This is the World’s oldest multicolour printed book opened and digitized for the first time.
Until now, Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu (Manual of Calligraphy and Painting), was deemed too fragile to be opened, let alone viewed by the public.
The 17th century compilation of 50 artists and calligraphers contains the first known instance of multicoloured printing ever, is reputed to be ‘the most beautiful’ set of prints of its kind, and has just been made available through Cambridge University’s Digital Library.
This Chinese book is printed by the technique of polychrome xylography known as douban invented and perfected by Hu Zhengyan 胡正言 (1584-1674). The method involves the use of multiple printing blocks which successively apply different coloured inks to the paper to reproduce the effect of watercolour painting.
The work is divided into eight categories: birds, plums, orchids, bamboos, fruit, stones, ink drawings (round fans) and miscellany. Each category is divided into two fascicles. The leaves are printed on one side only, folded in half and glued together along the outer fold (the so-called ‘butterfly’ binding). With the exception of one category, every image is followed by an accompanying text, in most cases a poem.
This copy has been identified by the leading scholar of this work as the finest and only extant complete copy in the original binding of what he describes as the ‘second superstate’ of the first edition.