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Before the invention of writing, oral and pictorial traditions were the main means of conveying information. But after the development of writing, texts and images could be combined to not only form a more complete system of communication but also to enrich the artistic nature of the written text. Or, “Imagery can make up for what text lacks, and text can make up for what imagery lacks.” The subject of this edition of “Gems from the National Palace Museum’s Collection of Rare and Antiquarian Books” is texts that feature color paintings, which refers to rare books with not just writing but also exceptional examples of often colorful brushwork.

As with today’s picture books and illustrated texts, images in the past were applied to all kinds of books. In China, more common among illustrations were those that helped to explain the texts that they accompany, ranging in subject matter from agriculture to military matters, religion, medicine, geography, divination, interpreting portents, the four arts of the Chinese scholar (qin, go, calligraphy, painting), and traditional studies of bronzes and steles. In all of them can be found color paintings to one degree or another. However, perhaps due to the increased expense of color pigments and the separation of labor in making illustrations (two factors which added considerable time and money to the production), the number of painted books compared to those with woodblock print illustrations was far fewer. Nowadays, they are even rarer after the passage of so many centuries. 

The painted rare books in the National Palace Museum (NPM) collection are mostly productions from the Ming and Qing dynasty courts as well as tribute from local areas, ranging in date from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In terms of numbers, most are geographical volumes and books on divination and interpreting portents, but the painted Buddhist manuscripts by comparison are often the most refined. In addition, the portrait paintings of the father-and-son Qing emperors Qianlong and Jiaqing in their respective anthologies of literary works stand out for their distinctive manner, quite likely borrowing from the ideas and painting techniques of portraiture and book decoration in the West.

The characteristics of painted books from the NPM collection on display in this exhibition can be divided into four sections: 1) The Art of Divining: Books on I Ching Divination, Prognostication, and Interpreting Portents, 2) Painting the Land: Rare Books on Geographical Matters, 3) The Greatness of the Dharma: Classic Scriptures of Buddhism, and 4) Literary Works of the Qing Emperors: The Qianlong and Jiaqing Anthologies of Prose and Poetry. These beautifully painted books and the research on them represent a “feast of knowledge and beauty” to be beholden and shared by all.