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Treasures of the Library: The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting

I hope you all keep well and stay safe in these challenging times. In such strange and unusual circumstances, many of you may be bored with staying at home for more than a month. However, this situation is not unique.

More than 300 years ago, in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912) in China, there was an individual who was also forced to self-isolate, like us now, but it was due to his own illness. His name was Li Yu (1611-1680), who was a playwright, a novelist and a publisher, and an admirer of landscape painting. He used to travel around the countryside and enjoyed meeting people to discuss artists and their painting before he fell ill. A year-long solitude made him realise that there were many excellent albums of figure painting and bird-and-flower painting, yet he had never seen any albums of landscape painting. Li Yu told this to his son-in-law, Shen Xinyou (8).

Shen Xinyou had his family heirloom album of landscape painting compiled by Li Liufang (1575-1629), a literati painter and a calligrapher in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This album consisted of copious examples of the methods of individual masters of various painting schools (9). When Shen Xinyou lived in a mansion in Jinling (present Nanjing), called Mustard Seed Garden, he commissioned his friend Wang Gai (ca. 1645- ca. 1707), who was a Jinling School painter, to undertake a painting manual to edit and supplement the contents of the album.

Shen Xinyou presented this enlarged album to his father-in-law, Li Yu. Li Yu was delighted to see it and decided to publish its printed version in order to share his joy of viewing landscape and landscape painting with like-minded enthusiasts, as well as to enable them to learn how to paint landscapes *1. The first printed version was published in 1679 entitled “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting,” named after Shen’s mansion in Jinling *2.

This publication attained popular acclaim amongst litterateurs; as a result, part 2 and part 3 of this album were published in 1701. These two new additions were edited by Wang Gai with his younger brothers Wang Shi and Wang Nie.
The first part deals with landscapes, trees, rocks and hills, people and buildings in 5 volumes. Part 2 depicts orchid, bamboo, plum blossom and chrysanthemum in 8 volumes. Part 3 covers grasses, and insects with flowers, and birds and animals with flowers in 4 volumes (6). Each part contains general principles of painting for novices, followed by illustrated brushwork techniques and ends with examples of famous painters’ works, partly printed in polychrome.

You might be bemused by the subject of part 2; orchid, bamboo, plum blossom and chrysanthemum. It seems as if they were randomly chosen, yet those four plants are called ‘The Four Nobles’ in China because they look as graceful as persons of nobility.

In the 17th century, between the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912), it was considered that painting was one of the necessary accomplishments of a cultured person (2). Accordingly, a great number of painting albums were produced at that time in China (3). Amongst a multitude of albums, “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting” is acclaimed as the most influential publication both in China and in Japan. In fact, the album was introduced to Japan during the Genroku era (1688-1704) in the early Edo period. It had a huge influence on Japanese literati artists such as Ike no Taiga, Yosa Buson, and Tanomura Chikuden as well as many more artists from other painting schools (4).

In Japan, this painting manual not only contributed to the expansion of literati painting but also enabled the development of domestic painting pigments. Prior to this, all the best quality pigments had been imported from China as the method of the production of the pigments had never been disclosed. However, this album revealed the process of making pigments to Japan for the first time (5).

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, published in 1888
Lisa Sainsbury Library

In China, “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting” has had 11 different editions reprinted, copied or reproduced over the 200 years since it was first published (7). In Japan, it was also reprinted several times from 1748 (1). Therefore, there are many variants in texts, sizes and colouring of the illustrations depending upon each edition.

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, published in 1888
Lisa Sainsbury Library

Owing to a generous gift from Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi, the Lisa Sainsbury Library holds the album, although it is only the “Book of Orchid” in part 2 published in 1888 in China. The dimension of the original album is around 26 x 18 cm whereas the Library copy is much smaller being 20.1 x 13.9 cm (6). The Library copy has only monochrome illustrations and the numbers of illustrations are also reduced (7).

All the pages of the Library’s copy can be viewed online. I hope that you enjoy our digitised copy of the “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting”. Moreover, you will perhaps enjoy learning a new method of painting orchids from the manual during the uncertain period of lockdown.

Akira Hirano
Lisa Sainsbury Library


*1. In foreword of “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting” by Li Yu, he explains the background of this publication. Please refer the original text in Chinese (8) or its English translation (9).

*2. Many Japanese publications indicate that Mustard Seed Garden was owned by Li Yu. However, it has been denied by many scholars such as Professor Kōno Motoaki (1).

Bibliographical references:

(1) Kōno, “Motoaki. Japanese Literati Painters and Longing for Chinese Culture”. Shōbi Gakuen Daigaku Geijutsu Jōhō Kenkyū.  12 (2007-11): 9-21.
(2) Miya, Tsugio. “Gafu,” in Kokushi Daijiten 3., ed. Kokushi Daijiten Henshū Iinkai (Tokyo : Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1983).
(3) Nakanaya, Sōta. “Ukiyoeshi ni miru edehon riyō no ichi kōsatsu : Chūgoku gafu o genryū to suru Utagawa-ha no sakuhin o chūshin ni”. Journal of East Asian Cultural Interaction Studies. 5 (2012-02): 389 – 405.
(4) Takeda, Kōichi. “Ike no Taiga ni okeru gafu ni yoru seisaku”. Bijutsu Kenkyū. 348(1990-08): 1-22.
(5) Tani, Shin’ichi. “Iwa-enogu,” in Kokushi Daijiten 1., ed. Kokushi Daijiten Henshū Iinkai (Tokyo : Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1979).
(6) Tsuruta, Takeyoshi. ““Kaishien Gaden” ni tsuite : sono seiritsu to Edo gadan e no eikyō”. Bijutsu Kenkyū. 283 (1973-03): 1-12.
(7) Wang, Gai. 1782. Jie zi yuan hua zhuan : Er ji. [Jinchang] : Shu ye tang
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
(8) Wang, Gai, and Yu Li. 1812. Kaishien Gaden. Edo : Hishiya Magobē.
National Institute of Japanese Literature
(9) Wang, Gai, Mai-mai Sze, and Yu Li. 1977. The Mustard Seed Garden manual of painting = Jie zi yuan hua zhuan, 1679-1701 : a facsimile of the 1887-1888 Shanghai edition. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400866830.

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