circulated in the marketplace (tongxingben ).

Script and Fonts in Old Chinese Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ “The Chinese have a strong attachment to the past, and the carving of woodblocks for printing books in the Song Dynasty often imitated the scripts of such famous T'ang dynasty calligraphers as Ou-yang Hsün (557-641), Yen Chen-Qing (709-785), and Liu Kung-ch'üan (778-865). Woodblock carvers of the Yüan dynasty appreciated the Chao script, named after the renowned calligrapher Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322). However, after being copied and recopied generation after generation, the strokes gradually became "horizontally less and vertically more" by the Lung-Qing (1567-1572) and Wan-li (1573-1620) periods in the Ming dynasty. This rectangular-looking script type was specially used in printing and became called "Sung script characters", which were almost universally used in printing from the middle of the Ming dynasty onwards. Subsequently, following further imitation by later generations of woodblock engravers, there eventually appeared a handicraft font distinguished by its "horizontally flat and vertically straight strokes, upright left and right falling strokes, square characters, and sharp corners." This became known as "ying-t'i (hard script)". [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Ming trends were followed in the Qing dynasty, and after the Kangxi reign (1662-1722), two font types were in vogue. One was a so-called "soft" script, which referred to handwriting, and the other was "hard", the Song font. As for the "chü-chen t'i ('assembled treasure' font)" of the Qianlong reign, it is also actually an imitation of Song script. In the late Qing dynasty, when movable lead-type printing was introduced to China, printers began to cast all kinds of typefaces in lead, such as "cheng-k'ai t'i (regular script)", "ku Song t'i (ancient Song script)", "fang Song chü-chen t'i (imitation Song 'assembled treasure' script)", and "Ming t'i (Ming script)". Although differing in name, they were all based for the most part on Song script.

“Fonts changed with the prevailing calligraphic styles. When block printing became popular in Song, the chosen model by the printers was Tang calligraphers' orderly, square look of regular script. During the Mongolian Yuan, the taste turned to Zhao Mengfu's delicate and willowy style, and its popularity continued into early-Ming. At the turn of mid- to late-Ming, the practice of "replicating" the Song imprints started. These replicates were not as elegant as the originals, but fair and pleasant enough. As the competition among the printing shops intensified, however, an easier, standardized font specifically tailored to the print began to take shape. With the horizontal strokes lightly across and verticals heavily down, it gave the knife a better "cutting edge." Scribes and cutters alike loved it. The boxy font, called the "Song" by a curious twist, has become so widely used ever since. Even the lead movable type developed in late-Qing, as well as the so-called "thin-Ming font" for our computers, have both stemmed from that "Song" style invented in Ming.

Illustrated Texts in Old Chinese Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““Illustrations and charts all supplement written words in the explanation of subject matters. It is for this reason that many ancient Chinese texts feature accompanying illustrations. Unfortunately, most of the exquisite pre-Sung illustrated texts no longer exist. However, it is known that after the Song Dynasty there appeared the preference of attaching greater importance to texts rather than to illustrations. The author of Comprehensive History of Institutions (Tung-chih), Cheng-chiao (1104-1160), criticized this bias, and claimed that written texts and illustrations were both equally important. He said, To see a written work but not its illustrations is to hear a sound but not recognize its source; to see an illustration but not its written text is to see a man but not hear his words. He further claimed that a written text with no illustrations has no use. Cheng believed that the presence of illustrations was crucial in works on subjects such as astronomy, geography, palatial structures, use of instruments, cart banners, clothing, ritual ceremonies, cities, and architecture as well as fields, accounting, laws, nobility ranking, history, and utensils. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw\=/ ]

“Illustrated texts in the collection of the National Palace Museum include woodblock prints, handwritten books, and stone rubbings, covering a wide range of subjects such as stories, daily life, scenery, and people. With the rise of dramas, comedies, and novels during the Yuan dynasty, the preference for text illustration saw an abrupt reverse that well suited the print houses, which grew increasingly popular in Chinese society. The owners of print houses would hire artists to draw illustrations for insertion into the books to make them even more marketable. Furthermore, technology in color woodblock printing advanced, and the development of illustrations in ancient text reached a new height after the Wan-li period (1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty. Apart from augmenting texts in explaining complicated subject matters, illustrations themselves also became artistically beautiful. While the illustrated novels and opera scripts of the Ching dynasty were not comparable to those of the late Ming dynasty, the Ching illustrated texts on rivers, mountains, geography, and other administrative subjects proliferated. Under the influence of lithographic stone plates, illustrations became more important than texts by the time of Emperor Kuang-hsus reign (1875-1908). The birth of the Tian-shih-chai Illustrated News (or Tian-shih-chai hua-pao) confirmed the belief that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. “Illustrations appeared early in the history of Chinese books. In particular, Buddhist scriptures of the Song Dynasty contain many "ching-pien t'u (sutra transformation illustrations)" in order to visually explain the profound meaning of the sutras. However, it was the skillful use of woodblock printing that really drove the development of illustrations, along with stimuli from the rise of drama, novels, and historical stories. Popular demand was great and publishers competed for customers with illustrations appropriate to the story line. Excellence in both text and illustration meant better sales, and printers therefore sought increasingly better printing techniques. The cause-and-effect relationship of this need brought the art of illustration to a high point. Illustration during the middle and later Ming dynasty involved not just meticulous engraving, delicate lines, and exquisite composition. Following developments in "t'ao-pan (multiple)" printing techniques, the appearance of illustrations was transformed from that of a monochrome drawing to a color painting. Book illustrations of the Qing dynasty are also noted for their skill in landscapes, as official engravings were superior to those of publishers or private individuals.

