Chinese Books in European Dress

Chinese books had certainly arrived in Europe by the sixteenth century, mainly through the East India Company trade, initially the Portuguese, then the Dutch and later the British, as well as through missionaries and Jesuits. However, beside a few occurrences of Chinese characters reproduced in books about China, they had little impact on the western book world and mainly considered as curiosae. It is in the early eighteenth century that we first see reproductions in western books of illustrations gathered from Chinese publications. There are many explanations for this change, one being that the West at this time took a greater interest in things Chinese, resulting in the chinoiserie craze and the belief that China enjoyed a calm and benevolent government. Another explanation is that the reproduced illustrations were more accessible to the western eye and taste, containing western elements such as shading and vanishing point perspective, elements that had been introduced to Chinese pictorial tools by western artists active at the imperial court, especially during the Kangxi reign (1661-1722).

Two illustrated Chinese publications have been particular popular in the West – Yuzhi Gengzhi Tushi 御製耕織圖詩 and Yuzhi Bishu Shanzhuang Shi 御製避暑山莊詩, both of great fame in China, having seen many printed editions as well as having been reproduced on porcelains, lacquer, paintings, sheet prints, etc. We know that Gengzhi Tu, Pictures of Tilling and Weaving, was published by imperial command in 1696, during the Kangxi reign, and that Jiao Bingzhen 焦秉貞 was the artist and Zhu Gui 朱圭 and Mei Yufeng 梅裕鳳 the woodblock cutters. The bibliographic intricacy of the various editions has left us undecided to which edition was published first – a black-seal edition or a red-seal edition. Both are exquisite in printing and character, but emanate from different woodblocks.

Yuzhi Gengzhi Tushi 御製耕織圖詩

By the late 1730s a copy of Gengzhi Tu had found its way to Europe, to Sweden, and we fortunately possess substantial background information on this copy. It was purchased by Hans Teurloen (?-1743), or Tourlon, in Canton in 1739. Teurloen was a Supercargo aboard Stockholm on its voyage to Canton ? December 1737 – 13 July 1739. Stockholm was a Swedish East India Company ship with Gothenburg as its home port. Teurloen travels to the capital Stockholm upon his return, and next we hear of him he is attending a meeting at the then newly-founded Royal Academy of Science on August 29th, 1739. In the protocols of the Academy for this day we read that Teurloen is proposed, by no less than the illustrious Academy Head, Carl Linnaeus, as a member of the Academy with the justification that during his travels to East India he could bring back many objects and ideas which would be useful for the Academy, and that he now also offers to donate to the Academy two illustrated volumes which he had brought with him from East India, one about silk weaving and the other about rice plantation, in drawings, which were shown to the assembled Board. The proposition was accepted and tabled for voting within 14 days.

A week later, on the 5th of September, the Board of the Academy is meeting again when there is a request that Teurloen should be made a member instantly with the argument that he will soon travel (he actually boarded Stockholm again for a voyage to Canton 5 April 1740 – 18 October 1742) and that he not only wish to donate the two books from East India but that he would also be of great service to the Academy for any matter relating to information and objects from this part of the world. All members agreed, Teurloen was called in to give an ex tempore speech and to formally hand over the two volumes he had acquired in China. He explained that the volumes “had been produced 5 years earlier, in 1735 when the reigning emperor (Qianlong emperor) came to the throne, to whom Gengzhi Tu had been dedicated as proof of the toil and much work that his people had to suffer, and only through this the emperor was great and omnipotent”. Teurloen was elected a member, mostly on the basis of the two volumes he donated. Unfortunately he did not get much use or advantage from his membership as he died in 1743.

Also attending the meeting was Mårten Triewald (1691-1747), one of the 6 founding members of the Academy, who praised the works that Teurloen had donated and who said that the volumes would be useful for his future study upon silkworms, and how he could in them study the planting and tilling of rice and mulberry and later write on this for the benefit of the Academy.

