The Legacy of Philosophers
The legacy passed down from the pre- Qin period influenced China for 2,000 years, allowing modern civilisation to appreciate the philosophic view of “a hundred schools of thought” during the Spring and Autumn period.
After the mid- Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), there were many big merchants in the Anhui area. They were good at business and accumulated wealth, especially merchants in Huizhou. Gradually, these merchants began to block- print books and open bookshops, using their wealth to engrave books. In this way, book engraving in Huizhou reached its peak. Of the private block- printing masters in Huizhou, Wu Mianxue, a successful businessman, was one of the most renowned. Throughout his lifetime, he had more than 300 kinds of books engraved.
During the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, Wu Mianxue searched everywhere for rare books. Over time, he collected all the masterpieces of philosophers in the pre- Qin period (before 221 BC) and compiled them as a book series entitled Ershi Zi (“twenty philosophers”). Today, books that Wu Mianxue had block-printed are held in all of Beijing's libraries, telling the fascinating story of Chinese book engraving.
Engraved Books of Anhui
In 1589, Jiao Hong (1540–1620), a 49-year-old scholar, went from Nanjing to Beijing to take the imperial examination, and ranked first of all the students that year. Appointed a scholar of the Imperial Academy, he became the assistant lecturer of the emperor's eldest son Zhu Changluo (1852–1620). Jiao Hong wrote a book entitled Yangzheng Tujie (“traditional virtues with illustrations”), in which legends and literary allusions from the reign of King
Wen of Zhou (1099–c. 1050 BC) to the Song Dynasty (960–1279) were recorded. With 60 illustrations, its content was interesting. After the book was written, the manuscript was passed on to carvers in Huizhou for engraving. Soon, the Huizhou edition of Yangzheng Tujie was shipped to Beijing. Once published, it became a bestseller, sought after by both officials and scholars. Known as a “rare treasure,” some said that the Huizhou block-printed version “was as fine as the Song Dynasty edition.” Illustrations in the book were considered to be "exquisite, with both beautiful handwriting and paper." Thus, one can see that books block-printed in Huizhou had an outstanding quality.
In the early Ming Dynasty, book engravers in Anhui still carried on the two traditions of official and private engraving from the Song Dynasty and Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), but there were very few private publishing houses. In the Ming Dynasty, the official engraving organisations were the governments of prefectures, provinces and counties, government-run schools, and imperial academies. The books engraved at that time were mainly Confucian classics and historical books. According to Gujin Shuke (“book engraving in ancient and modern times”), written by an official and scholar named Zhou Hongzu in the Ming Dynasty, there were 89 officially-engraved books in the Anhui region before the reign of Emperor Wanli in the Ming Dynasty. Of these, 31 were from Huizhou. However, the actual number of engraved books was much greater. Because all officially engraved books in the Anhui area were funded by the national treasury and produced for the court, most were based on rare editions from the Song and Yuan dynasties and were proofread cautiously.
These books, which were the traditional Chinese classics, were exquisitely engraved and beautifully printed on high-quality paper. Most of the books were based on well-known editions, and those still in existence are considered quite rare. Another type produced in Anhui were privately engraved books. Confucian scholars and high officials attached great importance to books about family, ancestors, and famous historical figures. Privately engraved books by authors such as Zhu Sheng, Zhao Fang, Cheng Minzheng and Hu Zongxian were all well-known in Huizhou Prefecture. Another major kind of engraved book in Anhui was genealogy, of which there was a great variety. These books were large and beautifully printed, but were only printed in small quantities. They contained a wealth of information, including genealogies, family trees, clan histories and house histories. During this period, engraving of genealogy books throughout Anhui was quite common, especially in Xiuning County and Shexian County in Huizhou Prefecture, where patriarchal ideology was particularly strong. There are currently more than 200 Anhui editions of genealogy books from the Ming Dynasty held at the National Library of China. Most were privately engraved, with only a handful being hand-copied Ming editions.
