Fine Block-printed Pictures of the Huizhou School
County magistrate Liang Yannian annotated the “sixteenarticle imperial edit” and finally completed a representative work of block- printed pictures of the Huizhou school.
Many ancient Chinese block-printed books have illustrations. Because these illustrations were printed with wood blocks, they are also called blockprinted pictures. In the Chinese history of blockprinted pictures, the Huizhou school of blockprinted pictures known for well-proportioned lines and elegant and orderly composition represents the highest achievements of Chinese block-printed pictures.
In the Kangxi period (1661–1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Magistrate of Fanchang County, Anhui Province Liang Yannian annotated the “sixteenarticle imperial edit” promulgated by Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1661–1722) in detail, employed famous workers, added exquisite illustrations and finally completed Shengyu Xiangjie (“a pictorial explanation of the imperial edicts”). In Beijing Spring Auction 2011, a block-printed edition of Shengyu xiangjie was sold for a whopping 800,000 yuan, demonstrating the inf influence and charm of block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school.
Cutting Blocks for Imperial Edicts
In 1397 of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang (reign: 1368–1398) issued an imperial decree, ordering “each village to set up one wood bell and select one old or blind person to walk on the road with the bell six times a month” and chant six imperial instructions: “be filial to parents; show respect to elders; live in harmony with neighbours; instruct sons and grandsons; be content with your calling; do no evil.” These instructions are called “the
six imperial instructions.” Later, they spread among people in many channels including village conventions, pedigrees, family instructions, academies of classical learning and novels. In the course of spreading, many officials practised what one advocated, not only prescribing solemn and complicated rituals for reading imperial instructions, but also interpreting and publicising contents of the imperial instructions. This publicity continued until the Qing Dynasty.
In 1652, Emperor Shunzhi (reign: 1643– 1661) carried on the “six imperial instructions” of Emperor Taizu of the Ming Dynasty and ordered that the east, south, west, north and central areas of Beijing establish public halls to hold rural conventions and read these six imperial instructions on the first and fifteenth days of each lunar month. The practice continued until the Kangxi period. In the ninth year (1670) of the Kangxi period, Emperor Kangxi thought “in governing the country, the point is not to make law primary but to put civility first because law has short-term prohibitive effect while civility can last long, so relying on law alone without putting civility first is attending to trifles to the neglect of essentials.” Therefore, he followed the example of ancient emperors, advocated virtue, mitigated penalty and accustomed people to civility, and evolved and expanded the “six imperial instructions” promulgated in the ninth year of the Shunzhi period into the “sixteenarticle imperial edit,” including “promoting filial and fraternal subordination to elevate hierarchical human relations, be earnest in duties to clan in order that its harmony may be obvious to all and be harmonious with fellow villagers in order to avoid disputes and court cases.” He hoped people could abide by these sixteen articles, which “were the basis of accustoming people to civility.” He also hoped “the previous articles could be used for instruction, guidance and persuasion as well as supervision over implementation by relevant internal and external civil and military officers, who must check decrees and regulations closely, settle controversies and conduct publicity.” Publicising and studying this sixteen-article imperial edit became a necessity for officials.
After the “sixteen-article imperial edit” was promulgated, local officials conducted publicity regularly. The viceroy of Jiangnan and the provincial governor of Anhui highly praised Liang Yannian and reported his deed to Emperor Kangxi in the fifteenth year (1676) of the Kangxi period. After being commended by the imperial court, Liang Yannian selected relevant ancient people's deeds according to Emperor Kangxi's “sixteen-article imperial edit” considering “children in remote mountains, illiterates and women might not have heard of it.” One picture was drawn for each story with a caption. “Ancient people's deeds were depicted under the imperial edict and the original texts were attached to commend virtue. They were categorised and roughly explained to make them easily understandable.” One compilation rule is that a picture should precede a text. The book includes 260 exquisite block-printed pictures. Liang Yannian's original intent was “to publicise the imperial edict, make it interesting to those after seeing pictures, arouse their benevolence and provide assistance for penalty and civility.”
In 1681, Liang Yannian, after completing the book, block-printed this 20-volume Shengyu xiangjie under his studio name “Chengxuan Hall” to carry forward traditions and publicise civility among county magistrates. Before then, Liang Yannian's studio name was not Chengxuan Hall. To show that he spared no effort in elaborating and carrying forward the imperial edict and “carrying forward traditions and publicising civility,” he named his studio “Chengxuan Hall” to block-print this book. There is also a seal of “Chengxuan Hall” at the end of the preface. He also asked Hong Weiyu, an administrative minister in charge of civil affairs from the administrative commissioner's office for Jiangnan and Anhui, to write the preface, and finally completed this edition of Shengyu xiangjie block-printed by Chengxuan Hall with elegant illustrations of figures.
