I can’t believe my good luck.
I’ve been reading about the Chinese Thread Book, devouring anything in print that I could find about it, scouring the internet then just thinking about and trying to make sense of this structure. It didn’t even occur to me that I might actually get my hands on an authentic Zhen Xian Bao.
This is how it happened. I wanted to share what I’ve been studying with book artist Ed Hutchins. When he told me that he wasn’t familiar with what I was talking about I drove to his house and dropped off Ruth Smith’s book on the subject. then received this mysterious message a few days later. Ed wrote: ” LOVED THE BOOK. I devoured it cover to cover. I’m going to try to find my zhen xian bao before you get back. keep your fingers crossed…” then a day or two later “You won’t believe this: I found the sewing kit book–AND you are going to love it!”
Turns out that even though Ed had no idea of what I was talking about, once he saw the Ruth Smith book those memory gears kicked in, and he suspected that something he had in storage, might be of interest to me. Turns out he had, many years ago, bought this item on Ebay, without knowing what it was. When he asked the seller about it, well, the seller didn’t know anything much about it either. Ed suspects that this thread book was part of an estate that was being sold off.
Looking under the flap of the square boxes with the star on top readily reveals that this box is an embellished masu box.
There are a few things about this masu box that I’ve deemed particularly noteworthy. The first is that the green and red backgrounds of the star shapes are not hand colored, rather, these are colored papers that are adhered to the masu-box paper. The star motif is also decorated with collaged bits of colored papers. The other detail that I thought was interesting is that the masu boxes were made from a lighter weight paper than all the rest of the boxes in this thread book.
Okay, so there’s 16 square boxes, each two of which reveal a box underneath, so, between just the first and second layers there’s 24 boxes.
There’s some precise folding going on with these rectangular trays, but it’s also clear that it’s not what we think of as origami. Its been my impression that the rectangular trays traditionally are more like simple folded templates, but I will continue to make mine with origami methods for the reasons I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The decision mostly has to do with the paper. Oh, and it’s the paper in this book that makes it most convincing to me that this Zhen Xian Bao was made in China. The paper is thin, strong, and has an uneven texture. It’s certainly handmade paper, and it’s not like paper I’ve seen. Actually, this paper’s closest counterpart in my paper stash is the common grocery bag (though I am sure that this similarity is purely cosmetic!).
Next layer down! Here, each set of four top boxes pull away from each other. Now the count is up to 28 boxes.
Please excuse the purple straw holding the next layer open. Now we’re up to 30 boxes. If you are confused by the count, remember that each set of boxes has a symmetrically placed counterpart, so this open box on the right side is mirrored, but currently hidden, on the left.
Finally, here’s the Big Box layer. There are some major tears in the part of this box that articulate the spine. With the big box, there;s a total of 31 individual compartments in this book.
A secret is revealed on the big box layer that I loved seeing…. one thing that bothered me about this structure was the cover. Although there are no rock-solid rules for the cover of the Chinese Thread Book, I found the cover of this one to be somewhat out of place. But at the edges of the material that covers the big box there’s a hint of something different.
Look, at the head of the box there’s an indigo pattern on material that is underneath the red cover paper.
There it is again, at the tail edge of the box. The red cover was somehow added on, over the original indigo cover, which is a color that makes more sense for this book. Maybe the original cover was damaged and a seller thought to recover the book to make it more sale-able?
I kind of plan on kind of replicating this book using my own methods. Using the measurement methods I’ve been writing about, the only measurement I will need to replicate this book is the diagonal measurement of the square that is made with the 2 x 2 square of the top-tier of boxes.
That’s it. Now I better get this book of boxes back to Ed before I get too used to having it here.
Here’s a map of China from Ruth Smith‘s book Zhen Xian Bao: a Little Known Chinese Folk Art. I am impressed by how few places these zhen xian bao have been found.