A Chinese Letter Paper from 1644 (and 1952)

Unknown artist, detail from Burning Debts (焚券) (1952), muban shuiyin (Chinese watermark woodblock) on Xuan Zhi, page size 31.2 x 21.2 cm. Reproduction of the 1644 print published by Hu Zhengyan, Nanjing.

This is a detail of a Chinese woodblock print titled Burning Debts (焚券). It is the central portion of the first print in the fourth and final volume of a catalog, Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Letter Papers, first published in 1644 by Hu Zhengyan at his stationery store in Nanjing, one of the earliest full-color, printed, illustrated book projects in the world.1 To be precise, however, what is actually reproduced here is a digital file of a photograph of a woodcut facsimile of that 1644 publication that was printed in 1952 by Rongbaozhai—a 300-year-old stationery store in Beijing with an in-house woodblock-printing studio. It is the facsimile I am looking at as I write.

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  1. Letter papers were sold as stationery for writing epistles; the letter writer would select a printed image that alluded in some way to the content of the letter or the relationship between sender and recipient. That said, there is currently only one known example of a Ten Bamboo Studio letter paper with a letter written on it. This fact, and the existence of another letter that mentions looking at the catalog, have led Suzanne Wright to speculate that the catalogues were objects used to demonstrate sophistication, much like contemporary coffee table books. []