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Archive: Tôshisen ehon (Illustrated Selected Tang poems)

Tôshisen ehon (Illustrated Selected Tang Poems: 唐詩選画本), complete series of 35 volumes in 7 sets by (1) Sekihô Tachibana, (2) Suzuki Fuyô, (3) Takada Enjô, (4) Kitao Shigemasa, (5) Komatsubara Suikei, and (6-7) Katsushika Hokusai
Ehon ehn01
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Sûzanbô 嵩山房 (Suwaraya Shinbei; also Kobayashi Shinbei)
(H x W)
Ehon (illustrated books in 35 volumes)
Each book (closed): 22.8 x 15.7 mm
Very good
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Woodblock-printed books featuring images of Chinese figures and landscapes were published throughout the Tokugawa-period (1615-1868), with the most popular enjoying widespread,extended distribution. This was especially true for Tôshisen ehon (Illustrated Selected Tang Poems: 唐詩選画本) issued by Sûzanbô (Suwaraya Shinbei or Kobayashi Shinbei) in Edo between 1788 and 1836. The initial version of this poetry collection was "Selected Tang poems" (Jp: Tôshisen; Ch: T'ang-shih-hsüan), a bilingual anthology first published without images in 1724 by Sûzanbô. Numerous reprints followed in editions of 2,000-3,000 copies each. In Edo's Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, courtesans were said to display copies as evidence of their literacy. A senryû (satirical poem generally in haiku form) about the Ôgiya brothel in the Yoshiwara reads, "For visiting the Ôgiya, I studied Selected Tang Poems (Ôgiya e ikunode Tôshisen narai).

The same publisher released illustrated editions, seven sets in all, each composed of five volumes, with illustrations by six Japanese artists, one for each set except for Katsushika Hokusai, who designed the last two sets. There is a confusing array of reported publication dates, no doubt complicated by discrepancies among surviving prefaces, postscripts, and colophons. The earliest dates reported by researchers are as follows: Sekihô Tachibana, Set 1, 1788; Suzuki Fuyô, Set 2, 1789(90?); Takada Enjô, Set 3, 1791; Kitao Shigemasa, Set 4, 1793; Komatsubara Suikei, Set 5, 1832; and Katsushika Hokusai, Sets 6–7, 1833 and 1836.

As the various worn-out, well-thumbed copies still circulating today indicate, Tôshisen ehon reached a large audience through book sales and kashihonya (lending libraries: 貸本屋). The style of figure drawing differs among the volumes. Tachibana Sekihô (dates unconfirmed; act. late eighteenth century) might have copied Chinese originals. Suzuki Fuyô (1749‐1816) was a Nanga artist who studied Chinese Yuan and Ching painting and served the daimyô of Awa. He also happened to be one of Tani Bunchô's (1763–1840) teachers. Enjô (dates unknown) had Kanô training. Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) was a well-known ukiyo-e artist who produced idiosyncratic Chinese-style designs. Komatsubara Suikei (1780[1]–1833) specialized in figure painting in the Chinese manner. The versatile Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) applied his distinctive Chinese-style idiom to his compositions. The Tôshisen series constitutes an impressive visual survey of Chinese figures, landscapes, and poetic themes.


There are between 13 and 18 sheets per volume, with many illustrations covering two pages. (For example, in Set 6 by Hokusai, among its 5 volumes, there are a total of 42 single-page and 13 double-page illustrations.) Some images are accompanied by texts, some stand alone without text, and some pages are text-only. Colophons and Prefaces are intact, and poems and commentaries appear throughout.

Overall, all volumes are clean with minimal or no finger soiling in the lower corners. All volumes, as is common for ehon of this period, have occasional minor marks or inherent paper imperfections. Each volume is side-stitched (fukurotoji) in the traditional manner, but with later binding threads (again, very common for 18th–19th century ehon). As always with this type of ehon, the paper is thin, so vestiges of designs from opposite sides of each folded sheet show faintly through. This is considered part of the aesthetic of ehon and is entirely acceptable as being intrinsic to the medium of traditional ehon production.

Notably, Set 1 by Sekihô has a rare and exceptionally well-preserved fukuro (袋) or wrapper 1. Set 3 by Takada also retains its rare original wrapper 2, but a previous (19th-C.?) collector has pasted it to a hard-cover fitted with a clasp.

The inscriptions visible at the far right and left edges of the linked images below include page numbers, the publisher's name (Sûzanbô: 嵩山房), title (Tôshisen ehon, Illustrated Selected Tang Poems: 唐詩選画本), and subtitles (for example, Hokusai's 1833 set reads gogonritsu, Five-word verse forms: 五言律, and his 1836 set reads shichigonritsu, Seven-word verse forms: 七言律). All of this information is repeated vertically along the outside edges of the folds of every page.

Click on the links below for additional images:

  • Sekihô Tachibana, Set 1, 1788: Very good impressions and condition (early impression; exceptional example with the original wrapper in fine condition)
    Sekiho 1    Sekiho 2    Sekiho 3
  • Suzuki Fuyô, Set 2, 1789(90?): Very good impressions, good to very good condition (slight wear to covers; slight insect damage in vols. 2-3; sumi ink stain in gutter of vol. 5)
    Suzuki 1    Suzuki 2    Suzuki 3
  • Takada Enjô, Set 3, 1791: Good impression and clean interior condition (title-slips faded; covers slightly soiled, moisture stains; large insect track on the edges of some pages in vol. 1 only; original wrapper cut and pasted on hard cover fitted with a clasp fastener)
    Takada 1    Takada 2    Takada 3
  • Kitao Shigemasa, Set 4, 1793: Good impressions and clean interior condition (somewhat later printing with slight block wear; covers slightly soiled)
    Shigemasa 1    Shigemasa 2    Shigemasa 3
  • Komatsubara Suikei, Set 5, 1832: Very good impression, good condition (small paper flaws, light creases on some pages; covers slightly worn; title slips partly faded)
    Komatsubara 1    Komatsubara 2    Komatsubara 3
  • Katsushika Hokusai, Set 6, 1833: Good impressions, clean interior condition (slight wormage in margins one vol.; title slips faded and one missing from vol. 4)
    Hokusai 1    Hokusai 2    Hokusai 3    Hokusai 4    Hokusai 5
  • Katsushika Hokusai, Set 7, 1836: Very good impression and clean interior condition (no damages internally; very slight wear and soil to title slips on covers)
    Hokusai 6    Hokusai 7    Hokusai 8    Hokusai 9    Hokusai 10

Of course, the most sought-after volumes in Tôshisen ehon are Hokusai's sets 6 and 7 (10 vols. total). Hokusai sketched the Chinese figures in a manner similar to those in his extended Suikoden ehon series of 1805–1836. Nevertheless, all 35 volumes together, spanning half a century of publication, comprise a fascinating compilation of numerous images in a variety of idiomatic interpretations.

Other impressions of Tôshisen ehon are in the British Museum; Museum of Fine Art, Boston; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, Waseda University


  • Jack Hillier, The Art of Hokusai in Book Illustration. Berkeley: Sotheby Parke Bernet and University of California Press, 1980, p. 234 and p. 720.
  • H. Kerlen, Catalogue of Pre-Meiji Japanese Books and Maps in Publis Collections in the Netherlands. Amsterdam: Gieben, Publisher, 1996, pp. 742-744
  • C. H. Mitchell, Illustrated Books of the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijô, and Other Related Schools of Japan. Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1972, p. 536