Art by the Book: The Many Uses of Woodblock Painting Manuals

By Krystle Brown
May 3, 2023
Index Magazine

Art by the Book: The Many Uses of Woodblock Painting Manuals

A woodblock print shows a sparrow perched on a branch. The painting is executed in black ink and delicate gradations of color.
Hu Zhengyan 胡正言, Chinese, late Ming to early Qing dynasty, Bird on a Flowering Branch, from the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shizhuzhai shuhua pu), after 1633–before 1703. One page from a woodblock-printed book mounted as an album leaf; ink and color on paper. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Francis H. Burr Memorial Fund, 1940.165.41.

Art by the Book, on view through June 4, 2023, is the first installation of woodblock-printed painting manuals at the Harvard Art Museums.

What is most remarkable about these types of Chinese painting manuals (Chinese: huapu 畫譜) is the variety of functions they served. They were instruction manuals, but they also were symbols of refinement and were art forms in and of themselves, like portable galleries of art made accessible to a large audience. The manuals were produced through the collaborative efforts of more than a hundred artists and artisans, ranging from painters to woodcarvers, poets, calligraphers, and printers. In the 16th and 17th centuries, painting manuals would be purchased by the emergent upper social classes—wealthy merchants and urban elites—and would also be exported to neighboring Korea and Japan. Owning one of these manuals signaled sophisticated taste and intellectual pursuits.

We sat down with Yuhua Ding, who organized Art by the Book when she served as a curatorial fellow in East Asian art at the Harvard Art Museums, to discuss the installation in detail.

Index: Was woodblock printing in 16th- and 17th-century China considered a lower tier of painting? Where did woodblock printing fit in the art hierarchy?

Yuhua Ding: In terms of art practices, woodblock printing and Chinese ink brush painting were quite different. The publication of painting manuals such as the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting was aimed originally to imitate ink painting at its best.

As scholars such as J. P. Park have already pointed out, the apex of painting manual culture in 17th-century China was associated with the rapid development of woodblock printing and the increasing public desire to acquire artistic taste, knowledge, and sensibility—a prerequisite of elite status. In other words, painting manuals should not be recognized solely for their use as instruction materials. Through a combination of image and text, painting manuals demonstrate their multiple social and artistic functions: they are the oldest illustrated catalogues of Chinese master paintings, and they play a key role in cross-cultural communication within East Asia.

It is also worth noting that the introduction of lithography in the 19th century challenged Chinese traditional woodblock printing. For Art by the Book, we selected seven hand-carved woodblocks that were used to make a pirated copy that imitated a lithographic original. The selection might lead us to rethink woodblock printing from both a sociopolitical perspective as well as an artistic and technical one. 

Index: The installation features Hu Zhengyan and the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting. Who else might have contributed to the creation of this manual, and what might the production process have been like?

YD: The Ten Bamboo Studio is one of the most important painting manuals of its kind. It consists of 186 prints. For the installation, we selected and displayed 36 loose-leaf pages of the manual so they could be seen in multiple.

The publication process of this manual was very collaborative; Hu Zhengyan, the publisher, invited well-known painters, poets, calligraphers, woodcarvers, and printers to create the book. He supervised the entire production, from start to finish. The most impressive aspect of the book is the use of the ink and the subtle gradation of color. The prints look like individual ink paintings due to the softness of the color and brushstrokes, but they are, in fact, woodblock prints. You can imagine how skilled both the woodcarver and the person laying the ink on the woodblock had to be to get these prints on the paper in such a consistent fashion.

Index: What made this painting manual different from the others?

YD: The manual reflects the aesthetic taste, collecting fashion, and lifestyle of the period. For example, the selected nine prints of rocks in the installation trace the development of the “classic” private garden, or so-called scholar garden, in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Ming scholars gravitated toward more dramatic forms evoking lofty peaks like those seen in the images below. Scholars would place a rock on a simple wooden stand, which was the popular mode of display in the 17th-century, as seen in the third print in the slideshow below.

Index: I know that one of the manuals, the Primer on Eight Varieties of Painting, was made during Japan’s Edo period. It has an interesting publication history—could you talk about that a bit?

YD: The Primer on Eight Varieties of Painting was one of the most popular painting manuals in Japan during the Edo period. The book was published in China between 1621 and 1628 and reprinted in Japan in 1672 and again in 1710. Featuring a combination of images and poems, the manual highlights the relationship between painting and poetry in Chinese culture.

In Japan, the manual was admired by Nanga painters, whose works were patterned on the Chinese literati tradition of bringing together poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Interestingly, the 1672 and 1710 Japanese reprints later became the source for a lithographed miniature version of the painting manual, published in China in the late 19th century. This miniature manual, published by Dianshizhai, a Shanghai publishing house, was titled Boat of Poetry and Painting (Shihuafang). The publisher noted that the version was compiled based on Japanese reprints of Primer on Eight Varieties of Painting, because Chinese original prints were no longer available in China at the time.

Index: During the March At Night event, one visitor commented that Art by the Book was their favorite installation at the museums. With this comment in mind, what do you hope that visitors take away from the installation?
YD: It is wonderful to know that our visitors enjoyed the installation. Recently, I received a nice message from a member who participated in a gallery tour as a part of the Material Lab Workshop associated with the installation. These positive messages tell us that our visitors have strong interest in and passion about Asian art. I hope that Art by the Book provides some fresh viewpoints for our visitors and a newfound appreciation of Chinese art.

Art by the Book is on display in Gallery 2600 until June 4, 2023.


Yuhua Ding is the Kemper Assistant Curator of Collections and Academic Affairs at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, and former Gregory and Maria Henderson Curatorial Fellow in East Asian Art at the Harvard Art Museums.