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National Palace Museum

Books in the Palm of Your Hand: the Kerchief-box Editions in the National Palace Museum Collection

  • Dates: 2018-12-23~2019-03-10
  • Gallery: (Northern Branch) Exhibition Area I 103,104

The ancient kerchief-box edition (or jinxiang ben) finds its modern equivalent in the miniature, pocket, or palm-sized book. Its small size as well as ease of carriage and storage secured its popularity among scholars and the reading public alike.

The earliest extant record of a kerchief-box edition dates back to the Southern Qi dynasty (479-502). It is noted in the Nanshi (History of the Southern Dynasties) that Xiao Jun (473–494), the Prince of Hengyang, once "transcribed the Wujing (Five Classics) in small characters, assembled the texts into a single juan (fascicle), and placed it in a kerchief-box." The promulgation of the practice led to imitation by other princes, and thus was born the making of “Five Classics in a Kerchief-box." The kerchief-box was a small device used by literati in historical China to hold their head kerchiefs and other accessories. Small-sized books fit perfectly into such carry-along boxes, and were therefore made easily portable and readily accessible; hence they were given the name the kerchief-box editions. While Xiao Jun might not be the original creator of the kerchief-box edition, his rendition of the small-sized Five Classics became widely emulated and was the first such edition to achieve popularity. His practice was followed by Xiao Yi (508–555), Emperor Yuan of the Liang dynasty (502-557), who went further in terms of quantity and scope to encompass not only Confucian classics (jing) studied by scholars, but also works of history (shi), philosophy (zi), and literature (ji), exhibiting a diversified coverage.

With the advent of woodblock printing, the practice of textual transcription by hand began to wane, and from the Tang dynasty (618-907) to the Song (960-1279) printing gradually replaced hand-copying as the main method of book publishing. At that time, trade publishing prospered, and a more diverse range of books were released, including classics and history titles, poetry and lyrics, imperial examination preparation materials, travel guides, novels and dramas, as well as medical texts. Welcome by the literary readership, kerchief-box editions came to the fore in this booming publishing market, thanks to their small size as well as ease of carriage and wide circulation.

The term kerchief-box edition, which emerged in the Southern Qi dynasty, continued to be in use until the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). However, when the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) gave way to the Qing (1644-1911), it was replaced by the small-sized edition (xiuzhen ben). The focus of the publishing of the small-sized editions had since then gradually turned from practicality to decorative delicacy and aesthetic taste. Although the calling kerchief-box edition is no longer used, the pocket edition has remained popular as a convenient format for portable reading materials. This exhibition consists of five sections that provide an overview of the history, binding, formats, and contents of the kerchief-box editions: "Five Classics in a Kerchief-box," "Propagation of the Kerchief-box Editions," "Imperial Collection of Small-sized Editions," "Same Titles of Different Format Sizes," and "Kerchief-box Editions for Traveling Literati." The visitors are expected to get a glimpse into the cultural practice of storing books in kerchief-boxes; they will also gain insight into how bibliophiles in historical China were sentimentally attached to books in their daily lives and on their travels, as well as the delight they took in appreciating their book collections. At the same time, they may even get to know the development of the small-sized editions and their many facets in the history of the book in China.

 Books in the Palm of Your Hand: the Kerchief-box Editions in the National Palace Museum Collection Books in the Palm of Your Hand: the Kerchief-box Editions in the National Palace Museum Collection Books in the Palm of Your Hand: the Kerchief-box Editions in the National Palace Museum Collection