Yu shi bi shu shan zhuang shi [or] ji [Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat]. Emperor of China KANGXI.
Yu shi bi shu shan zhuang shi [or] ji [Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat].
Yu shi bi shu shan zhuang shi [or] ji [Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat].
Yu shi bi shu shan zhuang shi [or] ji [Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat].

The Gardens & Landscapes of the Emperor’s Summer Palace

Yu shi bi shu shan zhuang shi [or] ji [Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat].

17 (of 36) folding black & white woodcut plates, each with fine contemporary (?) hand-coloring. Printed in red & black (zhu mo tao yin ben). 51; 50 folding leaves. Two vols. 8vo (265 x 166 mm.), modern brown wrappers, new stitching. [Beijing: Wu ying dian [the Imperial Printing House], Preface dated 1711, Afterword dated 1712, completed 1713?].

First edition, Chinese issue, of this famous and beautifully illustrated book, ordered by and overseen by Kangxi (1654-1722), Emperor of China. It was printed in 400 copies on superior paper, 200 in Manchu and 200 in Chinese. The Chinese edition is quite remarkable for having been printed in both black and red ink (zhu mo tao yin ben), an invention from the Yuan Dynasty, requiring two runs through the press.

The book is a collection of poems written about 36 remarkable sites, which include gardens, landscapes, and buildings at the emperor’s summer palace, a mountain estate, in Rehe (now Chengde, Hebei; it is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site). For each poem, a magnificent folding woodcut plate is provided, depicting the associated site.

While our copy has 17 of the 36 folding plates, they have been beautifully hand-colored at what appears to be an early date and have large margins at the bottom. The difference between the black & white plates and those hand-colored is remarkable and dramatic. In each case, the plates — which are extremely fragile — have been expertly backed with new paper, margins strengthened, and reinserted into the volumes on stubs. The plates clearly come from another copy. On several of the plates there is some small loss of image. Our copy has plates 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32, and 35 (as established by Whiteman, see below).

The result is a perfect match of poetry and landscape painting, with strong literary and artistic characteristics. Kangxi’s own Preface, dated 1711, is followed by the impressions in red of his two seals: Ti yuan zhu ren (his style name used on his seals) and Wan ji yu xia (“Brief leisure”).

This work “offers a virtual tour framed by images and the emperor’s own poetry, the garden placed in the palms of one’s hands. Created in parallel painted [which no longer survives], woodblock printed [our first edition], and copperplate engraved versions, the album’s multiple iterations resonated with each other and with the park itself.”–Stephen H. Whiteman, Where Dragon Veins Meet. The Kangxi Emperor and His Estate at Rehe (2020), p. 6–(& see the entirety of this wonderful and beautiful book, especially pp. 151-88). The scenes of the imperial gardens and landscapes offered in this book allowed unprecedented access to the private life of the emperor.

In 1702, Kangxi ordered the construction of the palace and landscaping of the considerable parklands at Rehe in order to support his annual tours north amongst the court’s Inner Mongolian allies. The palace served as a second capital at which Kangxi resided from late spring to early autumn. When in residence, the emperor oversaw garden tours, banquets, and entertainments, all of which celebrated his rule.

In 1711, Emperor Kangxi conceived of a project to celebrate his 60th birthday and 50th year of his reign. He selected 36 major scenic sites within the extensive property and gardens surrounding the summer palace. One poem for each site was written with the emperor’s involvement, and one painting of each site was created by the court artist Shen Yu (b. 1649?). The writings and accompanying illustrations were meant to demonstrate the harmony between heaven and humankind through natural landscapes and related architecture. They also served as propaganda: this represents the first time imperial spaces were depicted during the Kangxi court. The collection of poems was annotated by Kui Xu, Li Tingyi, and others upon the imperial order and prefaced by Emperor Kangxi himself in 1711.

Two of the court’s most talented woodblock artists, Zhu Gui (ca. 1644-1717) and Mei Yufeng (active ca. 1696-1713), were engaged to prepare the woodblocks from Shen Yu’s designs.

“Whether derived from, or simply correlated to, the unique album [now lost], the woodblock-printed book functions as a surrogate for the paintings. It imitates the album’s arrangement and mode of engagement with the landscape, pairing image and text in an intimately scaled format. The style of the images evokes Wang Yuanqi but also, and more significant, the emperor’s most important artist, thereby marking the book as a work of the court’s highest echelon of cultural production and an object clearly commissioned and owned by the emperor…

“Kangxi was intimately involved in the minutiae of the book’s production, from the selection of a specific type of high-quality paper, to reviewing and editing the printing proofs, to inspecting samples of the finished work. He was kept closely informed about the progress of the project, including difficulties in curing the datewood blocks Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng used as well as the need for more artisans given the scale and intricacy of the work. The order for four hundred copies (two hundred in Chinese and another two hundred in Manchu) came directly from the throne. In comparison to other contemporary projects with print runs of one thousand or more, this number suggests that the emperor had a clear sense of the exclusive audience he intended to reach…

“There is no record of the deadline against which the block-cutters, printers, and binders all labored. Given the timing of the project and the flurry of reports around printing and binding that appear from the intercalary fifth through the seventh months of 1713, however, it seems most likely that the volumes were meant as gifts for the emperor’s sixtieth birthday celebrations that year. The scale and lavishness of production accords with this hypothesis, as four hundred copies indicated intended distribution among a relatively small circle of imperial clansmen, steppe elites, senior officials, and others close to the throne.”–ibid., pp. 182-83.

Shortly thereafter, in the years 1712-14, another edition was produced with engravings instead of woodcuts. It was overseen by the Jesuit Matteo Ripa and two Qing artists.

In fine and fresh condition. Minor worming to text leaves (but not the plates). Preserved in a chitsu.

Price: $15,000.00

Item ID: 6981

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