After the mid-ming Dynasty, the number of Huizhou businessmen increased, and the number of wealthy merchants also rose. At the time it was said, “the richest men are mostly from Xin'an,” with Xin'an referring to the region of present- day Huizhou and Shexian County. Merchants in the Huizhou area occupied a dominant position in the market. Merchants from Shexian County specialised in tea, clothes and groceries; people from Xiuning owned pawn shops; and people from Jixi mainly owned food and wine shops. Anhui merchants at one time dominated the regions both north and south of the Yangtze River and became quite rich, providing good conditions for the growth of private publishing houses. As the power of Anhui merchants increased, they gradually entered into the book engraving industry. Relying on strong capital and the support of Huizhou carvers, Huizhou booksellers became very influential and slowly spread to both sides of the Yangtze River. Along with the advent of booksellers came countless carvers. In the Ming Dynasty, most publishing houses in the Anhui area were located in Huizhou Prefecture, and after the reigns of Emperor Longqing (1567–1573) and Emperor Wanli, these publishing houses took over the work of official and private engravers. Thus, Huizhou Prefecture quickly became the national centre for book engraving, and was still one of the four book engraving centres of China until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
At that time, the handicraft industry was also well developed in Huizhou, which had abundant supplies of paper and ink, with Anhui ink. Many engraving experts appeared as well. In Qiucun, Shexian County in Huizhou, there were two big families surnamed Qiu and Huang. Since the reign of Emperor Hongzhi (1488–1506), the two families had mainly focused on the block printing industry. Being especially good at engraving and having artistic skills, they were known as the “Huizhou School.” The Huang family in particular had been engravers for several generations and produced many good craftsmen. Huizhou's calligraphers also made a contribution to the new art of block-printing. After the Wanli period, the carved blocks were written with thin horizontal strokes but thick vertical strokes, a calligraphic style that originated from Anhui carving. Thus, the publishing industry in Huizhou, especially in Shexian County, gradually developed based on the appearance of a large number of outstanding carvers.
At that time, bookstores were everywhere in Huizhou and craftsmen from Shexian County were often asked to cut blocks. After the Wanli period, the block-printing industry developed more rapidly, and as a result carvers scattered to different areas. Among them, craftsmen in Ningguo, Huizhou, and Suzhou were the most numerous and skilful. Having inherited their trade from their fathers, they not only engraved books in local places, but also travelled around for work. A dozen famous bookshops were documented in history books, the most famous being Shi Gu Bookstore, which was owned by Wu Mianxue. Two of the books in the Twenty Philosophers series compiled by Wu Mianxue, Zhuangzi (writings by the famous philosopher Zhuangzi) and Chuci Jizhu (“collected commentaries on the Songs of Chu”), were so beautifully carved that booksellers would often sell them as editions of the Song Dynasty for more profit. Huizhou style carving played an important role in the preservation of ancient books, the dissemination of traditional culture, and the promotion of the ancient Chinese woodblock
printing industry. Of the books popular at the time, Twenty Philosophers, engraved by the learned classical calligrapher Wu Mianxue from Shexian County, was one of the most admired.
Wu Mianxue’s Excellence in Book Engraving
Like other Huizhou businessmen, Wu Mianxue's family also had been merchants for generations. Wu Mianxue was very fond of reading when he was young. He later became the assistant officer of the government's Banqueting Department. But soon he felt tired of officialdom, so he abandoned his high position and set up a place to collect and print books —Shi Gu Bookstore. With his family's wealth and a large collection of books, he was able to print many books in his bookstore's name. Shi Gu Bookstore was both Wu's personal library and a publishing house, and was famous for its large scale, careful division of labour, and excellent carving. Although Wu Mianxue's family had been businessmen for generations, he was especially interested in medicine, so he block-printed many medical books. What he loved most in life was to collect classical books, and he is widely known in China for his knowledge and vast collection of books. According to statistics, Wu Mianxue published more than 300 kinds of books throughout his lifetime, and was especially famous for the medical books that he had engraved, which were known as “Wu editions.” These books were all carefully proofread and beautifully printed, cherished by many scholars.
