The Oldest Multi-Colour Printed Book in the World

Known as one of the key works to influence colour printing in China, the Manual of Calligraphy and Painting is the oldest multi-colour printed book in the world.

The influential Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu (translating to Manual of Calligraphy and Painting) is the world’s oldest multi-colour printed book in existence. Created in 1633 by Hu Zhengyan at his Ten Bamboo Studio in China, it also served as an introduction for the wider world to a colour printing technique known as polychrome xylography. The book is contained within butterfly binding. This is the process of where one illustration is folded in half to create a two-page spread. Due to its delicate nature, the publication was so fragile that it had never been opened until 2015, where it was also digitized.

Inside the Oldest Multi-Colour Printed Book in the World

The polychrome xylography technique used within the book was invented by Hu Zhengyan. In order to create the images, Zhengyan would use several different printing blocks, each with a different colour of ink. Upon looking at the illustrations, many have often assumed that the images were hand painted in watercolour. This overall style was innovative during part of China’s history. It allowed Zhengyan to use new printing techniques that created more subtle graduations in colour and shade.

Multi-Colour Printed Book Page Edit

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library

The book itself is a compilation of works each created from artists during the 17th century in China. Comprising of eight categories, the illustrations inside cover a variety of themes. These themes include calligraphy, bamboo, flowers, rocks, birds and animals, orchids, plums and other fruit. Along with every illustration is a piece of text or a poem which often signal instructions for basic artistry techniques.

‘The Earliest and Finest Example of Multi-Colour Printing Anywhere in the World’

Speaking on the book receiving digitization in 2015, Charles Aylmer, head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library believes the Manual of Calligraphy and Painting to be an important publication in Chinese history.

“This is the earliest and finest example of multicolour printing anywhere in the world, comprising 138 paintings and sketches with associated texts by 50 different artists and calligraphers. Although reprinted many times, complete sets of early editions in the original binding are extremely rare. The binding is so fragile, and the manual so delicate, that is until it was digitized. We have never been able to let anyone look through it or study it – despite its undoubted importance to scholars.”


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