Too fragile to open, the world's oldest coloured book is digitized for the first time

A 17th-century book that includes 'perhaps the most beautiful set of prints ever made' is now freely available for the world to see on the Cambridge Digital Library. Estimated to be worth millions on the open market, the ‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’ was made in 1633 by the Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjing.

Charles Aylmer, Head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library, said: “This is the earliest and finest example of multi-colour printing anywhere in the world, comprising 138 paintings and sketches with associated texts by fifty 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 until it was digitized, we have never been able to let anyone look through it or study it – despite its undoubted importance to scholars.”

The book is the earliest Chinese book printed by the technique of polychrome xylography known as douban, invented and perfected by Hu Zhengyan 胡正言 (1584-1674). It contains eight categories: birds, plums, orchids, bamboos, fruit, stones, ink drawings (round fans) and miscellany. Each category is divided into two fascicles. The leaves are printed on one side only, folded in half and glued together along the outer fold (the so-called 'butterfly' binding). With the exception of one category, every image is followed by an accompanying text, in most cases a poem.

This copy has been identified by the leading scholar of this work as the finest and only extant complete copy in the original binding of what he describes as the 'second superstate' of the first edition. Wonderful. Discover more on the Cambridge Digital Library.