Gusu Beauties, formats


This is my long-overdue final posting to the Gusu Beauties series.

Among 18th century Suzhou prints there are several examples of two prints constituting a whole image, where the scene and design in one print continues into the other, forming a diptych. This is different from a pair of prints where figures or motif compose a duilian 對聯 – a couplet or a complementing pair, for example the traditional arms-brandishing door-gods facing each other.

Most of the Chinese diptych prints consist of large (c.100 x 50 cm.) landscapes from the 1730s and 40s. The most published example is the 1734 Encyclopaedic View of Jobs in the City (Sanbai liushi hangtu) 三百六十行圖,  the earliest dated diptych among Suzhou prints, now belonging to the Umi-Mori Art Museum in Hiroshima, formerly the Osha’joh Museum of Art.

view of jobs2

Another example is the 1747 New Year’s Morning (Suichaotu) and Four Imperial Concubines (Sifeitu). Professor Hiromitsu Kobayashi recently identified these as belonging together and they are illustrated in figure 16 in The Printed Image in China From the 8th to the 21st Centuries, (London, British Museum, 2010), the catalogue to the exhibition at the British Museum curated by Clarissa von Spee. The missing Suichaotu is in my collection, actually both in a black-and-white and in a hand-coloured version. On pages 33-35 in the 2011 published 中国年画集成 – 本藏品卷 Zhongguo nianhua jicheng – Riben cang pin juan, I see that Umi-Mori Art Museum owns examples of both the Sifeitu and the Suichaotu, the latter in two versions – black-and-white and hand-coloured, similar to my holding.


Suichaotu is to the left, and the BM Sifeitu to the right.

Here is the link to the BM print:

To my knowledge no diptychs of large figure prints have been published. One pair of prints with very similar beauties and scenery as the Gusu Beauties, although of different format, are the two images in the Umi-Mori Art Museum frequently illustrated in books on the subject.


But it should be emphasised that these are not prints, but drawings, probably copying a Chinese print. This opinion Mr. Aoki, the curator at the Museum, agrees with, and accordingly they are not included in the Zhongguo nianhua jicheng volume mentioned above. It is not impossible that they were drawn by a Japanese hand.

These images were later paraphrased by Okumura Masanobu (1686 – 1764)  in a print of which an example is in Umi-Mori Art Museum, dated to the 1740s. Another example of this print is in Boston Art Museum, .


And again, in a different version, by Sadanobu Tamura(?), as can be seen from a bad reproduction below

IMG_0733 - Version 2

Returning to China and to our prints of the Gusu Beauties, Prints 3 and 4 form a diptych, as can be seen by the floor pattern, the staircase, the red railing, the covered walkway and the flowering tree: all details continuing from one print to the other.


Prints 8 and 1 also form a diptych: the floor pattern, the high threshold, the folding doors and the carved railing are common to both prints. They also have the boards with inscription in common. Is it possible that the two text panels in themselves form a duilian!?

Screenshot of ScreenFloat

In view of the tetraptych described below, it is not impossible that a third or fourth print is wanting here, as well as in the Prints 3 & 4 above.

The most amazing discovery, however, is that Print 2 together with Print 5, 6 and 7 form a tetraptych, as can be clearly seen: the missing left leg of the pedestal in Print 5 is visible in Print 2, as is the left part of the vase and some of the flowers. The railings, the floor pattern, the roof design and the landscape also tally. Print 5 and 7 share the couch, the railing, the stools, as well as the opened book and the cushion on the couch. This is, to me, the only known extant example of a Suzhou four-part print. The prints together furthermore represent the four seasons.


Diptychs and triptychs are a well-known feature in Japanese woodblock printing. Chris Uhlenbeck of Hotei Japanese Prints in Leiden has kindly shared with me his knowledge, as follows:

“It seems that in the year 1748, a number of hosoban triptychs by the primitives appeared (Masanobu, see for example, Clarence Buckingham coll. Vol. 1, p. 168; others in the same sources). They have often survived uncut.

Then in the Katsukawa school this is continued: so with artists like Buncho and Shunsho we see hosoban triptychs and diptychs (See Clark & Ueda, The Actor’s Image, pl. 4, pl. 80 or pl. 433 for a pentaptych).

In the chuban size, Harunobu has designed diptychs, and possibly one triptych (pl. 93-94 en 95-97).

But the big break-through for the triptychs came with the oban size, and these are associated with Kiyonaga, Shuncho and Utamaro. I would put a date of  around 1784 to that. Diptychs were always less popular than triptychs.”

It is in my opinion most likely that the multi-sheet print in Japan also had a Chinese origin, same as Japanese colour printing which appeared at this time. The earliest Japanese colour-printed book is the Mincho Shiken of 1746 edited by Ōka Shunboku, purportedly based on a now vanished Chinese prototype.

Zhang Ye in his doctoral thesis 洋风姑苏版 Yangfeng Gusu ban (Western Style Suzhou Prints) and again in the recently (2012) augmented version 洋风姑苏版研究 The Study of Western Influenced Gusu Prints touches on the subject of screens and hints that some of the landscapes might have formed tetraptychs but he had not located any occurrence where all four prints were extant until he saw my prints, only reconstructed them. In a way, a screen would be the best method of displaying these prints to their full content and next to each other. If they were to be displayed on a wall, the space needed would be over 2 metres, a wall space easily available in a Jiangnan merchant’s mansion.

So far we have not found any examples of either a Chinese screen or a Japanese screen with Suzhou prints pasted on it. Of the 18 known extant examples of the Gusu Beauties series, 11 were or are mounted on Western screens, although admittedly on screens of later date than the prints. Whether this has any significance is difficult to say. We need to know the history behind the prints’ arrival in Europe and the ways in which they were disseminated and displayed.

I would like to speculate that more prints in this series of Gusu Beauties were executed and that a complete series might have consisted of 10 or, more likely, 12 prints, two or four further prints than we presently know about. It is also possible that more prints formed tetraptychs. It is very easy to imagine, in the above two examples of diptychs, the addition of two prints to each in order to extend the scenes.

There might be some significance to the fact that this series of prints is only found in Europe, and that no prints have emanated from Japan.  Except for the variant version of Print 5. Were these prints not in the Japanese taste? Or were they so “chinoiserie” in style that the only market, besides the Chinese local market of course, was in the West?

I also dare to state that these prints are of the highest class in quality of artistry, cutting, printing and colouring. For example the printing of the black is done four times: first in three different tones, and a fourth time to get the criss-cross pattern imitating copper-plate printing. The prints must have been among the most exclusive and expensive in the shop or studio, especially if they were sold in sets of 2 or 4.

Much remains to be said about the European influence on these prints, especially the element of perspective and the copper-plate imitation, but I think I will leave that to a scholarly researcher.

About chiwoopri

Collector and researcher of old Chinese woodblock prints
This entry was posted in china, chinese prints, Japanese print, printing, prints, Suzhou prints, woodblock and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gusu Beauties, formats

  1. Pingback: Gusu prints in Esterházy Palace, Eisenstadt, Austria | CHINESE WOODBLOCK PRINTING

  2. Pingback: A Westlake Panorama Discovered in UK Collection | CHINESE WOODBLOCK PRINTING

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