Stop what you’re doing and read the oldest coloured book on the planet, penned in China in 1633

You can now browse through Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu (Manual of Calligraphy and Painting), the world’s oldest multicoloured book.

Lately we’ve been enjoying a ton of free online media. Sound, image and video from times gone by always evoke a feeling of wonder, and the fact that so many archivists are making these resources freely available proves there’s still a little good in the world.

oldest coloured book

Penned in 1633,  Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu (Manual of Calligraphy and Painting) is the oldest coloured book known to still be intact.

This digital version comes courtesy of The University of Cambridge, who own the only known copy of the text. Here’s how they describe it:

This 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). The method involves the use of multiple printing blocks which successively apply different coloured inks to the paper to reproduce the effect of watercolour painting.

Great skill is required to achieve a convincing result, but the beautiful gradations of colour in this work have led to its reputation as “perhaps the most beautiful set of prints ever made”.

The work is divided into 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.

Browse the work for yourself here.

Via Open Culture/University of Cambridge.