Actually, Mårten Triewald did write his study of silkworms, and it was published in the Handlingar (Transactions) of the Academy for 1745 and 46, in five parts, as Rön och försök angående möjligheten, att i Sverige kunna äga egit rådt silke (Findings and Trials Regarding the Possibility to Own Ones Own Raw Silk in Sweden), in other words have local silk worm rearing. As illustrations he picked three pages from Teurloen’s volumes and, most likely, commissioned the in-house copper-engraver Carl Bergquist (1711-1781) to engrave the copperplates. Bergquist changed the format to a landscape view and, due to the smaller size of the Transactions, the illustrations were folded in the book.

When seeing the first illustration, numbered Tab 11 (Plate 11), we have no problem in identifying it as emanating from Gengzhi Tu since it is a reversed image of scene 30.

Scene 30, 1696 editionScene 30, 1696 edition
Plate 11, 1745 TransactionsPlate 11, 1745 Transactions

Bergquist spaced the figures and trees differently, but succeeded in keeping the atmosphere of the original. The second illustration was published in 1746, Plate 3, and is from Gengzhi Tu scene 27, again mirror reversed.

Scene 27, 1696 editionScene 27, 1696 edition
Plate 3, 1746 TransactionsPlate 3, 1746 Transactions

Finally the third illustration is also from 1746, Plate 9, Gengzhi Tu scene 26.

Scene 26, 1696 editionScene 26, 1696 edition
Plate 9, 1746 TransactionsPlate 9, 1746 Transactions

The two volumes of Gengzhi Tu that Hans Teurloen donated are still in the collections of the Academy, and I was recently allowed to see them. They turn out to be not printed but painted in colour after the original 1696 printed edition. They have no text whatsoever in them, not even a title on the cover.

Cover of painted Gengzhi tu, ca. 1735Cover of painted Gengzhi tu, ca. 1735

The paintings are well executed and the colours are still very fresh and bright.

Scene 30, painted albumScene 30, painted album
Scene 27, painted albumScene 27, painted album

It is obvious that the Board of the Academy in 1739 were impressed by these images, and attributed great value to the volumes, enough to warrant a membership.

Scene 26, painted album, ca. 1735Scene 26, painted album, ca. 1735

How Teurloen was able to say that they had been produced in 1735 is not evident, maybe he received some local information when buying them. A comparison between his painted version with a printed 1696 example proves beyond doubt that this was indeed the version Bergquist used for his copperplates.

Plate 9, scene 26 comparisons between woodblock printed, painted and copperplate printed editionsPlate 9, scene 26 comparisons between woodblock printed, painted and copperplate printed editions

The 1696 printed version of this scene shows an intricate pattern on the gate which has become more curly in the painted version and this latter pattern is copied on the copperplate-print. The hairdo and the inclination of the servant girl to the left has changed in the painted version, and the same reoccurs in the copperplate-printed illustration. The vegetation under the round window disappears in the painted image, as well as in the copperplate. Many other details can be found in the three different images that prove that the Swedish copperplate engravings emanated from the painted album, not from the printed edition.

Plate 9, scene 26 comparisons between woodblock printed, painted and copperplate printed editionsPlate 9, scene 26 comparisons between woodblock printed, painted and copperplate printed editions

The fact that the two volumes are painted and not printed does not distract from their importance as vestiges of a pre-1739 date for this kind and style of painting.

These early illustrations of silk rearing and weaving from Gengzhi Tu were soon followed by others. Next occurrence is in England and from the Geng, tilling section. It is entitled The Rice Manufactury in China: From the Originals Brought from China. London: Printed for T. Bowles in St. Pauls Church Yard, John Bowles & Son in Cornhil, & Robert Sayer in Fleet Street. There are 24 plates, including the cover, each 205×260 mm, engraved by John June after A.(gustin) H.(eckel).

 Cover page, ca. 1763Cover page, ca. 1763

There is no date, but the publishers’ names as listed on the title/cover-page give us an indication of dating. T.(homes) Bowles operated in St. Pauls Churchyard until 1763 when his nephew Carington Bowles took over the business. John Bowles was Thomas’ younger brother. John’s son Carington became a partner in 1752 or 1753 and for the next ten years they traded as John Bowles & Son. The shop was damaged by fire in 1766 and they moved back to Cheapside. Robert Sayer, a major British publisher and print-seller, operated at the Golden Buck until, in the mid-1760s, with the introduction of street numbering, the address changed to 53 Fleet Street. Accordingly, we can date these prints to c. 1762 or 1763 at the latest.

