The Ten Bamboo Studio Manual includes 185 hand-printed, color, woodblock designs and 139 pages of poetry, all of which draw upon the natural world. Reading through this book creates a sense of walking through a late Ming-dynasty (17th century) Chinese garden. The book’s unique level of detail and beauty has drawn the attention and appreciation of viewers across the world for centuries.
The Douban Printing Technique for Artistic Expression
To create this work, Hu Zhengyan worked with hundreds of artists and artisans, including painters, calligraphers, woodblock carvers, and printers. They used a technique called douban. Douban is sometimes translated into English as “assembled block” printing and sometimes translated into English as “watercolor block” printing. Each of these translations speaks to an aspect of the printing process.
In douban printing, the woodblock carver carves several woodblocks, one block for each color. The printers imprint the blocks on the paper in layers. Overprinting (printing different hues of ink on top of one another) creates an array of colors like those found in paintings. The painting-like quality is further enhanced by the technique of wiping away some of the ink and printing the image several times. This creates a watercolor-like effect.
A Garden in the Pages
June Li describes the experience of reading this text as like walking through a garden. Garden creation in China in the late-Ming period was highly sophisticated and refined. The contents of the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual are organized in eight topics that would have been of interest to the book’s educated elite (or “literati”) audience. One topic is an introduction to calligraphy and painting, and the other seven topics are the features of a Chinese garden during this time: orchids, bamboo, plums, flowers, scholar’s rocks, birds, and fruit. Below, you can see an example of artwork from each of these topics.
Questions & Prompts
What is the first thing you notice when looking at these prints?
Some of these prints include multiple garden features. How do these garden features interact in the print?
Have you seen any of these features in a garden? Which?
Which is your favorite print? Why?
If you could ask Hu Zhengyan, the man who organized and printed this book, one question, what would you ask?
Artistic depictions highlight the role of food and the culinary arts in late-Ming literati (educated elite) culture. Do you recognize any of the foods? Which have you eaten and how were they prepared?
Text and Visual Art
The images in Ten Bamboo Studio Manual are paired with several types of text. Many of the texts in the book make literary and cultural references. The audience (people buying the book) would have understood or been interested in learning about the references included in the text. Here we can see a bamboo artwork by artist Gao Yang accompanied by a verse by writer Mo Jian.
Verse translation for “Flying White,” by Mo Jian (Li and Wright 2016, 30)
Sloughing off both vibrant green and darker hue,
Its delicate leaves capture the reflections of the Xiang River.
Uneven in length and as if dusted with powder,
Dimly seen or in clear daylight, always as if sprinkled with frost.
Lent substance when accompanied by frosty blossoms,
Easily made into a remedy when mixed with snowy lotus roots.
About to write, I beg help for my poor handwriting,
In order that I may let out the White Phoenix in me.
Questions & Prompts
How do the artwork and the poem relate to each other? What do they have in common?
What do you think inspired Gao Yang, the artist?
What do you think inspired Mo Jian, the writer?
This text includes several literary and cultural references. One is a recipe for a remedy that includes white lotus root. This reference emphasizes the important role plants played in medical and culinary history. Another reference is to the “White Phoenix,” which refers to elegantly composed writing. Does understanding these references change how you read the text? If so, how?
Art can be visual (like the woodblock prints in this book) or text-based (like the poems in this book). Do you prefer creating visual art or text-based art? Why?
Collaborative Artistic Expression
Hundreds of artists and artisans collaborated on this work, including eight major artists. Collaboration can inspire artistic creativity. Try taking on a nature-inspired collaborative art project with a friend, classmate, or someone in your community. Here are a few ideas:
Create a mural in your school or community.
Create artworks and share them with each other. Write poems inspired by an artwork someone shared with you.
Write poems and share them with each other. Create a visual artwork inspired by a poem someone shared with you.
Start a zine. Ask people in your community to submit artworks and writings and then publish them in a booklet for others to read and enjoy.
Buy a notebook and take turns filling in pages with artworks, stories, poetry, quotes, and more! You can build on each other’s ideas.
Continue Exploring This Object
Compare the artistic style with other artistic styles in a close look at lotuses in art.
View more pages from Ten Bamboo Studio Manual on The Huntington’s online museum.
References and Resources
Li, June. 2016. “Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Chinese Woodblock Prints of the Late Ming and Qing Periods.” The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Audio. https://www.huntington.org/videos-recorded-programs/picture-worth-thousand-words-chinese-woodblock-prints-late-ming-and-qing.
———. 2016.“Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting.” Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nryn5TsLYU&ab_channel=TheHuntington.
Li, T. June, and Suzanne E. Wright. 2016. Gardens, Art and Commerce in Chinese Woodblock Prints. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Portland Art Museum. 2016. “Splashes of Color: Chinese Woodblock Prints from the You Wei Du Zhai Collection.” https://portlandartmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016_SplashesofColor_Brochure.pdf
“See an Exhibition at The Huntington Library, California for Chinese Woodblock Prints Made during the Golden Age (from 16th to 19th Century).” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 13, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/video/193355/woodblock-prints-golden-age-printmaking-Chinese.
UNESCO. 2008. “China Engraved Block Printing Technique.” YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y57rUeCHoXg&ab_channel=UNESCO.