A Stone Plate Printed Classic
Qinding shu jing tushuo is one of few existing stone plate printed books from the Imperial Storehouse of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), reflecting the superb skills of stone plate printing.
The time-honoured Dongtangzi hutong (lane) in Dongcheng District is home to a cultural property under the municipallevel protection of Beijing, the site of the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), at the domicile numbered 49. After the Second Opium War (1856–1860), the self-strengtheners helped establish the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs in the lane to handle foreign affairs and study advanced Western technologies, which was the first ever department dedicated to addressing foreign affairs in China.
During the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875–1908) in the Qing Dynasty, the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs printed a book Qinding shu jing tushuo (“illustrated description of books and classics authorised by emperors”) in stone plate printing introduced from the West. With exquisite printing, the book was honoured as the imperial storehouse-selected book.
Establishing a Board of Ministers
In 1790, Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736– 1796) celebrated his 80th birthday, which became one of the most important events
in the country. Afterwards, King George III of the United Kingdom learnt the news and appointed George Macartney (1737–1806), a British statesman and diplomat, to lead a delegation to Beijing to present gifts to Emperor Qianlong on his 80th birthday. George Macartney had another important task: to open trade with China.
It was the first official mission to China from Western Europe. After a one-year sea voyage, the fleet arrived at Baihekou, Tianjin. When they reached Beijing, the Ministry of Rites dispatched officials to receive them.
During the Qing Dynasty, before the Opium War, the Qing government didn't have departments dedicated to handling foreign affairs. If tributaries or vassal states sent delegations to pay tributes or report diplomatic issues, the Ministry of Rites or the Department of Governance of Ethnic Minorities was in charge of receiving and handling them.
At that time, the Qing government considered itself superior to its counterparts and regarded all foreign countries as vassal states, so it didn't recognise peerto-peer diplomacy and equal trade with other countries. Generally, the Ministry of Rites managed ties with those coming by sea from east and south. In the meantime, the Department of Governance of Ethnic Minorities took responsibility to handle issues regarding states coming by land from the north and west such as Russia.
However, foreign trade was limited in Guangzhou and under the management of the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi. In case any diplomatic issues arose, the emperor authorised an imperial commissioner to handle them. Without imperial approval, no officials were allowed to intervene in diplomacy.
After the Opium War, the United Kingdom forced the Qing government to enter into a series of unequal treaties to gain the Qing government's concessions in foreign trade, including opening five ports in Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai and granting tariffs and consular jurisdiction to the United Kingdom. In addition, the restriction on Chinese officials' communication with their foreign counterparts was lifted. As the foreign trade in five ports led to frequent diplomatic issues, the Qing government established a position to regulate foreign trade in five ports and handle foreign affairs in 1844 [the 24th year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang (reign: 1821–1850)], which was concurrently taken by the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi. In 1859 [the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (reign: 1851–1861)], the position was adjusted to under the control of Governor of Jiangnan (today's Jiangsu, Shanghai and Anhui) and Jiangxi. At that time, the position was still provisional as that of an imperial commissioner as the Qing government considered foreign trade and diplomatic issues as temporary jobs.
In 1860 (the 10th year of the reign of Emperor Xianfeng), the Second Opium War broke out. At last, China lost the war and was compelled to sign the humiliating Convention of Peking that disappointed some people with insightful views and sparked their concerns over China's underdeveloped sciences. Yixin (1833–1898), Prince Gong, who officiated the signing ceremony of the treaty, felt ashamed and worried that the treaty could only be an expedient measure and not prevent China from future suffering or humiliation. Yixin thought it imperative to learn from the West and introduce Western sciences and technologies.
Both Zeng Guofan (1811–1872), a famous statesman and Confucian scholar in the late Qing Dynasty, and Li Hongzhang (1823–1901), a politician and diplomat, agreed with Yixin. Li said, “Making China strong independently is more difficult than developing it by learning from Western countries. However, to study Western weaponry isn't as effective as grasping the knowledge of producing weapons.” In this context, the Self-strengthening Movement was launched, bringing about more foreign affairs, and it became necessary to establish a body dedicated to handling foreign affairs to avoid delays.
