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Object of the Month #16: Officials and Boats

Object of the Month #16
Officials and Boats
Collection of Miniature Pith Paintings (2013.01.265)
April 2016

My first thought when I saw this month’s object was to wonder why anyone would keep a box of torn strips of paper. It actually turned out to be a delicate collection of four miniature paintings from China, probably dating to the late 19th century. Stored inside a small display box with a glass cover are two paintings of Chinese officials, and two of sampan boats on the water.

The paintings are small, each only 9.3 cm x 6.0 cm (about 3.5” x 2.5”). They’re not in very good condition, and all four are broken in at least a few places. Usually paper would be described as “torn” rather than “broken,” but in this case the paper is so brittle that “broken” is really much more accurate. The paper is translucent and the colors are still vivid and bright (probably an indication that they were never regularly on display), which gives the paintings a glowing, illuminated quality.[1]

You might reasonably guess that the paper is rice paper, but a closer look shows not a single visible piece of pulp. Examined through a microscope, you would see something even more unexpected: a regular arrangement of little hollow circles. These circles are actually the open cell walls of a plant called Tetrapanax papyrifer, a member of the ginseng family. Often erroneously called rice paper, it is really pith paper, carefully shaved in scrolls from the plant’s core, and then stretched, flattened, and dried.[2]

Painted in gouache, the way in which the paint sits in and on the cell walls of the pith helps create pith paintings’ characteristic glowing appearance. The painting of the seated official also uses a technique called back painting. Behind his face and hands on the back side of the paper are small areas of what is probably white lead pigment paste, used to improve the appearance of the color on the front.[3]

The men in the two paintings are both wearing official court dress of the Qing Dynasty. The seated man is undoubtedly of higher rank, as is evident by his dress. His robe includes symbolic elements, such as the blue embroidery along the bottom hem that represents the waves on the shore, representing harmony in the land ruled by the emperor. The younger man’s robe notably has a dragon on its front. Unfortunately, the painting isn’t quite detailed enough to count the dragon’s claws. A dragon with nine claws would only have been worn by the emperor himself, while dragons with fewer claws would likely indicate a relative.[4] It is possible that the men are actually meant to be a pair. The seated man might, in fact, be the emperor himself, and the younger man perhaps a relation or an attendant. A painting in a private collection shows a young man standing next to the emperor on this throne, both wearing robes and in poses with more than a passing resemblance to those of the NMH pair.[5]

The two small boats are sampans, or fishing boats, depicted on smooth water. Both sampans have small shelters on their decks, and show a single person standing on the deck holding an unidentified object at shoulder height.

The pairing of the paintings’ two different subjects, people and boats, is not immediately an obvious one, although they were both relatively common themes at the time.[6] Other frequent subjects for pith paintings included flowers and butterflies, industry (e.g. tea, silk, and pith paper production), and, strangely, crime and punishment. While these disparate categories don’t obviously seem to have much in common, if you were to lump them together under the broad category of “curiosities” they actually make some sense.

In the 19th century, the curiosities in question would have been produced specifically to appeal to westerners in China who probably had romanticized notions about the “exotic Orient,” and would have wanted to bring home souvenirs of their travels. Paintings like these would have helped them illustrate the stories of their travels after they returned home. Whether or not the paintings were strictly accurate was another matter.[7]

Pith paintings were popular for a relatively short period of time, which helps to date this set. Growing in popularity starting in the early- to mid-1800s, they declined sharply by the turn of the century. They were sometimes called “trade paintings,” and were produced primarily for export. Pith paintings were popular in the port city of Canton (now Guangzhou), one of the treaty ports open to foreigners after the first Opium War that ended in 1842.[8] Not surprisingly, the open ports created a demand for tourist art among sea captains and sailors, and paintings like these, because of their subject matter and portable size, fit the bill.[9] Over time, as the enforcement of restrictions against foreigners outside the officially sanctioned ports began to fade, so, too, did the popularity of these paintings.[10] The advent of photography also hastened their decline.[11]

Are these paintings special or valuable? Well, yes and no. They were quite popular, but within a fairly narrow time frame. As such, they’re a window into a specific place at a specific time, as well as a glimpse of how one group (i.e. westerners) wanted to think of another group (i.e. the Chinese). Because of their moderate ubiquity they are collectible, but miniatures like these aren’t particularly sought after, especially not in this condition.

