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Commentaries on the Rites of Chou

Tags: National Palace Museum | rare books | Sung dynasty


Sung Dynasty (960-1279)
30 x 19.5 cm (print: 21 x 15 cm) 
Annotated by Cheng Hsüan, Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220)
Commentated by Chia Kung-yen, T'ang dynasty (618-907)
Early Southern Sung (1127-1279) imprint by the Che-tung Circuit Tea and Salt Monopoly with middle Southern Sung and Yüan and Ming dynasty revisions

In China, woodblock editions of the traditional Classics were made as early as the Five Dynasties (907-960). They were carved into wood based on engraved stone Classics of the T'ang dynasty (618-907), and included annotations compiled since the Six Dynasties (220-589). The commentaries, on the other hand, were carved starting around 988 during the Northern Sung (960-1126), and were separately printed; hence the "commentary-only" editions. Surviving examples are indeed very rare, which is why this book is a "treasure among treasures," to quote bibliophiles.

A commentary-only edition was read along with the original Classic. This was by no means convenient, so by the 12th century, editions combining the Classics with corresponding commentaries appeared. The government organization responsible for their publication was the Tea and Salt Supervisorate, then headed by Huang T'ang, so they were commonly known as the "Huang T'ang editions." Further, as each half sheet of paper contained eight vertical lines of text, they were also known as "eight-line editions."

In the “Catalog of the Hsi-hu Academy Library” of the Yüan dynasty, a total of 12 eight-line editions combining the Classics and their commentaries were entered. Furthermore, modern bibliographical scholarship has indicated that this trend began with the publication of the “Commentaries on the Rites of Chou”, which makes this work extremely important among rare imprints of the Classics. This book is divided into fifty "chapters" (chüan), and as it follows the order of the commentary-only edition, the number of chüan somewhat differs from the 42 often found in later editions. The commentaries were placed right below the text of the Classic, followed by annotations and commentaries on the annotations. This aspect is illustrative of the transition from commentary-only editions to combined editions, and is therefore significant in the study of Chinese bibliography. Since the appearance of the characters changed with subsequent revised printings up to the early Ch'eng-hua era (1465-1487) of the Ming dynasty, the imprint is also demonstrative of the evolution of Chinese fonts through these three dynasties. Surviving examples of eight-line editions are very rare, and this is the only complete set known to date. Surprisingly enough, it does not have any collector seals or inscriptions to help unravel its history. In 1706, this title was reported by Ho Cho as being in the Ch'ing dynasty inner court, but for some reason it was not registered in the catalogue of the T'ien-lu lin-lang imperial library. Fortunately, it was not; if it had been in that collection, it would have perished in the great fire of 1796 and been lost forever.

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum