SOAS Research Online

A Free Database of the Latest Research by SOAS Academics and PhD Students

[skip to content]

Farrer, Anne Selina (1984) The "Shui-Hu Chuan": A Study in the Development of Late Ming Woodblock Illustration. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

[img] PDF - Submitted Version
Download (106MB)


This thesis is a study of late Ming woodblock illustrations of the Shui-hu theme, mainly covering the period 1580 to 1644. Its object is to identify and analyse the stylistic and pictorial elements of these illustrations and to trace their origins in woodblock and painting traditions. The Shui-hu chuan is a semi-historical novel in the vernacular, thought to have been compiled in the fourteenth century, which recounts the exploits of a group of bandits in Sung China. This book became extremely popular in the last seventy-five years of the Ming dynasty and different versions were issued by numerous publishers. During this period vernacular fiction in general was in considerable demand and the large number of editions of novels and plays produced were increasingly provided with illustrations. Late Ming woodblock illustration as a whole is too broad a subject for a preliminary study. The Shui-hu chuan material, as the largest and most varied group of illustrations associated with a fictional subject in this period, provides representatives of all major stylistic tendencies while preserving a thematic unity which greatly facilitates compositional study. The illustrative styles studied fall into five categories. The first category, described in this study as 'cartouche illustration' , is in the form of a pictorial strip across the top of the page. This style originated from Sung dynasty book illustration. By the sixteenth century it had degenerated to an assembly of simplified pictorial elements put together by unskilled artisans. For the second category the term 'large-figure illustration' has been used. These illustrations occupied a full single page. Their compositions were drawn from traditional woodblock styles and were dominated by large centrally- placed figures. The third and fourth categories are two different full page scenic styles produced between c. 1600 and c. 1644. They marked different stages in the assimilation of elements from the stylistic repertoire of painting into the pre-existing woodblock tradition, thus providing a new sophistication in the woodblock medium. The introduction of these new styles involved a substantial reduction in the scale of the figures to accommodate the new scenic elements. The last category consists of illustrations on playing cards. There are documentary records of playing cards illustrating Shui-hu characters from c. 1570, A set of highly distinctive and influential designs for such cards was made by the painter Ch'en Hung-shou in c. 1640, These designs were inspired by a variety of sources in woodblock illustration, painting and popular iconography. Although the end of the Ming dynasty marked a drastic fall in the quality of Chinese book illustration, the influence of Ch'en Hung-shou's original woodblock figure style continued to be in evidence through succeeding centuries.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2020 17:37

Altmetric Data


Download activity - last 12 monthsShow export options
Downloads since deposit
6 month trend
6 month trend
Accesses by country - last 12 monthsShow export options
Accesses by referrer - last 12 monthsShow export options

Repository staff only

Edit Item Edit Item