A large number of colour woodblock prints attributed to the Kangxi reign bear a signature by an artist or printer. The format of these signature varies greatly. Sometimes it is within a cartouche, other times without any borders or embellishments. Usually the signature is placed in the lower left or right part of the print, either on the image itself or outside in the margin. Occasionally it is within the frame surrounding the image, and, in one instance, in the middle of the print (Fig. 13). A standard signature would read, in seven characters: Place (usually Gusu 姑蘇), Name of printer/artist, Production term. This latter production term varies from artist to artist and from studio to studio, but the most common expression is faxing 發行, issued. Rarely is included the location of a studio (Fig. 1) or family relationships (Figs. 15 & 21). The majority of these Kangxi prints have a title in the upper part or upper margin.
It is to be noted that none of these signed prints carry a date. Very few prints from the Kangxi Emperor’s 60-year reign are dated. To our knowledge there are only two. One is a map by Wang Junfu 王君甫 dated 1663 and the second a print, Nanhai Putuo Mingshan Shengjing 南海普陀名山勝境, Scenic Spots of Putuoshan, dated 1710. We know of only two prints dated from the Yongzheng reign (1732 and 1734), and then 15 prints with Qianlong dates, the majority (11 prints) with dates in the 1740s.
The main tool for dating prints to the Kangxi reign is to compare with other prints in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, which were inventoried in 1738 (Figs. 1 & 3 & 4 & 23 & 24). A second source for dating are the prints in the Hans Sloane Collection which entered the British Museum in 1753, ie. 30 years after the Kangxi reign ended.
Among known Gusu 姑蘇 (old name for Suzhou 蘇州) prints that bear a signature, the ones signed by a member of the Lü 吕 family appear to be the most numerous; no less than 27 such prints are recorded. All are printed in colour, many with very subtle tones and an inclination towards blue, yellow and red/pink. The prints all belong to the Kangxi reign to judge from colour, style and dress. A few prints could be attributed to the Yongzheng reign based on colours and style, but this dating is unproven and tentative.
LÜ YUNTAI 吕雲臺
Six of these 27 prints are signed by the father of the Lü family, Lü Yuntai 吕雲臺. In all but two he signs himself as Gusu Lü Yuntai Faxing 姑蘇吕雲臺發行, Issued by Lü Yuntai in Suzhou. The first exception reads Gusu Bei Si Qian Lü Yuntai Faxing 姑蘇北寺前吕雲臺發行 (Fig. 1).
This signature informs us that Lü’s studio was in front of the Bei Temple, Beisi 北寺. Bei Temple was also known as Baoen Si 報恩寺, Baoen Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Suzhou, built in 577 and rebuilt in the Southern Song Dynasty. Baoen Temple was located at the end of Taohuawu 桃花塢 Avenue, which was the well-known street and district of Suzhou where most of the print shops were located during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The second exception is where Yuntai simply signs as Lü Yuntai Faxing 呂雲台發行, Issued by Lü Yuntai (Fig. 2).
Two more of Yuntai’s signed prints are in the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and were inventoried in 1738 (Figs. 3 & 4). We therefore have firm evidence that at least Yuntai was active in the Kangxi reign or before.
The six prints by Yuntai are all in landscape format, and more or less uniform in size, c. 38×60 cm. All are known by just one example except for the print Zhuguo Jin Gong 諸國進貢, All Nations Bring Tribute, of which 3 examples exist (Fig. 5) (one print is in the Umi-Mori Art Museum and the other was sold at a Tokyo auction in 2010).
Three of the prints consist of multiple scenes in narrative-square style, divided respectively into 4 (Fig. 3), 10 (Fig. 6) and 24 squares (Fig. 1). The other three also contain various scenes from either a tale or a historical event but here the images are freely composed into a seemingly uniform ensemble.
Within the six prints two signatures are placed in the lower left margin (Figs. 1 & 6), one signature within the image to the lower right (Fig. 4) and the remaining three are within a frame inside the lower left side of the image.
LÜ JUNHAN 吕君翰
From his signatures we know that Junhan was Yuntai’s oldest son. No less than 13 prints are known as being signed by Junhan, five as Gusu Lü Yuntai Zi Junhan Faxing 姑蘇吕雲臺子君翰發行 Issued by Lü Yuntai’s Son Junhan in Suzhou.