A variant imprint is on record: Printed for Carington Bowles, No. 69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, John Bowles, No. 13, in Cornhil, & Robert Sayer in Fleet Street, and the date 1770 has been associated with it.

Cover page, ca. 1770Cover page, ca. 1770

Obviously this is a reprint of the plates with a new text on the title/cover-page. The publishers involved were very active at this time and frequently reprinted their plates. The size of the copperplate is 210x257mm.

The complete book, in either edition, appears to be rare, and even odd plates are scarce in public libraries.

Basically, the images closely follow the Chinese compositions. They are, again, mirror-reversed and the format has been changed. Each illustration has text explaining the activity and a number in the upper right margin.

Scene 2, 1696 editionScene 2, 1696 edition
Scene 2, ca. 1763Scene 2, ca. 1763
Scene 18, 1696 editionScene 18, 1696 edition
Scene 18, ca. 1763Scene 18, ca. 1763


Yuzhi Bishu Shanzhuang Shi 御製避暑山莊詩

The second book that saw a western edition is the Yuzhi Bishu Shanzhuang Shi 御製避暑山莊詩, Imperially published in 1712. The original was in Chinese, with 36 woodblock-printed folding illustrations. A Manchu edition was published the year after, using the same woodblock illustrations cut by Zhu Gui 朱圭 and Mei Yufeng 梅裕鳳 after paintings by Shen Yu 沈崳. Note that Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng also cut the blocks for Yuzhi Gengzhi Tushi. In 1741 Qianlong added his own poems and had the entire work recut.

The Kangxi emperor was intrigued by the technique of copperplate-printing and he instructed Matteo Ripa, Ma Guoxian 馬國賢 (1682-1746), the Italian missionary of the Propaganda Fide who worked at his court, to engrave or etch Shen Yu’s illustrations in copper and have them printed. Ripa did so, and after much tribulation had the 36 plates printed in 1714 in some 70 sets.

It is said that, when Ripa returned to Europe in 1724, he met with King George I and the Earl of Burlington and the latter is said to have acquired a set of the 36 views from Ripa, or perhaps even two sets. The British Museum copy is claimed, with some uncertainty, to be one of these sets. According to some scholars, Ripa’s prints had a tremendous influence on the development of the English natural garden in the eighteenth century. Other scholars deny this. However, the only documented influence of Ripa on western culture is a reprint of 20 of the 36 plates in The Emperor of China’s Palace at Pekin, and his Principal Gardens, as well in Tartary, as at Pekin, Gehol. Printed for and sold by Thomas Bowles, John Bowles and Son, Robert Sayer, and Henry Overton, London, 1753. We see that it is partly the same publishers as in the c. 10 years later Rice Manufactury.

Cover page 1753

The book contains eighteen plates copying Ripa’s work, and two others of which the first is copied from Nieuhof’s account of the Dutch East India Company’s embassy to China in 1655. The second depicts an ‘Indian’ throne. A detailed description of this book is found in Marcia Reed et al: China on Paper. Los Angeles, 2007; p. 206.

As with Rice Manufactury, the Emperor of China’s Palace appears to be very rare, and (mainly) incomplete sets can be traced. Our collection contains nine of the prints, all hand-coloured. Ripa took artistic liberty in his prints to add details which were not in the original woodblock prints (or the paintings). Bowles & Co. went even further and embellished their prints with clouds, people, animals, boats and other irrelevant objects.

Ripa, view No. 32Ripa, view No. 32
Bowles, view No. 32Bowles, view No. 32
Ripa, view No. 33Ripa, view No. 33
Bowles, view No. 33Bowles, view No. 33


It is interesting to note that the great passion for things Chinese which was in vogue during the 1740s to 1760s also caused two major imperial publications of great ranking and sophistication to be reproduced and printed in the West.

About chiwoopri

Collector and researcher of old Chinese woodblock prints
This entry was posted in chinese prints. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chinese Books in European Dress

  1. shaolin1985 says:

    Fascinating – many thanks for posting

  2. Once again, very very exciting

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