This edition of Shengyu xiangjie consists of smooth white pages made of Kaihua paper with clearly recognisable Chinese characters in the square script popular since the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty. “Chengxuan Hall” is printed below the cover page, and the “sixteen-article imperial edit” is printed in front, followed by “Preface to Shengyu Xiangjie,” Liang Yannian's guide to using the book. The most commendable aspect of the book are the exquisite blockprinted pictures.
Unique Skill of the Huizhou School: Lifelike Depiction
Many ancient Chinese books containing illustrations were simply called “illustrated books,” “pictorial books,” or “picture copybooks.” In the early 20th century, after the European art of block-printed pictures gradually spread to China, illustrations in books and picture copybooks were called Chinese block-printed pictures. In the late Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), China had already invented block-printing techniques. Meanwhile, block-printed pictures were added in the course of cutting blocks for printing Buddhist scriptures to be circulated among people praying for blessings. At that time, such Buddhist scriptures were still in the form of scrolls, and block-printed pictures preceded the main text. The earliest existing Buddhist scripture with block-printed pictures is Diamond Sutra block-printed by Wang Jie for his parents in AD 868 of the Xiantong period (AD 860-874) of the Tang Dynasty with a very exquisite block-printed picture in front. From the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty to the Chongzhen period (1628–1644) of the Ming Dynasty, block cutting for blockprinted pictures entered another era of great splendour. At that time, block cutting for block-printed pictures in the Huizhou area developed a style of its own with dense lines and lifelike figures and influenced block cutting for books with block-printed pictures until the Qing Dynasty. Block-printed pictures in the Huizhou area are called “block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school.”
The block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school before the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty also include Huangshan tujing (“topographical classic of Mount Huangshan”) block-printed in the Tianshun period (1457– 1464) of the Ming Dynasty, Xiuning Liutang Zhanshi zongpu (“pedigree of the Zhan family in Liutang, Xiuning”) block-printed in the Hongzhi period (1488–1505) and Yushi huitong pu (“general pedigree of the Yu family”) blockprinted in the Zhengde period (1506–1521). These block-printed pictures, appearing a little coarse, should be paintings by cutting workers. After the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty, scholars and painters participated in painting and cutting workers in Huizhou cut blocks for printing, thus giving rise to blockprinted pictures of the Huizhou school that attained a high artistic level.
One representative figure was Ding Yunpeng, a native of Xiuning County, Anhui born in 1547 during the Ming Dynasty. He was good at reading and writing poetry and literature, and studied paintings by Wu Daozi, a famous Tang Dynasty painter. His paintings were so exquisite that each hair was lifelike. His landscape paintings were praised by people at that time. After seeing his figure paintings, the calligrapher Dong Qichang (1555–1636) gave a “Haosheng Hall” seal to him as gift. Later, whenever Dong Yunpeng created a satisfactory work, he affixed this seal to it. Dong Yunpeng drew pictures for Fangshi mopu (“ink made by Fang”) block-printed by Meiyin Studio in 1583 and later for books including Yangzheng tujie (“illustrated explications of the cultivation of rectitude”) and Chengshi moyuan (“the ink garden of the Cheng family”), which later on became famous. Dong Yunpeng's favourite disciple Wu Yu also participated in creating block-printed pictures actively and painted pictures for works such as Fangshi mopu, Xuanhe bogu tulu (“illustrations of antiquities of the Xuanhe period”) and Guben jingchai ji (“an account of the ancient edition of the romance of a hairpin”). Block-printed pictures thrived in the late Ming Dynasty. Among them, “Chuci Shuzhu” (“Annotated Songs of Chu”) and “Jiuge Tu” (“Illustrated Nine Songs”) drawn by Chen Hongshou in the Chongzhen period of the Ming Dynasty were more highly commended.
From the Tianshun period, some excellent cutters in Huizhou stood out from the rest. At that time, one named Huang in Qiu Village, She County was known for cutting blocks for books. He cut blocks for printing Xiuning Liutang Zhanshi zongpu in the Hongzhi period and blocks for Yushi huitong pu in the Zhengde period. After several generations' efforts, the Huang family finally matured and created a series of consummate methods of cutting blocks for block-printed pictures in the Wanli period. Their attainment and skill in block cutting for block-printed pictures were beyond the reach of cutters in other areas. Interestingly, they never imparted such skill to outsiders. So to ensure the quality of illustrations, publishers in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing had to employ them at high prices for cutting blocks for printing.