In 1861, the Qing government established the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs and designated Yixin, Grand Secretary Guiliang (1785–1862) and Left Assistant Minister of Revenue Wenxiang (1818–1876) to head the new
department, and appointed Yixin as its chief. It was the first ever administrative body established by China under Western influence, marking the start of modern Chinese diplomacy. The Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs took charge of handling diplomatic issues, dispatching envoys to other countries, managing foreign trade, customs, coastal defence and procurement of firearms, funding the operation of Tongwen Guan (“School of Combined Learning”) and sending students abroad to study. The Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs actually had a wide range of powers and functions involving coastal defence, mining, railways, telegrams, postal service and manufacturing. Due to the expansion of its powers, it became a central department in charge of foreign affairs and diplomatic issues.
In culture and education, the board established Tongwen Guan to teach members of Eight Banners the foreign languages and make them serve as interpreters and translators, which was the first ever foreign language school in China. For printing books, it first introduced Western technology of stone plate printing and printed Qinding shu jing tushuo, an outstanding stone plate print in the late Qing Dynasty.
Stone Plate Printed Classic Books
Before the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), most Chinese books were spread in handwritten copies. Woodblock printing came into being in the late Tang Dynasty, substantiated by the oldest existing book Diamond Sutra printed in the ninth year of the Xiantong reign (AD 860–874). During the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), woodblock printing matured and many books were printed using this technique during the Song and later dynasties. From the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the metal and wooden movable-type printings became popular and most books were printed in the two techniques. Around the time of the Opium War, while Catholic priests came to China to preach, stone plate printing was brought over.
Stone plate printing, a kind of lithography with a history of more than 200 years, was invented by German author Alois Senefelder (1771–1834), who was born in Prague and liked to compose music. However, he couldn't afford the costs for printing his works, and thus, tried to print them with stone plates by himself but failed several times. Finally, in 1796, he succeeded in testing and named the technique the stone plate printing (or lithography). Stone plate printing utilised an image drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate. The stone was treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, “etching” the grease content of the drawing material into the stone's pores and chemically creating grease reservoirs. The open stone (without drawing) was affected by the gum arabic creating a thin gum layer that would then attract water. When the stone was subsequently moistened, these gummed areas retained water; an oil-based ink could then be applied with a roller sticking only to the original drawing. The ink would finally be transferred to a cotton fine art paper sheet, producing a printed page.
This technique had been introduced into China before Alois Senefelder died, but was nationwide spread during the reign of Emperor Guangxu. In 1831, Walter Henry Medhurst (1796–1857), an English Congregationalist missionary to China, first printed some Chinese books with the stone plates in Djakarta, Indonesia, and later, established a printing house in Macau. In 1832, he set up a printing house in Guangzhou to print books for preaching including the Bible. However, as the Qing government restricted preaching, he had to secretly print his books. In the following forty years, stone plate printing wasn't promoted in China.
After the beginning of the SelfStrengthening Movement, the Qing government encouraged to introduce the Western technologies, so stone plate printing was gradually popularised. Qu Ya'ang, a Chinese Christian, was the first to grasp the technique. During the reign of Emperor Daoguang, Qu learnt from some foreign missionaries about the stone plate printing and printed some publicity materials with scriptures on one page and images on the other in Macau. During the late Qing Dynasty, Chinese booksellers established printing houses to print books on stone plates, which led to its popularity. At that time, people thought it unimaginable to print books without woodblocks. Stone plate printed books have patterns and texts same as those in the originals. In addition, the colours in the books are also bright.
From the late Qing Dynasty to the founding of the People's Republic of China, as many as over 100 printing houses were established, mainly in Shanghai. The stone plate and letterpress printings once played a dominant role in China instead of the traditional woodblock printing. The Shanghaibased Commercial Press started to use photolithography in 1920 and colour photolithography in 1921, a process which could produce exquisite content rapidly. Huang Shiquan from the Qing Dynasty said, “Photolithography uses the Western limestone plate as flat as a mirror to capture writings through photographs and then applies the glue and printing ink on the plate. It can reproduce thousands of pages in a day with small but legible characters.”
However, some people initially didn't believe stone plate printing could work so fast or disbelieved the durability of ink on those books. Finally, all people realised the stone plate printed books could stand the test of time and technique could be used to reprint books in a reduced way.