Placement and Colors of Old Illustrated Chinese Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The use of illustrations might have originated in Buddhist scriptures. When books started to appear in bound pages, the role and placement of illustrations were also adapted to cater to the intended purpose of a given book. The arrangements varied, including one-picture-one-text on equal terms, or illustrations subordinate to and dictated by the text, or sometimes even the other way around with the images figuring most importantly and being published as albums of woodcut prints. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw, \=/ ]

During Yuan and Ming, as storytelling performances, novels, plays, and operas became widely popular among the masses, printers and publishers put more illustrations, and much finer ones, in their books to appeal to the new reading public. The full-page pictures now either existed as separate insets among the text pages, or placed together at the very beginning of the book. There were also narratives in the comic-strip style with each page consisting of a picture above and the accompanying text below. Some pictures even extended across the facing pages to form a double-page spread. By late-Ming, printers had gone a step further to partner the best cutters with the best painters. The artist and the artisan now worked together and created a most brilliant page in the history of Chinese woodcut prints.

“While the origin of color printing in China remains uncertain, the earliest physical evidence of it so far discovered is in the National Central Library: an annotated Diamond Sutra printed in a temple in today's Hubei Province in 1341. The text is in cinnabar, or vermillion, also known as Chinese red, and annotation in black. It was done by a very labor-intensive method called "double printing," and colors so printed tended to run over each other. The "color-process" printing, on the contrary, used multiple blocks for the same text, each block separately prepared according to the placement of a specific color-text in the page. The composite result produced a much neater print. During the mid- and late-Ming periods, two printing shops in the Wuxing area, Min's and Ling's, were famous for their color-process printing. They could do two, three, four, even five-color works, vivid and clear, best suitable for books with annotations and all sorts of marks or punctuations. Yet the most amazing of all was the Ten-bamboo Studio Collection of Painting and Calligraphy by Hu Zhengyan. The intricate color separation, coupled with exquisitely carved blocks, printed one color a time, rendered in highest possible verisimilitude representations of the originals, ushered in yet another a paragon in block printing.

Binding of Old Chinese Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The term “book binding” refers to the assembling of books from folded or unfolded sheets of paper or other materials. Before paper became the dominant carrier of texts and pictures at the end of the first century, books were inscribed on slips of bamboo or strips of wood, and executed on silk, the same medium on which paintings were rendered. Thus, there was not much difference between book binding and picture-mounting, and both came mostly in rolled or folded forms. It was not until paper was used as the main writing medium that the appearance of books began to evolve. Assem-bling methods aiming to facilitate reading, such as “pasted-leaves (nianye ) binding,” “inner stitched (fengkui ) binding,” “whirlwind (xuanfeng ) binding,” and “San-skrit (fanjia ) binding,” emerged as the times required. By the 9th century, the square-block woodcut printing technique had matured and was extensively applied in the production of books. Binding books from folded leaves then became the mainstream ap-proach. Books and paintings have since grown to be more different in their physical ap-pearance. The “butterfly (hudie ) binding” commonly used during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) times, the “wrapped-back (baobei ) binding” embraced by the Ming (1368-1644) imperial court, and the “stitched (xian ?) binding” technique highly popular during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) have all derived from the unfurled, flat-sheet format. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw]

“The binding of books was initially for the convenience of reading and collecting, and it has changed constantly in shape and format along with the evolution of books themselves. Slats and pieces of silk were commonly rolled into "chüan (rolls)" or folded into a stacked design. Early texts on paper were also designed as "chüan-chou (scrolls)" and known as "chuan-tzu (little rolls)". However, by the Sui and T'ang dynasties, with the emergence of lengthy texts, scrolls became too long to open out conveniently, and the accordion-style mounting known as "ching-che chuang (sutra pleated-leaf binding)" was gradually developed. It was also called the "Fan chia chuang (Indian pressed binding)" for its use in Buddhist scriptures. After the emergence of woodblock printing, books were printed one page at a time, so mounting styles went from scrolls and pleated-leaf bindings to "hu-tieh chuang ('butterfly' binding)", "pao-pei chuang ('wrapped back' binding)", and then finally "hsien chuang (thread binding)". In the book collection of the imperial Qing palace, binding was a matter of particular fastidiousness, including brocaded cases, wood cases, lacquer boxes, brocaded bundles, and clips made from rhinoceros horn, jade, ivory, and bone. With so many materials, all delicate and beautiful, the binding of books was elevated into a form of art itself.