While you would be unlikely to find paintings like ours exhibited at a museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they also do have value as precursors to photography. They are snapshots in time that predate actual snapshots themselves, but with the added bonus of having been produced in color, unlike photography in its infancy. It is also worth noting that because paintings like these were in demand by foreigners, and generally produced exclusively for foreigners, relatively few are in the collections of Chinese museums today.[12]

I suspect we’ve had this box at NMH for quite a long time, and that the paintings haven’t seen the light of day in decades. They’re really beautiful in person, and well worth a visit, even in their rather compromised condition.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] The paintings (especially the seated man) remind me a bit of the work of Arthur Szyk, an early 20th century artist.

[2] DeCesare, L. (2011). The Pith Paper Collections of the Harvard University Botany Libraries. Botanical Artist, 17(2), 13. Nesbitt, M., Prosser, R., & Williams, I. (2010). Rice-Paper Plant – Tetrapanax Papyrifer: The Gauze of the Gods and its products. Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 27(1), 71.

[3] Green, F. H. (2014). Nineteenth Century Chinese Trade Paintings from the Sutro Orientalia Collection. California State Library Foundation Bulletin(110), 6.

[4] Thanks to Diana (Tingxuan) Zhu ’16 for teaching me about court dress and its symbolism.

[5] Williams, I. (2001). Views from the West—Chinese Pith Paper Paintings. Arts of Asia, 31(5), 141, 142.

[6] Interestingly, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum has collection of a dozen pith paintings called the “Officials and Boats” portfolio.

[7] Some of the depictions were definitely more romanticized than literal. Paintings of tea production, in particular, could be full of exaggeration and outright fantasy. For example, paintings of trained monkeys picking tea leaves for their owners gained some popularity. Supposedly the monkey’s owner would irritate the monkey by throwing stones at it from the ground, and the monkey would become so put out it would pull branches of tea leaves from the trees and hurl them to the ground in retaliation. Williams, I. (2008). Tea, Pith, and the Monkey Business. Magazine Antiques, 173(1), 188-190.

[8] Green, Chinese Trade Paintings, p. 4.

[9] Williams, Tea, Pith, and the Monkey Business, p. 187.

[10] Nesbitt et al., Rice-Paper Plant, p. 90.

[11] Williams, Views from the West, pp. 141-142.

[12] Green, Chinese Trade Paintings, p. 6.
Did You Know?

Can’t find a book or article that you’re looking for in Schauffler Library?

Have no fear!

We offer a service known as Interlibrary Loan that allows us to borrow material from other libraries for you to use.

This service is for members of the NMH community and is usually free of charge. For more details be sure to visit Schauffler Library’s Interlibrary Loan page.

To request a book or article through Interlibrary Loan follow these steps:

Step 1 - Goto the NMH Hub > Choose Library and Interlibrary Loan

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Step 2 - Choose the type of loan you are requesting - BOOK or PERIODICAL ARTICLE

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Step 3 - Fill out the google form and submit!

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As always, don't hesitate to contact a librarian if you have any questions: call 413-498-3484, or email

New Fiction at Schauffler Library

Hi All,

I’m Kendra, the public services librarian and this week I’m bringing you reviews of some of the new fiction books in our collection. Make sure to stop by the library and check out our collection.

The Girl on the Run

The Girl on the Run is the story about 15 year old Rylee. She is a self proclaimed liar. Her family has been on the run since she was a little girl. Every few months it seems, Rylee, her mother, step-father, and little brother Hayden pack up and move. Never the same place twice and never with advance warning. When the time comes for them to move, they simply throw names of different cities in a fishbowl and pull one out. Whatever is on that piece of paper is their new location. They change addresses, identities, and hair color. Rylee, who’s been told a vague explanation of her mom having a stalkerish ex-boyfriend, has never known the true reason for these moves… until now.
When she comes home to find her mother missing, her step-father murdered, and her little brother crying next to the body, she sees a message from her step-father in blood. It is the family’s secret code and it says RUN. Rylee sets off on a journey to find out her mother’s past, secure her little brother, and face the monster that the family has been running from her whole life… her birth father.
Gregg Olsen takes you on a spine tingling journey through the Northwest. Across a tiny island, Washington state, and Idaho, Rylee must follow the information her mother left her in a bid to save her mother, avenge her step-father, and protect her little brother. Rylee must do what no 15 year old should ever face… a fight that could leave those she loves dead.
I read this book in under three days. The drama, the intrigue, and the clues will keep you on the edge of your seat and make it hard to put down.