According to a folk legend, Wu Mianxue once had a terrifying dream in which Yama, the Lord of Hell, had captured him. Wu kowtowed to Yama, asking to be saved and saying that he was willing to do good deeds. Yama asked him, “What good deeds will you do?” Wu Mianxue replied, “I have read many medical books, but there are many mistakes in them. I think I should revise and amend them.” Yama asked him, “How will you publish these books?" He replied, “I will publish all of them privately.” Therefore, Yama set him free to let him print medical books. After this dream, he spent all this money publishing large quantities of medical books. Once he had made enough money, he began searching for classics from both ancient and modern times and block-printed them too. The publishing of these books cost him about 100,000 yuan.
Eventually, in 1601, he published a series of books entitled Gujin Yitong Zhengmai Quanshu (“encyclopaedia of medical traditions and systems in ancient and modern times”). In the book's preface, he wrote, “There are medical traditions and medical systems. With the correct system, a medical tradition can be passed down.” One can see that as a bookseller he paid special attention to tradition, for which he was widely praised. Although Wu Mianxue published books privately, most were so- called orthodox books, such as Shisanjing ( The Thirteen Confucian Classics), Xingli Daquan (“complete collection [of Confucian works] on human nature and morality”), and Twenty Philosophers, in order to promote traditional culture.
After the mid-ming Dynasty, it was quite common for bookstores to also do book engraving work. The books published in these bookstores were called “private publications.” At that time, although private publications flourished, their quality was uneven. Some bookstores printed books indiscriminately just to make a profit, making changes to the books as they wished. These random revisions were often criticised by scholars. However, the books block-printed by Wu Mianxue's bookstore were of the highest quality. Wu Mianxue was very strict when engraving books, and tried his best to carefully and accurately proofread and engrave hundreds of historical and classical books. Scholar
Xie Zhaozhe (1567–1624), who wrote the natural history masterpiece Wu Za Zu (“five miscellanies”), spoke highly of Wu's editions. According to Xie, Wu's books were as good as those printed in the Song Dynasty. Later, in the Qing Dynasty, officials at the imperial library also praised Wu Mianxue's books.
At the same time of pursuing book engraving, Wu Mianxue also held joint book sales with other booksellers in Huizhou. When engraving books, Wu either hired others for proofreading, or did it himself, and then asked other booksellers to print them. At times he worked together with other well-known engravers so as to increase the number of books that could be proofread and shorten the printing cycle, thus bringing economic benefit. When Wu started to block-print the Encyclopaedia of Medical Traditions and Systems in Ancient and Modern Times, he worked together with the famous medical master Wang Kentang (1549–1613). When block-printing Twenty Philosophers, he asked Huang Zhicai, a famous proofreader from Huizhou, to be responsible for the proofreading, while he himself was responsible for the printing.
After Wu Mianxue's death, his son Wu Zhongheng continued his father's career in book engraving. He later became a famous book carver in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. In particular, they made the greatest contribution to compiling medical books, and Shi Gu Bookstore continued to engrave books until the Kangxi reign (1662–1723) of the Qing Dynasty. Later, Shi Gu Bookstore went bankrupt due to poor business and Huang Zhicai, who had helped Wu proofread Twenty Philosophers, bought many of Wu's printing blocks and published them under his own name.
Thoughts by Twenty Philosophers
During the chaos of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770–221 BC), political changes also brought about a sea change in scholarly thought. At that time, official schools of philosophic thought were in decline while private schools began to rise, which led to divisions and the formation of “a hundred schools of thought.” Because the emperor had become weak and local vassals were becoming stronger in politics, different schools of thought were born, such as the Confucian school, the Taoist school, the Mohist school, and the Yin-yang school. Each group of thinkers wrote different books to express their ideas and contradicted each other. Gradually, each theory had its own rationality and basis for existing. Therefore, it was difficult to tell who was right, but their
works were gradually becoming accepted.
When Confucius (551–479 BC) began to organise literature, he classified the Confucian classics into “six arts,” namely, the Book of Songs, the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes, the Book of Music and the Spring and Autumn Annals, starting the precedent for using a classification method to compile books. During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC– AD 24), famous scholar Liu Xiang (77 BC–6 BC) and his son compiled their literature into a work entitled Qi Lue (“seven epitomes”), which included seven parts: introduction, the six arts, philosophers, various poems, military books, divination, and medicine. As the first part was a prelude, “the six division methods” was produced. Gradually, documents on literature, history, Buddhist scriptures, YinYang, and the Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) increased in number. However, this division method was not suitable for classifying literature. During the reign of Emperor Wu (265–290) of the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316), Secretary Xun Xu and the head of secretariat Zhang Hua were in charge of organising books. Imitating Wei Zhongjing Bo (“collection of Confucian classics of the Wei Dynasty”), they compiled Zhongjing Xinbo (“new collection of Confucian classics”), dividing the book into four parts, A,B, C, and D.