“The renowned book collector Sun Congtian (1692-1767?) of the early Qing wrote at the outset of the chapter on book binding in his Cangshu Jiyao (Notes on Book Collecting) that “the binding of books is not about luxury or physical look. Rather, it aims at protecting the books in the right way while exhibiting a classic and graceful style. The thickness must be adequate, and the bound books must appear exquisite and square. Such are the priorities.” He continued to comment: “When attaching the covers, Qian Zeng of the Shugutang Library would use homemade paper strips in five colors for the labels, or apply western-styled identifiers. The results are beautiful and visually ap-pealing, yet not as perfect. The approach adopted by Mao Jin of the Jiguge Library, on the other hand, is superior, whereas he used Song-styled labels as well as sutra paper (Zangjingzhi ) and Xuande paper, dyed in elegant colors. Purpose made dyes of archaic colors are even better. Those attached with yellow and green labels, wrapped in silk fabrics, or affixed with gold-colored identifiers are the most vulgar.” It appears from this statement that archaism and elegance are what previous bibliophiles held in the highest regard in the binding of books.

“The Chinese terminology for the binding of books is composed of two characters, zhuangand huang. Zhuang is synonymous to “wrap” or “envelop,” and it was later com-bined with other characters to form extended meanings, such as zhuangzhi and zhuangsu, meaning “to protect” and “to decorate.” Huang, on the other hand, refers to dyeing paper with the bark of amur corktree. Because the dye is said to prevent bugs from eating the paper away, huang shares a rather similar function with zhuang in that both are meant to protect. By the Six Dynasties (220-589) zhuanghuang had become a common vocabulary, used to describe an important safekeeping and preservation method for paper-based books. Biaorefers to attaching supporting paper, cloth, or silk to the back of calligraphic works and paintings. Like bei the act of biao is intended to protect, even more so when it is used alongside zhuang, as in zhuangbiao. As for zheng it is defined as an unfurled fabric employed by artists as a painting surface. Today, it is fre-quently used as a classifier or measure word, as in a zheng of painting, meaning a piece of painting. When it is linked with zhuang to become zhuangzheng, a much different meaning emerges: “to bind and decorate a book.” The phrase has since the late Qing dynasty been used as a professional jargon in book design.

“Up to the time when woodblock printing was applied to the making of books, measures to protect books and paintings were not much different. Before the book form took up fun-damental physical changes, book binding and painting mounting were essentially identical in meaning as well. As time went by, zhuanghuang has been given wider meanings, even to describe the design of the exterior structure and interior space of buildings and constructions. On the other hand, the use of zhuangbiao is today geared more narrowly towards the mounting of paintings and calligraphic works, for which the phrase zhuangchi has come into existence, too. As to zhuangzheng, it has almost replaced zhuanghuang and zhuangbiao to denote the art of book design for both modern and old, antiquarian books.

Buddhist Scriptures and Sutras: a Very Different Format

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Buddhism came to China in the first century. After the successful development of block printing, one major endeavor took place in early Song: a huge collection of the Buddhist scriptures Tripitaka in Chinese was carved out in block and printed. The printed Chinese text flowed in the usual way, vertically and from right to left. During the Mongolian reign of China, Tibet was part of the Yuan territory. Under the government policy Tibetan monks were very favorably treated and lamas well respected. Scriptures in the left-to-right Tibetan language started to appear at the court. The Tripitaka in Tibetan was a Kangxi court manuscript produced at the encouraging suggestion of the emperor's devout Buddhist grandmother. It is written in gold paste, consisting of 108 han's (packets), each han three to five hundred sheets. The mounting is done in Sanskrit pattra (palm leaf) manner, very different indeed from that of the conventional books in the Han Chinese language. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Lotus Sutra (Miaofa Lianhua Jing, Saddharmapuarika-sutra) was translated by Monk Kumarajiva in Later Qin, Sixteen Kingdoms Period (384-417). The National Palace Museum, Taipei has a Ming manuscript in gold ink made in 1436 by Monk Jifang. It “comprises seven volumes in the concertina binding style. The texts are written with gold ink in the regular script on indigo blue paper. The first, fourth and seventh volumes are protected by “incense yellow” covers, the second and the fifth “mountain blue,” and the third and the sixth “imperial yellow,” all adorned with gold brocade with dragon and cloud pattern. All of the title strips are in the dark ink color, so as to highlight the gold ink titles in the regular script. The seven volumes are placed in a zhennan wood box engraved “Miaofa Lianhua Jing, written in the Ming Dynasty.” “

Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra were translated by Monk Kumarajiva in Later Qin, Sixteen Kingdoms Period (384-417). The National Palace Museum, Taipei has a blue silk embroidered edition from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) . “The sutras comprises two volumes, both of which have texts meticulously sewn with blue threads on “tooth-color” brocade adorned with dark floral patterns. The Buddhist paintings at the beginning and at the end of the book are also sewn. Respectively, they are “Buddha Preaching the Teachings” and “Portrait of Protector Skanda.” The sutra title is crafted on the wood cover in the regular script, in blue paint. Surrounding the title are fine carvings of dragons presenting gems and ocean waters. Both volumes are placed in one imperial yellow six-sided silk case adorned with longevity graphics, dragons and clouds, and swastikas.

Dragon Niche Handbook of Buddhist Terms was written by the monk Hsing-chün during the Liao dynasty (916-1125). The National Palace Museum, Taipei has a Song Dynasty (960-1279) imprint from Chia-hsing Prefecture. “This is a book of Common Chinese Words, the first book to check by pronunciations and separated into 4 volumes as per four classical tone categories: flat, rising, falling, and checked.

Buddhism thrived in China, among both Han-Chinese and other ethnic minority groups, so its sacred texts were available in a diversity of scripts, the Yuan imprint of Avatamsaka Sutra in the Tangut script being one example. The Qing court housed quite a collection of religious scriptures through the ages; the Sri Hevajra Tantra manuscript, magnificently produced in gold ink during the Ming dynasty, is illustrative of the spread of the Tibetan Buddhism in the inner court. The Qing emperors took very seriously the translation and printing of Buddhist sutras in various ethnic languages, as can be evidenced in the Tibetan Dragon Sutra, written in gold ink during the Kangxi reign, and the Manchu Tripitaka of the Qianlong reign. The translating, binding, and wrapping of both works are not only full of characteristics of the time, but also occupying important places in the study of religions, languages, and ethnic cultures. The Tibetan Dragon Sutra was Hand-written in gold ink in Tibetan script during the Kangxi reign (1661-1722).

Copyrights, Advertising, Imitations and Copies of Old Chinese Books

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The mature block printing of the Song dynasty continued an old practice from the manuscript days of copyists' signing their names. Some private or commercial printers of Song followed suit and marked their "edition notice" inside a framed rectangle. The mark resembled a chop's impression, thus the name (literally translated) "brand plate" or "wood mark." signifying copyright proclamation. During Ming and Qing, the "brand plate" expanded to the form of a title page, sometimes printed on color paper to make it more conspicuous. Some plates read like a printer's preface or even a promotional advertisement; others included words such as "No Replications Allowed," or most often "Copyright Declared. Any Violation Will Be Pursued. Even a Thousand Miles Away." However, in an age of unprotected intellectual property, the threats remained just what they were: mere words in vain. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

:The old books from the "T'ien-lu lin-lang" library, as the special collection of the Qing court, have long been regarded as the cream of the crop. However, close examination of surviving editions from the T'ien-lu lin-lang Library reveals an occasional imitation. This suggests two phenomena: first, even imperial collectors made mistakes concerning authenticity. The other is that the imitation must have been superlative in order to pass the scrutiny of imperial connoisseurs, meaning that even the emperor was fooled.

To understand more, we need to learn about the history of making imitation old books. Imitating books in China began when collectors gathered old or fine examples and had imitations or close copies in terms of format and print made so that others could learn about them. The original intent behind them was good, but unscrupulous book dealers took advantage of their high quality by removing marks and notes to pass them off as the originals in order to make a hefty profit. In other words, the person behind the production of the copy often clearly indicated that it was an imitation, but some booksellers later did whatever they could to conceal its evidence as a copy. In order to deceive, booksellers changed or removed the date, place, person's name, or event behind the production of the copy, even sometimes going so far as to replace marks and texts with others to make it difficult to determine the actual date of imprint. In any case, the Chia-Qing Emperor's rush to scour the land and reassemble the "T'ien-lu lin-lang" library resulted in even learned scholars making errors of judgment and allowing fine imitations and copies of old books to slip into the court collection unnoticed at the time.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: National Palace Museum, Taipei

Last updated October 2021

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