Legends of the Mustered Seed Garden

In our collection of painting manuals you will easily find three volumes of a painting book, named Jie Zi Yuan, the mustered seed garden. These books are listed as a must learn manual because since publishing it has influenced the mass public for generations. Over the 300 years of its existence, all the legendary painters have studied it and subsequently recommended it. We know that this set of books was meant as a self-learning painting guide, with a great number of examples. But this book eventually became the ultimate guide for self-taught students of many trades: sculpture, ceramics, dye, textile, gardening, etc. The original copy was colored, and volumes include landscape, flower-bird and four gentlemen. There are quite a few later reprints, but the quality deteriorated slowly, and there are others who added figure painting volume to this set, in order to complete its coverage.

Furthermore, this legendary set of book is significant in the wide oriental painting world – its impact reached far beyond the borders of China – Korea and Japan are both deeply influenced by it. Japan has already imported it by 1712, and from the famous Ukiyo-e we can still perceive of the long-lasting charms from these books.

Li Yu, the composer of the book, named it after his garden, Jie Zi Yuan. The legends of these painting manuals barely count as the tip of the iceberg of the legends of this man.

The restored Jie Zi Yuan

Li was born in the late Ming Dynasty, but before he could enter the society the country disappeared, the Qing Dynasty came into being, and for a Ming social elite this meant the end. Most educated people in his situation would choose to retreat to the countryside and lead a hermit life away from the crowd – not Li. He moved to one of the biggest cities where he became a playwright, correction, a famous playwright with a great number of fans.

Statue of Li Yu

The stories that Li created were fascinating and addictive, they were legendary. Most of his stories involved love plots, which is still one of the best selling categories today! His stories were rather ahead of its time, the many twists and unbelievable reveals deeply engaged the mass public – a much bigger cohort than the social elites who read serious articles. Take an example of his stories, in one of them he told of two sister-like best friends who lived together, wore the same outfits and eventually married the same man – his imaginations are rather bold in fact, even by today’s standard.

Soon however, he started to notice a huge problem of piracy, illegal copies appeared faster than bamboo shoots. His solution was rather comic in the end, after trying many methods to protect his own rights, he started reporting piracy to the authorities before the new book released onto the market. Apparently with the authorities already looking for the copycats, his new books were finally protected.

Plays at the new Jie Zi Yuan

His legacies on the book reviews affect our modern lives – Journey to the West, Three Kingdoms, The Dreams of the Red Chambers and All Men Are Brothers (some translated into Heroes of the Marsh), the four classics were appointed by him. With his success in literature, he decided to purchase a garden and make a collection of painting books, the famous Jie Zi Yuan painting books were born. In this garden he also directed and hosted many theater plays, and the glory of Jie Zi Yuan lived until the end of his life. Perhaps his own life story could make a great legendary novel after all!

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