Rebinding ‘The Emperor’s Pearls’

‘The Regulations for Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Present Dynasty’. Beijing, 1772. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aside from the titular precious stones, the upcoming Pearls exhibition will also feature a lavishly illustrated 18th century Chinese book. Known as ‘The Regulations for Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Present Dynasty, the book is known to have been commissioned by the Chi’ien-lung Emperor (1736-1795) and was an illustrated conclusion to the Emperor’s decade-long efforts to regulate the numerous ritual codes and procedures of his court. It serves as a testament to the Emperor’s passion for a rigid ritualised life.

The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries

A major imperial commission, the manufacture of The Regulations… was of huge scale. As many as twenty-seven court painters and calligraphers worked on the commission under five Editors. After editing and further expansion in the ensuing years, the manuscript was also printed in colour woodblock by the palace publications office of the Imperial Library in the Wuying Palace in the Forbidden City in 1766. It was an important part of the Chi’ien-lung Emperor’s Ssu-k’u ch’üan-shu or ‘Complete Library of the Four Treasuries‘, one of the most ambitious intellectual projects of the Ch’ing dynasty. In 1772, the Emperor decreed that a collection of the rarest manuscripts and books from across the Empire be assembled and a library built for their preservation. The library was completed in 1787. During its 15-year construction, seven complete sets of the entire collection (some 3,400 bound titles) were copied by more than 3,800 scholars.

The Regulations for Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Present Dynasty consists of six chapters illustrating the use of ceremonial vessels, scientific equipment, dress, musical instruments, insignia, and weaponry. It contains more than 1300 pages of illustration and explanatory text. The museum’s copy of the manuscript is incomplete. The book was likely disbound and split into its individual pages when brought to Britain. Today parts of the original manuscript are held by the British Library, the National Museums of Scotland and the National Museum of Ireland. The National Palace in Beijing has a complete copy.

Unknown artist. ‘An Astrologer’s Handbook’. Thailand. undated © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The book consists of exquisite hand-painted illuminations and calligraphy on silk wrapped over layers of Chinese xuan paper to form thick sheets. Careful examination of the versos of the pages and comparison with the copies held at the National Palace in Beijing revealed that the bound volumes were originally in concertina bindings, similar to the Thai book above. However, when the V&A aquired the sections of this manuscript in 1896, they were in loose folios. Originally part of the collection of the National Art Library, the 19th century bookbinders bound the loose pages into standard western-style albums, stabbed sewn with compensation guards, ultimately bound in a half-leather binding.

With time and handling, the inferior materials of the late 19th century rebinding meant that the binding had degraded to the point that it was almost completely detached. Fortunately the painted pages were in good condition, although had suffered some delamination, abrasion and accumulated dirt over the years.

The manuscript in its deteriorated 19th century Western binding. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Removing surface dirt from a page from the manuscript. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An Approach to Conservation and Rebinding

Forming an appropriate approach to such a complex object requires significant discussion between Conservator and Curator. Hongxing Zhang, Senior Curator Far Eastern Department and I considered the past structure, the structures of other similar volumes and the future use and display of the volume. The options included a full repair of the current Western structure, storing the individual manuscript pages loose, or a complete rebinding using the original concertina binding method as the manuscript might have appeared in its original format.

Ultimately, we decided that the book should be rebound in a concertina binding historically similar to its original state. The current western binding was neither historically, culturally or aesthetically sympathetic to the original manuscript, and was of course very badly degraded. Rebinding the book to a state that reflects its original appearance and use provides a structure that is both stable and historically accurate. Furthermore, disbinding provided an excellent opportunity to digitise the individual pages and facilitate access to the volume.

Conservation and Rebinding

After carrying out research on variations of the concertina structure in Chinese books, and on the pigments, dyes and other materials used in the period, I consulted other institutions who had sections of this manuscript, and also colleagues from the Imperial Palace in China on their complete volume.

When I began work, I noticed that there were duplicates of several  illustrations of the robes and winter hats. Upon close inspection it became very clear that these duplicates were by different hands. The copies differed radically in quality and it was quickly ascertained that in the early 1900s, several modern copies were made of the 1700 original. Although no record seems to exist, it is likely that some of these copies must have been purchased and integrated into the V&A’s volume at some point in the past. This raised interesting ethical considerations surrounding the most appropriate manner in which to rebind the book. The reproductions are not orginal, but clearly are still of historical importance to the manuscript and its acquisition by the V&A. Should the manuscript be reproduced in the format it entered the V&A’s collection? or separated from the later copied sheets and bound acording to its original production?

Original painted page from the manuscript showing ‘a winter hat’ (left), and 19th century copy (right). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this case, and after lengthy consultation, we decided that to rebind the book according to its original historical context would be the most appropriate option. It provides the visitor with a closer awareness of the integrity and appearance of the original, while at the same time making it clear that it is not the original. In order to confirm which pages were original and which were later copies, we examined the duplicate pages carefully, documenting any differences in their materials and appeance. We were also able to identify the original pages by using scientific analysis. Conservation Scientist, Lucia Burgio analysed the pigments on several duplicate pages using Raman Spectroscopy confirming that the pigments used in the pages we suspected were original were in keeping with those used in 18th century China.

After sorting out the order of the pages and in order to compensate for the missing pages, I decided to insert blank facsimile pages so as to indicate when a page was missing. This was preferred as the more appropriate option for an incomplete book. Using traditional Chinese materials, I dyed and lined several sheets of modern Chinese xuan paper to create pages that were similar to the original paper. I decided not to use silk in this context. Finally I created a cover. We have no extant record of how the original cover might have looked, and the covers of similar manuscripts in the Imperial Palace exists in many colours. However, given the imperial nature of The Regulations, the cover was created in yellow – the imperial colour for a an imperial manuscript.

Facsimile insert page (right) added to compensate for missing pages. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After conservation treatment and rebinding in original concertina format. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The manuscript will be on display in the Pearls exhibition from the 21st January.

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