At that time, Shanghai was home to a majority of China's printing houses capable of printing books with stone plates, including Fuwen Ge, Zaowen Publishing House, Hongwen Publishing House and The Commercial Press. Some of them were
able to engage in colour printing and print books in five colours. Most stone plate printed books were ancient books ranging over Confucian classics, history books, book series, popular fiction novels and scripts. Comparatively influential ones include Sibu congkan (“collection of Confucian classics and history books”) and Baina ben ershisi shi (“patched version of twenty-four histories”) printed by the Commercial Press and Gujin tushu jicheng (“collection of all books in the history of China”) by Zhonghua Book Company. However, few stone plate printing houses were based in Beijing. In this context, Qinding shu jing tushuo became an outstanding representative of stone plate printing in Beijing.
A Book from the Imperial Storehouse
Wu Shijian (1868–1934), member of National Academy of the Qing Dynasty, once wrote 82 poems collectively named “Qinggong ci” (“Poems on the Imperial Court of the Qing Dynasty”), in which the 40th mentioned Zhiping baojian (“references for peaceful governance”) and Qinding shu jing tushuo authorised by Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908). Currently, the stone plate printed Qinding shu jing tushuo is collected by the Palace Museum.
After the Second Opium War, Emperor Xianfeng died from disease and Emperor Tongzhi (reign: 1862–1874) succeeded to the throne at six. As the emperor was too young, empress dowagers Ci'an (1837–1881) and Cixi attended to state affairs. To well govern the country, Ci'an and Cixi ordered officials of the South Study Room and Upper Study Room to compile a book containing the previous emperors' governance tactics, titled Zhiping baojian.
In 1903, Empress Dowager Cixi grasped the central power in her hands and engaged officials to compile a book to clarify Shangshu (“book of documents”). Under the authorisation of Cixi, Sun Jianai (1827–1909), Zhang Baixi (1849–1907), Rong Qing (1859–1917), Lu Runxiang (1841–1915) and Zhang Hengjia (1847– 1911) presided over the compilation, and designated the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs and the Printing House of Imperial University of Peking (predecessor of Peking University) to compile the book. They also invited Zhan Xiulin, a famous painter from southern China, and others to draw pictures based on descriptions in Shangshu. With reference to other books in different periods, the book was illustrated with 570 pictures to explain geography, figures, garments, traditions and objects in Shangshu in 448 sections. Illustrations are exquisite and vivid. For instance, in an image regarding Yu the Great (c. 2200–2101 BC) taming the flood, Yu the Great was depicted on a mountain, with others chopping down trees around him.
Sun Jianai, the book's editor-in- chief, ranked first in the imperial examination in 1859 and together with Weng Tonghe (1830–1904) served as a tutor of Emperor Guangxu. Sun was invited as the first minister in charge of the Imperial University of Peking built according to the edict of Emperor Guangxu in 1898.
In 1905, Qinding shu jing tushuo was completed and presented to Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu for reviews. After reading it, they ordered the Imperial Storehouse to print the book. The book was finally printed with stone plates by the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs and hailed as an imperial storehouseselected book.
After the book was printed, it was bound into sixteen volumes in two boxes and distributed to nationwide schools. The book's printing was costly and only a few copies were preserved. Either the paper or the decoration was high in quality and extravagant. It contains the most illustrations among all books from the Imperial Storehouse during the late Qing Dynasty. Additionally, the Chinese characters “guang xu san shi yi nian jiao yin” (“collated and printed in the 31st year of the reign of Emperor Guagnxu”) were printed in the book's upper margins.
This book is one of rare stone plate printed books from the Imperial Storehouse during the Qing Dynasty and represents the culmination of stone plate printing in the late Qing Dynasty. It was the best one printed by the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs.
Currently, the Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs has become a cultural remnant but Qinding shu jing tushuo is preserved to well sustain its short history.
Qinding shu jing tushuo (“illustrated description of books and classics authorised by emperors”) and tushu jicheng (“collection of all books in the history of China”) printed with stone plate around the 1900s
Stone plate of the Northwest Farmers Bank for printing notes during the War of Resistance Against Japan (1931–1945)