In February every year, people in Suzhou begin to think about when and whether their plum blossoms have bloomed into a fragrant sea of candid blossoms, almost like snowy peaks.
I’ve been to this city several times.
Just as its name suggests, the flowers overlooking its many hills resemble fresh snow, except that they radiate an elegant and powerful fragrance, unlike the calm and pure snow.
I thought that this appreciation I have for plum blossoms, could maybe represent the pursuit of the elegant Suzhou lifestyle, or so I thought. But everything changed when I received a book of poems about plum blossoms, called “Poems in Fragrant Snowy Sea”.
It is a collection of poems on the First Fragrant Snowy Sea Poetry Slam.
As said by the Editor-in-Chief Fan Xiaoqing of this book, it is an encounter between poems and plum blossoms, an extraordinary combination of vivid emotions of the present and past, connected by the beauty of plum blossoms. Poems and plum blossoms together. A truly beautiful thing.
What strikes me most though, is not one poem or one picture, but the book itself. Especially its manufacturing.
When I saw the book, I was attracted at first by the color of its cover. The white of the ground is highlighted with a deep blue, which looks like the bluish violet of the “blueing paper” of my childhood. This is the outcome of a creative idea by the designer Zhou Chen, who uses the Chinese traditional printing technology to render this subtle effect of this cyanotype on paper.
With the development of digital printing technology, the traditional craftsmanship has become gradually obsolete. It took him almost two months to find the right blueprint machine, in an old man’s house in Suzhou. “This is what I’d like to have, except the color of each picture, which is not easy to balance, is different each time you print it with this machine”, a quote by Zhou about its printing process.
Zhou recalled that when he took its artistic job in 1992, he started by drawing sketches in a design company. He drew on parchment paper first and then had to print it since there were no computers nor any digital printing technologies. At his house, there is still a copybook of plum blossoms from the 1980s, which was also printed by the technology he recalls. So, when he was invited to design the cover for the collection of Poems in Fragrant Snowy Sea, he found an innovative way through the traditional copybook and his own experience working. The main illustrations in the book are not photography works like you see nowadays, they are traditional Chinese paintings of plum blossoms done by a Suzhou painter: Su Wen.
“Poetry is an art belonging to time itself. I hope to reflect the concept of time in this book, and express the poetic realm created by the visual beauty and the special design of the cyanotype photographic printing process. If this printing technology disappears someday, the book will be an extinct one, only recorded in history.
Time is an important concept in books. It can be found almost in all the kinds of books he designed and in many of the most beautiful books in China, including Suzhou Water, Unique Zhouzhuang, Taichou Town Veins, Yangcheng Notes, Lingering Garden Impression, Ink Engraving of Cold Glacier, and Cold Glacier.
The paper of the book “Portrayal of Old Businesses in Jiangsu”, selected as the most beautiful book of 2019, is from the kind of paper used to pack snacks in the old shops,rough, crispy and bound by paper nails. The page numbers are the rarely-seen Suzhou numerals, traditionally used by shopkeepers to mark prices.
Though the book looks extremely rough and rustic, it feels like an original beauty. For example, the paper nails on the cover used to be hidden underneath, but they now become a special decoration of the book, like withered and everlasting flowers.
Zhou Chen was born in Suzhou.
The books he designed are also romantic and graceful due to his scholar’s style. In the binding form of the book “Cold Glacier”, he made use of the assembling style of a traditional painting album page, complete with a traditional bookmark, which makes the reading experience more elegant almost like a ritual.
When he took this book to participate in an exhibition called “Infinite Books” during the Milan Design Week, an exhibition planner said he could feel a sensation of infinite wonder, a connection with time and space only by looking and feeling the book.
In his eyes, a book is like a movie or a drama. The words and pictures are the clues. The reading process is full of rhymes, and different spacings have different functions.
“If paper books were the same as before, they would be no different than digital books. Paper books are the symbol of a time passed. They are not just mundane publications. We should broaden our horizons and place them in the dimension of our ever changing time and space, that is when we’ll be able to find the best observing point to appreciate their art”.
When I take the book of “Poems in Fragrant Snowy Sea” in my hand and touch the pages of blue paper, it seems that the persevering plum blossoms are blooming through the long scrolls of time, tender, but full of strength.