Let's get digital: Cambridge releases divine oracle bones, prints worth millions and "beheading" banknote online

By Angelika Rusbridge | 30 July 2015

Priceless collection of Chinese treasures released to public online by Cambridge Digital Library

Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu - ‘A Manual of Calligraphy and Painting from the Ten Bamboo Studio’ from Cambridge Digital Library
Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu - ‘A Manual of Calligraphy and Painting from the Ten Bamboo Studio’© Cambridge Digital Library
Pieces include ‘oracle bones’ used for divination, a unique set of delicate prints worth millions and a banknote which threatens beheading to anyone who would dare duplicate it illegally.


Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu - ‘A Manual of Calligraphy and Painting from the Ten Bamboo Studio’

Estimated to be worth millions on the open market, the ‘Manual of Calligraphy and Painting’, made in 1633 by the Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjing, has been described as "perhaps the most beautiful set of prints ever made".

By using multiple printing blocks and successively applying different coloured inks to the paper, breathtaking gradations of colour, reminiscent of watercolours, are created throughout the 356 folio pages.

It is the earliest Chinese book printed using the technique, polychrome xylography, known as douban, and was invented by Hu Zhengyan 胡正言.

Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu - ‘A Manual of Calligraphy and Painting from the Ten Bamboo Studio’ from Cambridge Digital Library
The breathtaking combination of techniques at the end of the manual© Cambridge Digital Library
“This is the earliest and finest example of multi-colour printing anywhere in the world, comprising 138 paintings and sketches with associated texts by fifty different artists and calligraphers," said Charles Aylmer, Head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library.

"Although reprinted many times, complete sets of early editions in the original binding are extremely rare.

“The binding is so fragile, and the manual so delicate, that until it was digitized, we have never been able to let anyone look through it or study it – despite its undoubted importance to scholars.”


‘Oracle Bones’

Over 3,000 years old, and the earliest surviving examples of Chinese writing in the world, these ‘oracle bones’ were used to record meteorological and astronomical data, including the first records of eclipses and comets, and divined answers to questions sought at the court of the royal house of Shang, which ruled central China between the 16th and 11th centuries BCE.

Inscribed ox shoulder-blade containing some of the earliest surviving Chinese writing in the world - Cambridge Digital Library
This inscribed ox shoulder-blade contains some of the earliest surviving Chinese writing in the world© Cambridge Digital Library
This was done by buffing the reverse of the bone or shell once it had been sawn to shape and chiseling hollows onto the reverse. Then, heat has added to the hollows creating ├ shaped cracks, which is the origin of the character bu卜- 'to make divination'.

'Oracle Bone' used to record data and divine answers to questions posed to court of the royal house of Shang - Cambridge Digital Library
'Oracle bone' with ├ shaped cracks used for divination© Cambridge Digital Library
The inscribed ox shoulder-blades and flat under-part of turtle shells also documented information on subjects like warfare, agriculture, hunting and medical problems have never before been displayed.

'Oracle Bone' used to record data and divine answers to questions posed to court of the royal house of Shang - Cambridge Digital Library
The obverse of a turtle shell with chiseled hollows© Cambridge Digital Library
“The very high quality of the digital images has already led to important discoveries about the material – we have seen where red pigment was used to colour inscriptions on the oracle bones, and seals formerly invisible have been deciphered on several items," says Huw Jones, part of the digitisation team at Cambridge University Library

"We look forward to new insights now that the collection has a truly global audience, and we are already working with an ornithological expert to identify the birds in the Manual of Calligraphy and Painting.”


Small Sword proclamations (Wade collection)

The Small Sword Society (Xiao dao hui) were a secret Triad organisation connected with the Taiping movement founded by Hong Xiuquan, who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus sent to bring Christianity to China.

Proclamation by Small Sword Society, a secret Triad organisation affiliated with the Taiping movement - Cambridge Digital Library
Proclamation by Small Sword Society, a secret Triad organisation© Cambridge Digital Library
The Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864, ravaged 17 provinces and took an estimated 20 million lives, irrevocably altering the Qing dynasty and the balance of power between the disenfranchised poor and the ruling classes.