Changing Old Customs and Imitating Ancient Pictures
After the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty, as scholars and painters joined in, some traditional Chinese painting theories and techniques were applied to the creation of block-printed pictures, so these pictures began to integrate with traditional Chinese paintings. The layout of traditional Chinese paintings emphasises distance and density, with main painting methods of delineations, outlines, wrinkling and dotting. These techniques were absorbed and used for block-printed pictures, and block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school represented the highest level of Chinese block-printed pictures. The master of block-printed pictures, Zheng Zhenduo (1898–1958), said while discussing the meanings and attainment of block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school: “Life in this world of block-printed pictures is so beautiful, quiet, peaceful and satisfying. Even depictions of war, tragic martyrdom, death and spring scenery are so ‘gentle and simple' without any aggressiveness. There you see the real life of people in the Ming Dynasty at the end of a century.” Zheng Zhenduo felt the tranquillity and comfort in block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school. In the world of block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school, the life of people in the Ming Dynasty was elegant and tasteful. In the early Qing Dynasty, not long after the Ming Dynasty ended, many cutters in Huizhou could still create exquisite blockprinted pictures, and Shengyu xiangjie was a representative work among them.
This edition of Shengyu Xiangjie blockprinted by Chengxuan Hall contains 260 exquisite block-printed pictures. The pictures are complex, and people's facial features and expressions are lifelike. Other landscapes are also superb—raked cornices, mountains, rocks, bamboos and trees were cut very carefully. Though the names of the painting and cutting workers who made the block-printed pictures are unknown, the beautiful cuts and the holistic style show they must have been made by masters of the Huizhou school. The shapes and lines of figures still followed the painting style of block-printed pictures of the Ming Dynasty. In the Kangxi period, county magistrate Liang Yannian was fully able to gather painters and cutters in Huizhou to complete this work because Fanchang County was located in Anhui.
However, the block-printed pictures in Shengyu xiangjie are slightly different from those of the Ming Dynasty: first, figures account for a large proportion and scenes account for a small proportion; second, elaborate depiction of details pursues elegant and charming sentiment and orderly and exquisite style. The layout of pictures still follows the traditional parallelperspective expression technique, that is, the upper part is farther than the lower part and figures both far and near are almost of the same size. The stories in it involve many ancient figures, including all walks of life from emperors, civil and military officers, tradesmen and potters, and “ancient people's deeds are described in detail.” It provides people with many images of ancient society. Another valuable aspect of the book is that many things rarely seen in other works are preserved in pictures such as funerals, religious ceremonies, pitch-pot, glue making, pestle casting, surveillance from watchtowers and night patrol. Mirror polishing is another example. In the past, people specialised in polishing mirrors just like those specialising in sharpening scissors and knives today. Among these illustrations, one depicts a scene of mirror polishing.
The first picture in this work is “Great Filial Piety,” which depicts the filial deed of Yu Shun (c. 2277 BC– c. 2178 BC, ancient Chinese emperor). Though Yu Shun had “a stubborn father, an arrogant mother and an irritable younger brother,” he could “maintain harmony and filial piety.” In this picture, Shun is dressed like a scholar of the Ming Dynasty. The lines of his clothes are clearly visible. There is a hoe near his left foot and a round stool in front. Shun appears friendly and respectful. Shun's parents and younger brother are in the upper part of the picture. His parents are both sitting, and his younger brother is standing beside his mother. The three persons seem happy. Behind them is a long table on which there is a book and a nearby pot. Shun's image of a filial son is vividly portrayed.
However, only more than ten copies of this edition printed in the early Kangxi period were passed down to today over hundreds of years, and are now collected by the National Library of China and Peking University Library. A lithographic edition printed in the Guangxu period (1871–1908) of the Qing Dynasty is more commonly seen. In the twentyeighth year (1902) of the Guangxu period, the provincial governor of Jiangsu En Shou took the block-printed edition of the Kangxi period as the master copy and printed 3,000 copies of Shengyu xiangjie with lithographic printing techniques after correcting mistakes in it to change old customs, carry forward traditions and publicise civility. From then on, this lithographic edition has become more widespread.
The block-printed pictures of the Huizhou school in the book manifest the superb skill of an era and place.
Shengyu xiangjie, a block-printed picture book of the Huizhou school
Meihua xishen pu, China's first illustrated book of plum blossoms
“Jiuge Tu God of Longevity” by Ming calligrapher Chen Hongshou