At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618– 907), the famous official Wei Zheng (580–643) named this classification method for the first time when he compiled Suishu Jingjizhi (“classical records of the Sui Dynasty”), formally establishing the system of dividing bibliographies into four parts. In the Qianlong period (1736–1795) of the Qing Dynasty, when the imperial library officials compiled Siku Quanshu (Complete Library in Four Sections), they divided the outlines of the ancient books into four categories, namely, classics, histories, philosophers and literature, and used this system when compiling Qingding Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao (“composite catalogue of Siku Quanshu made by imperial order”), so this classification method was firmly imprinted in the hearts of readers.
In the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty, Wu Mianxue extensively collected rare ancient books. He compiled the works of 21 philosophers of the pre-qin period into a series of books named Twenty Philosophers. Then he asked Huang Zhicai, the famous proofreader from Shexian County, to proofread it. In this series of block-printed books, Zhuangzi was a rare treasure. It consisted of 221 volumes and was printed on bamboo paper produced in Anhui. The paper was slightly yellow and the ink was a rich black colour that Huizhou ink was famous for. The cuboid character font the book adopted was formed during the Wanli period and first carved by Huizhou craftsmen. After the Qing Dynasty, the character became more upright and four-square, becoming the so-called “Song typeface.” This font has been in use ever since and is a popular font in printing. In the front of each volume of Twenty Philosophers, the book title appears, while at the back of each volume are the words “proofread by Wu Mianxue of Xin'an in the Ming Dynasty.”
In this collection of philosophic works are wonderful articles by philosopher Zhuangzi (c. 369–286 BC) in which one can experience his otherworldly mood and free style. For example: “There is a fish in Beiming; its name is kun. So gigantic, it can travel for thousands of miles.” The idea of the kun peng, a mythical giant fish that could turn into a giant bird, made Zhuangzi—who had once dreamt of becoming a butterfly—feel extremely free and unfettered. The literary master Lu Xun (1881–1936) spoke highly of Zhuangzi, saying, “No other philosopher can surpass him.” The volume Zhuangzi that was block-printed by Wu Mianxue was so carefully checked and proofread that if his name weren't printed on it, people would think it was the much-lauded Song edition.
Twenty Philosophers is filled with the wisdom of different philosophers in Chinese history. For example, Guan Zhong (c. 720–645 BC) was premier of Qi in the Spring and Autumn Period. With his help, Duke Huan of Qi became the first overlord, also known as the first Chinese premier. Knowing the concept of honour and disgrace, Guan put forward his idea that, “only those whose barn is full can learn about manners; only those whose wardrobe is full can have a sense of dignity.” Guan Zhong believed that only when the people had ample food and clothing could they take into account concepts such as etiquette, honour and disgrace. Xunzi (c. 310–235 BC), the Confucian representative of the Warring States Period, warned people to study unremittingly in his writing Quan Xue (“exhortation to learning”) through the following maxims: “One can never stop learning. Green is deeper than blue, although it comes from blue; ice comes from water, but is colder than water. Without a small step, a thousand miles can't be reached; without a small stream, no sea would exist.” These lines are still widely read by people today. Xunzi is a famous thinker and politician whose disciple Li Si became prime minister during the reigns of Qin Shi Huang and Qin Er Shi (246–206 BC). It is because of this book Twenty Philosophers that immortal masterpieces have been handed down, forming a treasury of wisdom in Chinese culture.
The legacy passed down from the pre- Qin period influenced China for two thousand years, allowing modern readers to appreciate the philosophic view of “a hundred schools of thought” during the Spring and Autumn period, thanks in part to Wu Mianxue, the great block-printing master of the Ming Dynasty.
“Yan Zi Chunqiu” from Twenty Philosophers