Prejudice & Pride
You know Darcy: rich, proud, disapproving, standoffish, Colin Firth-y in a wet shirt clinging to his chest. But you don’t know this Darcy because this Darcy is a woman.
Bennet Bethle knows Darcy, too—at least, the type. Working as a fundraiser for the Longbourn Collection, an art museum in Queens, he’s met a lot of condescending rich women. Intrigued by Darcy, Bennet finds himself watching her whenever she is around. He believes he has her all figured out. He knows exactly how this story goes.
But this story doesn’t quite go as it should. Despite her aloofness, Darcy’s own interest has been piqued by the irreverent Bennet. They are thrown together constantly thanks to her friend Charlotte “Bingley” Bingston, as she plans a ball at the Netherfield hotel to benefit the Longbourn Collection. Well, she is either planning a ball or hitting on his brother—it’s hard for Bennet to say. One thing, however, is crystal clear: He doesn’t like Darcy. And yet the more time they spend together, the more that theory changes.
This new twist on an old favorite was hard to put down. I read this book in under a week while reading chunks of the original. If you love classics, but wish them to be more modern and relevant to today’s time, then you can’t go wrong with Lynn Messina’s Prejudice & Pride.


Miles’s little brother Teddy is missing. The police believe he drowned at the beach—the very same day Miles had his first schizophrenic episode. But Miles knows better—Teddy is alive. Kidnapped. There was even a witness! Fueled by guilt, Miles sets off to rescue Teddy.
There is so much to overcome, though. The endless pills he must take. The girl who steals his heart and plays with it. The black crows that follow him.
As seen through Miles’s distorted perception, his world closes around him as he pushes to keep it open. What you think you know about his world is actually a blur of gray, though, and the sharp focus of reality proves startling.
The New York Times bestselling author offers a fascinating and ultimately quite hopeful story of one teen’s downward spiral into mental illness. ~Amazon Review
With Mental health Month approaching (May), this story gives an in-depth look at a teenager struggling with schizophrenia. While trying to figure out the mystery of his missing little brother, Miles must figure out what is real and what is not. He faces the usual teenage angst of girl problems, school, and peer pressure while also dealing with a mental illness that has others questioning his sanity. For those interested in mental health issues or just looking for a different teenage perspective, this book is a winner.

So stop by the library today and see our amazing fiction collection. And remember, if there’s a title you’re interested in, make sure to go to the Library spoke on the Hub and “Suggest A Purchase.”
The presidential candidates, in their own words

The U.S. presidential primary season is in full swing. If you'd like to get to know the major parties' candidates beyond the 30 second sound bites we're used to, stop by the library and pick up one of their books! The most recent titles by Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump are now on display in the center lobby.
Visiting poet workshops begin this weekend: Matthew Lippman

April is National Poetry Month, and the library is pleased to partner with English teacher Michelle Brown and the English Department to host a series of workshops led by exciting young poets who will be visiting campus this month.

This Sunday, April 3, the series kicks off with Matthew Lippman, the author of poetry collections American Chew (Burnside Review Press), Monkey Bars (Typecast) and The New Year of Yellow (Sarabonde Books), all on display in the library lobby. Matthew's work was included in The Best American Poetry of 1997. His poems have appeared widely in such journals as The American PoetryTin House, and Seneca Review. He has taught at the University of Iowa, Westchester Community College, Columbia University, Roslyn High School, and Beaver Country Day School. He holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa and an M.Ed. from Columbia University.

Workshop: What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?
Sunday, April 3, 2016
4:30-6:00 p.m.
Library Commons
Participants should bring notebooks and pens. Snacks/creativity fuel will be provided.

Workshop description:
Louis C.K. is funny.  Sarah Silverman is hysterical. So are Matthew Dickman and Dorothea Lasky and Alan Dugan and Tony Hoagland and Jennifer L. Knox.  The intersection between humor and verse is one that tickles the senses.  Humor serves two main purposes—it entertains the reader, and if the reader is entertained, the poet has done a great job at getting her audience involved with the poem.  Humor also allows us to be honest about difficult situations that we face every day.  In this workshop we will explore humor in poetry as a way of facing the demons and bringing the reader close, getting her involved with the poetry in a way that has more to do with the heart than the head.  We will be reading poems that deal with the difficulties of the human condition in a comical way and writing poems that use humor as the central driving force.