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Understanding Rare Books

The Definition of Rare Books

In ancient times, books in China were known as "tien-chi (classic texts)." They were also called "wen-hsien (textual documents)," a term encompassing the three categories of records, files, and books. With developments over time, documents recording events were arranged so that they could be read later, thereby coming to serve the purpose of disseminating knowledge and experience. They took on the form of books as their range of contents increased and the media for presentation became more varied. Methods of production constantly advanced, and texts with different binding techniques were made for the convenience of reading, such as "chien-ts'e (slip bindings)", "chüan-chou (scrolls)", "ts'e-yeh (albums)", and "hsien-chuang shu (thread-bound books)". However, what exactly is a "ku-chi (old text)"? The character "ku (old)", as opposed to that for "chin (new)", indicates that any book not produced using current printing techniques can be called a "rare book".

Printing Woodblock
Figure 2. Printing Woodblock
29.5 x 19.5 x 2.5 cm (L x W x H)
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Bronze Movable Type Block
Figure 3. Bronze Movable Type Block
1 x 1 x 1.8 cm (L x W x H)
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The Evolution of Printing in China

The carving of characters into flat blocks of wood, which are then rubbed with ink and then pressed on paper (a technique known as woodblock printing), began during the T'ang dynasty (618-907) (figure 2). Starting in the Sung dynasty (960-1279), it became the major means of producing traditional printed matter in China. Early woodblock prints could only be printed in one color (usually black ink) and were known accordingly as "tan-yin (single print)". If several woodblocks for the same print are made, with a different color intended for each part, then repeated printing on the same piece of paper can yield a print with two, three, four, or even five colors. This is known as a "t'ao-yin (set print)". Books printed using the "t'ao-yin" method are called "t'ao-yin pen (set-print books)" and represent the distinctive technique of color printing in ancient China. Movable type printing, on the other hand, uses copper casts (figure 3) or wood engravings of individual characters that are assembled before printing together on a page (figure 4). The Ch'ien-lung Emperor (r. 1736-1795) referred to books produced at his court using movable wood type as "chü-chen pan (gem ['assembled treasure'] editions)". Lithography is a Western technique that was brought to China in the late Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911) and rapidly spread as a result of its high speed of production and low cost.

Sum of Essential Mathematical Principles
Figure 4. Sum of Essential Mathematical

Written under order of imperial commission
of Emperor K'ang-hsi, Ch'ing Dynasty
Imperial Printing Office edition, 1724,
Ch'ing Dynasty
Dimensions: 27.1 x 17.2 cm (H x W)
Columns: 21.4 x 14.7 cm (H x W)
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The Literary Collection of Liu Yü-hsi
Figure 5. The Literary Collection of
Liu Yü-hsi

Written by Liu Yü-hsi, T'ang Dynasty
Chekiang imprint, early Southern
Sung period (1127-1279)
Dimensions: 23 x 15.5 cm (H x W)
Columns: 21.2 x 16.5 cm (H x W)

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On the Five Relationships
Figure 6. On the Five Relationships
Written by Emperor Hsüan-tsung,
Ming Dynasty
Imperial Household printed edition,
1448, Ming Dynasty
Dimensions: 37 x 23 cm (H x W)
Columns: 30 x 19.3 cm (H x W)

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Overview of the Founding of the Imperial Ch'ing
Figure 7. Overview of the Founding of the Imperial Ch'ing
Written under order of imperial commission by Agu, and
others, Ch'ing Dynasty
Manchurian edition, Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Dimensions: 39.5 x 25 cm (H x W)
Columns: 27.5 x 20.3 cm (H x W)
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The Vicissitudes of Bookmaking in China

The production of books in China developed along with society. During the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), it tended to revolve around official documents. During the Warring States period (475-221 BC), however, books became a medium for the dissemination of knowledge, and private collectors began to emerge. After Ch'in-shih-huang, the first emperor of China, unified the land in the Ch'in dynasty (221-207 BC), he put into effect a policy of standardizing the written language. After he had some private book collections brought into the imperial palace and other government institutions, China entered its "dark age" of books and knowledge, as books were burned and scholars buried alive. With the rise of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), however, the production of books slowly recovered. By the time of the Sui (581-618) and T'ang dynasties, under the influence of the imperial examination system, the transcription of texts reached its zenith, as did the official organization of books. It was in such a climate that woodblock printing emerged, and China's book production entered a new era.

The Northern Sung (960-1126) and Southern Sung (1127-1279) were also major periods in the development of book production in China. The fashion for compiling, engraving, and collecting books flourished as officials, private individuals, and street vendors alike became involved in the editing and printing of texts (figure 5). During the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing dynasties, the imperial court, with its vast financial, material, and human resources, came to play a leading role in book production (figure 6 & figure 7). By the beginning of the twentieth century, with the encroachment of Western printing techniques, the book industry in China entered yet another completely new phase.

Traditional Classifications of Rare Books

The traditional method of classifying rare books in China employs the four categories of "ching (classics)", "shih (histories)", "tzu (philosophies)", and "chi (compilations)", which are further divided into 44 sub-categories. The classics comprise mainly the texts of Confucian scholars and their commentaries (figure 8), but they also incorporate books on ancient music and writing. The histories consist of all forms of historical texts, but they also comprise geographical and government texts as well as catalogues. The category on philosophies is broader and incorporates such sub-categories as the texts of various philosophical schools of thought, arithmetic, astronomy, biology, medicine, military affairs, art, religion, divination, geomancy, fortune-telling, the writing of notes, fiction, and collectanea. The section on compilations comprises such texts as poetry anthologies, literary criticism, and songs. Compilations of works by authors were known as "pieh-chi (individual anthologies)", while those of collected authors were called "tsung-chi (general anthologies)" (figure 9).

Illustrated Edition of the Book of Odes
Figure 8. Illustrated Edition of the Book of Odes
Handwritten by Emperor Ch'ien-lung, Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Dimensions: 43.1 x 43.3 cm (H x W)
Columns: 31 x 40.7 cm (H x W)

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Selected Writings of Six Masters
Figure 9. Selected Writings of Six Masters
Compiled by Hsiao T'ung, Liang Dynasty
Chia-ch'ü Library reprint of Mr. Yüan in Wu-chün, 1549, Ming Dynasty
Dimensions: 31.7 x 22.2 cm (H x W)
Columns: 24 x 17.8 cm (H x W)
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