The first proclamation contains arguments that God, Shang Di 上帝 in Chinese, was known about in ancient China through the use of many Bible quotations.

Small Sword Society proclamation with details of charges against Taoists and Buddhists - Cambridge Digital Library
Details of charges against Taoists and Buddhists© Cambridge Digital Library
The second proclamation includes extended quotations from literary figures Han Yu 韩愈 (768-824) and Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) and details charges against Buddhists and Taoists.


Chinese banknote, worth one thousand cash, with printed threat of beheading (bottom) - Cambridge Digital Library
Banknote, worth one thousand cash, with printed threat of beheading (bottom)© Cambridge Digital Library
Banknote

This banknote, issued in 1380 and printed on mulberry paper, threatens any forgers with decapitation, and states a reward of 25 ounces of silver as well as the criminal’s property for any who bring them to justice.

The denomination, one thousand cash, is represented by a picture of ten series of 100 strung copper coins - the traditional method of carrying money around at the time. The Seal script text on either side of the note reads: 'Great Ming Paper Currency; Circulating Throughout the World'.

The use of paper currency first began in the 7th century in China, a concept considered relatively normal by the 11th century - 500 years before its first use in Europe.


Page from Da bo re bo luo mi duo jing - 'Perfection of Wisdom' - Cambridge Digital Library
Page from Da bo re bo luo mi duo jing - 'Perfection of Wisdom'© Cambridge Digital Library
Da bo re bo luo mi duo jing - 'Perfection of Wisdom'

One of the world’s earliest printed books, Mahapraj馻-paramita-sutra or Perfection of Wisdom, was translated into Chinese by Xuanzang during a project undertaken in China between 1127 and 1175.

Famed for his 17-year pilgrimage to India, Xuanzang collected many religious texts to bring home, as the propagation of Buddhism, introduced from India during the first century BC, relied heavily on the translation of these kinds of documents.

Printed from finely engraved wooden blocks, the characters are in Song style – the dynasty during the time of printing which is still influential today.


Ji mao zhong qiu you deng Wang yue lou - Chinese rubbings

This rubbing, or copy, is of an original inscription dated 1639 by Zhu Changfang 朱常[氵芳], scion of the imperial house of Ming and last hereditary prince of Lu 潞, which probably did not withstand the passing years.

Changfang was killed seven years after its creation at the hands of Manchu invaders during the fall of the Ming dynasty.

Ji mao zhong qiu you deng Wang yue lou a Chinese rubbing from the time of the fall of the Ming dynasty - Cambridge Digital Library
Flower from 'rubbing' dating back to the fall of the Ming dynasty© Cambridge Digital Library
Rubbings, made using a technique in use for more than 1,500 years and a stage in the development of the printing process, are portable and easy to keep safe, which has helped insure the safety of information when originals became damaged by time or vandalism.

“A stiff brush is used to beat dampened sheets of thin rag paper into impressions carved in stone," according to the digital library. "After the paper has dried, an inked pad is carefully tamped over the surface, resulting in a perfect copy of the inscription, usually in white on a black background."

Ji mao zhong qiu you deng Wang yue lou a Chinese rubbing from the time of the fall of the Ming dynasty - Cambridge Digital Library
Ji mao zhong qiu you deng Wang yue lou inscription, including date© Cambridge Digital Library

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to see Chinese collections in:

Barlow Collection of Chinese Art, University of Sussex
Sir Alan Barlow's bequest to the university aims to foster an appreciation of traditional Chinese culture as well as the various aesthetic and tactile qualities of ceramics, jades and bronzes.

Museum of Asian Music, London
Permanent exhibits of musical instruments from across the continent are accompanied by touch-screen displays featuring music and video clips and digital access to an extensive audio-visual archive.

University of Hull Art Collection
This small but outstanding collection includes two sets of Chinese Ceramics on long-loan from Dr and Mrs Peter Thompson, a pair of Hong Kong collectors.
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