The earliest Chinese lithography

12 December 2017

Earlier this year I was dismissed from my post on the grounds of age, a questionable and not entirely lawful practice which in Great Britain is carried out only at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and St Andrews, where it is known as “retirement”. The occasion was marked by nothing more than a single message from my superior telling me to clear my office of all personal effects by 30 September. Thus charmingly were my forty-one years of service to the Bodleian Library and its collections brought to a close.

But now to more edifying matters – lithography, for example.

In 1988 I attended the “International Conference on Resources for Chinese Studies” that took place at the National Central Library in Taipei between 30 November and 3 December. My contribution was entitled Two collections of nineteenth-century Protestant missionary publications in Chinese in the Bodleian Library, and this was subsequently published in Chinese culture 31:4 (December 1990), 21-38. In it, I concentrated on the value of these collections in exemplifying the introduction of western printing techniques into China, for which the Protestant missionaries were entirely responsible. What follows is an enlargement, with the addition of illustrations, of the passage I wrote on lithography (26-27).

I can’t remember how I discovered what I believe to be the earliest use of lithography for reproducing Chinese text, but when I first came to the Bodleian in 1976 the compilation of the Pre-1920 Catalogue was in full swing, and I was surrounded by colleagues who knew the Library’s collections inside out. Perhaps one of them brought it to my attention. According to its preface, it was compiled and published precisely to demonstrate the ability of lithography to reproduce oriental scripts. Lithography had been invented in 1796 by the German author and actor Alois Senefelder as a cheap method of publishing theatrical works, but this book appeared over twenty years later. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an earlier example of Chinese lithography, but I don’t know of one.

From the two title pages we see that it was compiled by George Hunt in 1818, and that in 1819 it was printed by C. Marcuard in Chelsea and published by R. Priestly in Holborn:


It seems to be very rare, and it is unsurprising that the Bodleian’s copy is found in the collection of Francis Douce (Douce L subt. 40); Douce had an intense interest in printing, and the Chinese section of his collection although small contains some real gems – our copy of the Red Decree, for example, which was the subject of my second blog entry in 2011.

Here is the short preface and the page on which the Chinese is reproduced:


Again as far as I know, the earliest complete Chinese work to be printed lithographically is the text of Mencius appended to the French sinologist Stanislaus Julien’s translation, which was published in Paris in 1824 (the Bodleian copy is shelfmarked 2 Θ 121,122). Its execution is particularly fine:


Moving now to the East, the technique is taken up by Walter Henry Medhurst, who you may recall (if you read my earlier blog entry on the woodblock) was a printer by training, and had been engaged by the London Missionary Society to set up a press first in Malacca, and then in Batavia in the 1820s.

His first attempt at lithography was to print his English and Japanese vocabulary, which was published in Batavia in 1830:


In his short introduction to this work, he is perhaps a little too modest:

“The printing needs a thousand excuses; but it must be remembered that the work has been executed at a Lithographic press, by a self-taught artist, and in a warm climate, where Lithography often fails … added to which, being in a colony, it was found impossible to obtain sufficient paper of a like sort, or of an uniform quality to suit the Lithography.”


“Notwithstanding all this, it was thought better to print it under the compiler’s eye, rather than be sending it in MS. to Europe, to run the risk of unnumbered faults, from the illegibilty of a hand-writing, or the unskilfulness of a compositor.”

Four years later, in 1834, under the pseudonym Typographus Sinensis, he wrote a detailed account of the advantages and disadvantages of the various methods of printing Chinese in the Chinese repository (3, October 1834, 246-252). One of the advantages was that the technique “is well adapted for printing alternately in various languages, for mixing different characters, or publishing books in a new character for which no types have yet been formed” (p.250). His English and Japanese vocabulary is an example of this.

In the same year he compiled and published a “Gospel harmony”, of which there is a copy in the library of Regent’s Park College (I haven’t been able to get images of it yet); it is the first purely Chinese work to be printed lithographically, and I catalogue it as follows:

福音調和 八卷 / 尚德者纂
[Batavia], [1834]
精裝1冊(原線裝2冊) ; 24.0公分
Regent’s Park College Chinese 2.31

And in 1837 he published a complete New Testament using lithography, of which there is a copy in the Bible Society’s collection which is now in Cambridge University Library; I have not yet seen it.

The following year he used lithography for a small periodical which seems to be very rare. It is mentioned briefly in Records of the General Conference of the Protestant Missionaries of China held at Shanghai, May 7-20, 1890 (Shanghai, 1890), p.720. There are two issues in the Bodleian which I catalogue as follows:

各國消息 存戊戌年[1838]:9月, 10月
[Canton], 1838-?
毛裝2冊 ; 23公分
Ed. by W H Medhurst, J Legge, and C B Hillier
Has 「每月初一日出」 on front cover/title-page
Sinica 381


In 1840 he produced lithographically a “new version of the Analects” (of which the Bodleian only has the second juan), and a commentary on Genesis I-XI which seems to have appeared soon after:

論語新纂. 下論 / 尚德者纂
[Batavia], [1840]
線裝1冊(41頁) ; 19.3公分
Sinica 1493


創世歷代書 / 尚德者纂
[Batavia?], [c.1840]
線裝1冊(34頁) ; 23.1公分
Sinica 1699


Finally, in 1842, he again used lithography for mixed language printing, but in a rather different way, in his Notices on Chinese grammar. This was described in the Chinese repository (11, June 1842, 317) as “a book almost unique in its mode of printing”. Here Medhurst used typography for the English text, leaving spaces where the Chinese characters were to appear. An impression was then taken and transferred to the lithographic stone. The Chinese characters were then drawn directly on to the stone, and the whole then printed by ordinary lithography.


All this notwithstanding, throughout the nineteenth century the direction of travel in missionary printing was towards the development of western typography. Of the 1,323 different nineteenth-century Protestant missionary publications in the Bodleian’s collections, probably the biggest and most representative in existence, only 163 were printed lithographically – just over 12%.

The invention of offset photolithography in the mid-nineteenth century and its large-scale use by the big Shanghai publishers and even the Chinese government is a different phenomenon, much more influential, and much better documented.


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