425 full-page woodcut ports. 16 vols. 8vo, orig. wrappers, old stitching. Changzhou: Privately Printed, 1830-31.
First edition, rare and a very fine set, of this richly illustrated book, a collection of woodblock portraits of historical figures accompanied by short texts. The individuals illustrated, beginning with Cang Jie, the legendary inventor of the Chinese script, lived from antiquity to as recently as the Ming dynasty. Ye Shusheng 葉樹聲 and Yu Minhui 余敏輝, in their Historical Outline of Private Printing in the Lower Yangzi Region in the Ming and Qing Periods (Ming-Qing Jiangnan siren keshu shilüe 明清江南私人刻書史略, 2000), write that the carvings are so fine that in the portrait of the medieval painter Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之 (Gu Hutou 虎頭), for example, “you can distinguish every single strand of his hair and beard, and the headscarf and belt lifted by the wind express the natural spontaneity of someone who refuses to be restrained.”
This work was edited by Gu Yuan (1799-1851/60) of present-day Suzhou (Changzhou 長洲), who served as an instructor (jiaoyu 教諭) in a local government school in the Daoguang period (1820-50), but is most famous as a wealthy collector and publisher. Gu’s residence was located to the west of Fu bridge 甫橋 in Suzhou, the major metropolis in the lower Yangzi region. Among the many buildings on the property stood Yihai lou 藝海樓, the “Sea of Skills pavilion.” The ground floor housed the “Studio of good bronzes and stones to rejoice in” 吉金樂石齋, where Gu stored rubbings of antique vessels and old stele rubbings. The upper story housed 36 book cabinets, placed around the walls of the circular building, containing the over 100,000 fascicles of Gu’s book collection. The collection was later scattered when the Taiping forces occupied Suzhou.
Gu printed several illustrated works, including the present work. The illustrations are based on drawings by Kong Lianxiang 孔蓮鄉. Some say that the carving of Kong’s drawings was carried out by Zhang Jinzhang 張錦章, who had previously worked on other publications edited by Gu.
There are two Prefaces, reproduced in calligraphy, reflecting the high-brow nature of the publication. The first Preface, dated 1827, is by Tu Zhuo 屠倬 (1781-1828) of present-day Hangzhou (Qiantang 錢塘). Tu had retired from an official career and is today remembered primarily as a poet and a painter. The second Preface, dated 30 December 1830, is by Wu Tingchen 吳廷琛 (1773-1844), a native of Suzhou (Yuanhe 元和). Wu had by this time retired to his hometown on account of illness, having served in various positions in the provinces. He distinguished himself by ranking first in both the metropolitan and the palace civil service examinations, the last person in the Qing period to do so.
The book was printed in 1831. The date of printing is given as the gengyin year, most of which corresponds to 1830. But one of the Prefaces is dated very late in that year, which means that carving must have begun sometime in the last two months gengyin, corresponding to January and early February 1831.
Fine set of this handsome and richly illustrated work. Unimportant worming in the final eight volumes. With the Kanda ke zo seal of the Kyoto collector Kogan Kanda (d. 1918), who formed a large and fine library, which was inherited by his grandson Kiichiro Kanda. Preserved in two hantao.
Item ID: 9449