To emphasise that Junhan is the oldest son, he signs four other prints as Gusu Lü Yuntai Zhang Zi Junhan Faxing 姑蘇呂雲臺長子君翰發行 Issued by Lü Yuntai’s Eldest Son Junhan in Suzhou. Possibly his brother (see below) started work in the studio and Junhan felt he had to state his superiority in rank and age.
Two prints are signed Gusu Lü Yuntai Zi Dafang Junhan Faxing 姑蘇吕雲臺子大房君翰發行 Issued by Lü Yuntai’s Son Eldest Son Junhan in Suzhou (Figs. 7 & 8). The term Dafang
Large Hall or Large Room, implies that Junhan now occupies the main quarters of the family house means First Wife, Wife No. One, so Junhan is the son of Yuntai’s first wife.
Actually, the signature on the second print (see 8a and 8b below) is by conjecture since the area of the signature is damaged in the print but one can clearly read 姑蘇吕雲臺子大….
Finally, two prints are signed with just Junhan’s name, papa Yuntai doesn’t figure any longer, Junhan now worked on his own. In both cases the signature reads Gusu Lü Junhan Faxing 姑蘇吕君翰發行 Issued by Lü Junhan in Suzhou (Figs. 9 & 10).
Junhan follows his father’s landscape format and motifs in his prints, but he also introduces prints in portrait format, in that he rotates the image 90º but keeps the old dimensions, c. 60×38 cm. This was possibly, at the time, the standard size for the woodblock or the paper. Just over half (7) of the 13 prints signed by Junhan are in portrait format. This image orientation was to become the preferred format in prints of the later Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, although the dimensions increased.
The motifs in Junhan prints are fetched from mythology and from historical events mainly during the Han period. Two prints in the Tenri Library, Tian Ci Jin Qian 天賜金錢, The Gods Send Money (Fig. 7), and Hui Ming Da Zhan Sun Feihu 惠明大戰孫飛虎, Hui Ming Battles with Sun the Flying Tiger (Fig. 11), are two battle scenes forming part of a series judging by the colours and composition of the prints.
A print in Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows the Eighteen Lohans arriving on clouds and waves (Fig. 12).
Two other prints are in the narrative-squares style, one is in 4 squares (Fig. 13), the other in 24 (the 24 Paragons of Confucian Filial Piety) (Fig. 14).
Four of Junhan’s 7 prints in portrait orientation introduce us to an innovative and artistic presentation of the motif, where he divides the images in different compartments. The simplest of these is in our collection, Zhaojun Chusai 昭君出塞, Zhaojun Leaves for the North (Fig. 15), where the top image is within a circle, the middle held within a fan shape, and the bottom contained in a rectangle with inverted corners.
Another print, formerly in the late Nakayama Zenji 中山善次 collection (present whereabouts unknown), entitled San Meiren 三美人 Three Beauties (Fig. 16), has a similar arrangement of three images of high-class beauties in their luxurious domestic settings.
The images are surrounded by fancy borders in fancy shapes, the bottom one in a rectangle with inverted corners just like the Zhaojun Chusai print (Fig.15).
Two prints, both in Tenri Library, show Confucian ethics in complicated arrangements of the scenes. The first print, You Di Zhong Tian Lun 友弟重天倫, Brotherly Affection (Fig. 17), introduces four scenes on porcelain items: the first an oblong plaque, the second a three-legged vessel, the third a rectangular tray and the fourth a plate shaped as an artemisia leaf.
These four objects in their turn are placed on a textile or ceramic object which forms the background. Flowers and leaves can be seen under the top plaque and a vase and a small box are placed next to the tripod.
The second print, Xiao Ti Jie Tianxing 孝悌皆天性, The Nature of Filial Piety (Fig. 18), shows six out of the twenty-four scenes of Confucian Filial Piety.
Here the images are presented within a handscroll, a musical stone, a vase with lid, a square dish, a hanging scroll, and a leaf. The captions to these six scenes are also imaginatively depicted upon various objects: a fancy cup, a lotus petal, an artemisia leaf, a crab, a ruyi sceptre, and a gourd.
