Image: Rare Books and Secret Archives: Treasures from the Collections of the National Palace Museum 國立故宮博物院 National Palace Museum(另開新視窗)

Applying Colors

While the origin of color printing in China remains uncertain, the earliest physical evidence of it so far discovered is in the National Central Library: an annotated Diamond Sutra printed in a temple in today's Hubei Province in 1341. The text is in cinnabar, or vermillion, also known as Chinese red, and annotation in black. It was done by a very labor-intensive method called "double printing," and colors so printed tended to run over each other. The "color-process" printing, on the contrary, used multiple blocks for the same text, each block separately prepared according to the placement of a specific color-text in the page. The composite result produced a much neater print. During the mid- and late-Ming periods, two printing shops in the Wuxing area, Min's and Ling's, were famous for their color-process printing. They could do two, three, four, even five-color works, vivid and clear, best suitable for books with annotations and all sorts of marks or punctuations. Yet the most amazing of all was the Ten-bamboo Studio Collection of Painting and Calligraphy by Hu Zhengyan. The intricate color separation, coupled with exquisitely carved blocks, printed one color a time, rendered in highest possible verisimilitude representations of the originals, ushered in yet another a paragon in block printing.

Chongkanbuzhu Xiyuanlu Jizheng (New window)
The Annotated Coroner's Handbook
Chongkanbuzhu Xiyuanlu Jizheng
Written by Wang Youhuai of the Qing dynasty
Qing 4-color-process imprint by Hanmoyuan Printhouse in the Daoguang reign (1844)
Shizhuzhai Huapu–Lingmaopu (New window)
Ten-bamboo Studio Collection of Painting and Calligraphy-Feathered and Haired
Shizhuzhai Huapu–Lingmaopu
Compiled by Hu Zhengyan of the Ming dynasty
Late Ming color-process imprint