An unsigned print, Xiaoyi Yi Men Jing 孝義一門旌, Reward Filial Piety With Reputation (Fig. 19), might be a companion print (part of a possible set of four?) showing further six scenes from the Confucian Filial Piety pantheon, all reproduced on familiar objects (open book, fan, artemisia leaf, etc) and with the captions to the scenes on fruits, leaves and musical instruments. The similarity in style, colours and calligraphy between these two Tenri Library prints points to Junhan as the artist of both.
One print in the Umi-Mori Art Museum entitled De Dao Tuanyuan 得道團圓, A Reunion of Daoists, (Fig. 20), is exceptional in its small size, c. 10×10 cm. It is probable, though, that this is a cut-out from the lower left corner of a larger unknown narrative-squares print.
LÜ TIANZHI 呂天植
Lü Tianzhi 呂天植 was an unknown name among the Gusu artists until 2019, when six prints with his signature were discovered in an old, hitherto unknown German collection.
From his signatures on these six prints we know that he was a son of Yuntai and Junhan’s younger brother. Tianzhi signs himself in four different ways:
- Lü Tianzhi Faxing 呂天植發行 Issued by Lü Tianzhi
- Gusu Lü Tianzhi Faxing 姑蘇呂天植發行 Issued by Lü Tianzhi in Suzhou
- Gusu Lü Yuntai Zi Tianzhi Faxing 姑蘇呂雲臺子天植發行 Issued by Lü Yuntai’s Son Tianzhi in Suzhou (2 prints)
- Gusu Lü Yuntai Zhi Zi Tianzhi Faxing 姑蘇呂雲臺之子天植發行 Issued by Lü Yuntai’s Son Tianzhi in Suzhou (2 prints)
The difference between signatures 3. and 4. is the insertion of the possessive zhi 之, which we believe only serves to emphasize that Tianzhi is Yuntai’s son.
Also, like his father and brother, Tianzhi prints in the traditional landscape format, c. 38×60 cm. Four such examples are described below.
The print Jun Zi Xiaoren Tu 君子小人圖, Pictures of Nobles and Scoundrels (Fig. 21), has the same Confucian message and division into 20 narrative squares similar to those printed by Tianzhi’s father and older brother.
A second landscape format print illustrates a popular subject, that of Yu Jia Huan Le 漁家歡樂 Happy Fisherfolk (Fig. 22). The entire image is taken up by waves among which no less than 61 men, women and children are portrayed, most of them actively fishing in one manner or another. Two prints in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, documented in 1738, illustrate the same subject (Figs. 23 & 24).
The third landscape print, Xue Rengui Shen Jian She Fei Dao 薛仁貴神箭射飛刀 (Fig. 25), represents the genre of historical print and here shows Xue Rengui, (614-683) a great Tang dynasty General, shooting down flying swords.
The fourth and final print in the landscape format is Yingjie Cai Shen 迎接財神, Welcome the God of Wealth (Fig. 26). We see Cai Shen seated on the top of a boat arriving at a jetty where a group waits to welcome him.
This last print, in composition, colour and subject, reminds one of Zhuguo Jin Gong 諸國進貢, All Nations Bring Tribute (Fig. 5), the print by his father Yuntai mentioned above, and of the print in Boston Museum of Fine Arts by his brother Junhan called Nanhai Tu 南海圖 Picture of the Southern Sea (Fig. 12). The Boston print shows the Eighteen Lohans arriving by boat or on waves at a landing where a dignitary presides. The Tribute print shows a land procession of ambassadors from various nations bringing precious tribute. These three prints (Figs. 26, 5 & 12) have in their composition a distinct axis from upper left to lower right, and with a multitude of figures and actions that fill the whole image. One can recognise the prints as emanating from the same studio.
Like his father and brother Tianzhi also made a print showing six scenes from the Paragons of Confucian Filial Piety (Fig. 27). The print is presented in a vertical composition with intermingled decorative patterns, including lotus petals and stems, framing the stories in six circles. A large character at the top reads Xiao 孝, Filial.
Above each scene is its title contained within various shapes of auspicious objects, including (from top right to bottom left) lian’ou 蓮藕, lotus root (the symbol of a harmonious and happy marriage); dou 斗, ingots in a measuring container (which denotes the phrase Ri Jin Dou Jin 日進斗金, Daily Earning Much Gold); qing 罄, a musical instrument (a homonym for qing 慶, celebration); a seal with a rabbit (a symbol of a prosperous career); a sharp-pointed, lotus petal-shaped shoe, worn by women with bound feet, known as San Cun Jin Lian 三寸金蓮, Three-Inch Golden Lotus, and signifying high social status; xiao 蕭 the ancient flute, and bianzhong 編鐘, bronze bells symbolizing privilege. This print echoes elder brother Junhan’s Xiao Ti Jie Tianxing print (Fig. 18) in that two of the piety scenes are the same and the captions are contained within fancy objects. However, Tianzhi fills the entire background with floral patterns creating a colourful composition.
The last print signed by Tianzhi breaks the mould. Presented within the outline of a tree leaf, with the character jin 金, Gold, at the top, this is a most elegant print (Fig. 28).
The character ‘Gold’ indicates that this print is one in a series of four where the other three prints would also contain a single character at the top. Taken together the characters would form an auspicious phrase. Here it could be Jin Zhi Yü Ye 金枝玉葉, meaning Gold Branches and Jade Leaves, symbolising a person of noble birth, or Jin Yü Man Tang 金玉滿堂, Halls Full of Jade and Gold, ie. wealth and prosperity.
The print shows two beautiful ladies seated in a garden facing each other and playing traditional instruments: a small gong, xiaoluo 小鑼, and a pair of clashing bells, pengling 碰鈴 or boling 鈸鈴. Both women have gaoji 高髻, high tied-up hairdos (also known as boyu tou 缽盂頭) in the fashion of the Kangxi reign, and long coats over long skirts.
LÜ ZIFAN 呂子帆
Umi-Mori Art Museum possesses a print, Zhang Zi Cheng 張子成, The Tale of Zhang Zicheng, signed Gusu Changmen Nei Lü Zifan Fa 姑蘇閶門内呂子帆發 Issued by Lü Zifan Inside Changmen Gate in Suzhou (Fig. 29).
Changmen was the busiest water gate and commercial area in north-west Suzhou. This is the area where the district of Taohuawu 桃花塢 was located, where many hundreds of print workshops were active in the early Qing dynasty. There are no other prints or records of this Lü and we do not know if he was a close relative of Yuntai or even a relative.
LÜ ?? 呂??
Another print in Umi-Mori Art Museum, Tiantai Shengjing 天台勝景, Scenic Spots on the Heavenly Terrace (Fig. 30), has been badly damaged and the signature is only readable as Gusu Lü. . . 姑蘇呂 . . .
There is theoretically space for four more characters in the signature box, so Yuntai Faxing or Junhan Faxing could have been possible since the print is in their style (Fig. 31).
There is a further text box below the signature box, but all text in this has also been damaged. Again theoretically, the four characters of Fan Ke Ji Sun 翻刻即孫 could have fitted here.
Fan Ke Ji Sun 翻刻即孫
An interesting feature of Lü family prints is the occasional inclusion, after the signature, of the term Fan Ke Ji Sun 翻刻即孫, an uncommon expression.
It may mean: ‘Fakers will be Pursued down the Generations’. A copyright warning to be sure and tells us that copying and pirating was abundant at the time and that the brothers in particular felt they had to issue this deterrent. Fan Ke Ji Sun 翻刻即孫 occurs on four prints, two by Junhan and two by Tianzhi as follows:
Nan Hai Tu 南海圖 (Fig. 12)
Xiao Ti Jie Tianxing 孝悌皆天性 (Fig. 18)
Jun Zi Xiaoren Tu 君子小人圖 (Fig. 21)
Yingjie Cai Shen 迎接財神 (Fig. 26)
The Lü family prints give us an insight into the workings of a print studio at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. We realise that generations of artists succeeded each other in the studio, sometimes moving premises. The subject matter of the prints continued from one generation to the other, as did physical format and size. The younger generations unsurprisingly introduced new formats and subjects. The Lü prints were popular to such an extent that the brothers had to issue a warning that fakers and copiers would burn in hell for generations to come.
Perhaps a more efficient deterrent than today’s threat of litigation for copyright infringement!