Making a Zhen Xian Bao/Chinese Thread Book: Part One

I first heard about the Chinese Thread Book from my sister-in-law in early February, 2013. Apparently textile collectors had known about them for some time before that, but this was probably about the time people in the book arts started to notice them. Her email mentioning them included a link to a textile forum with images like these:

I thought they looked interesting and might have potential as a book structure. I filed the idea away in the rather chaotic storage system that is my memory. The Chinese Thread Book started popping up more frequently on the internet about two years ago, with multiple websites either showing pictures from workshops or posting instructions.

Then, about two weeks ago, I was looking at Pinterest and spotted this:

a Zhen Xian Bao with its top pockets folded quite differently from the twist boxes I had seen previously.

I clicked on the image and was taken here where I found all the images replaced by the same message.

Not especially helpful.

Off I went, down a wormhole in the internet, looking for more information on the folding pattern.

I found images on sites in foreign languages with no instructions.

I found more images

that just led me to notices like this:

I did find a bit more useful information in a post by Paula Beardell Krieg. She had taken detailed photographs of a Chinese Thread Book belonging to Ed Hutchins.

One image in particular gave me more clues as to how the box was folded.

The hunt was still on.

(To be continued next week!)

In case that left you feeling a little frustrated (I certainly was!), I also started making my own Zhen Xian Bao, using starch-coated Indian cotton rag paper. Because the paper is fairly thick, I am doing twist boxes for the top layer rather than a more complicated fold.

The twist box is similar to the paper coin purse I posted in 2014. Having now looked at images of dozens —possibly hundreds?!— of Chinese Thread Books, it became apparent that the commonest method for constructing the twist box used two pieces of paper. I planned my boxes to be two inches on a side. You can download a pdf of my template here. You can either work from a printed copy or just use the pdf as a guide.

The first step is to cut and score the longer piece. Make sure all the folds are well pressed and sharp, as this will make collapsing the box easier.

Glue the long strip into a tube by attaching the tab at the right end of the strip to the left side of the strip. The easiest way to do this is to fold the strip in half at the middle, then fold the tab over. Glue the tab on the outside of the tube. After the glue is dry, twist the tube so that it folds flat. This is a bit tricky without a bottom attached, but it will work with a little patience. Set the box upside down on your work surface so that the tabs for attaching the bottom are visible.

Glue the tabs at the corners where they overlap (see yellow pointy finger), then —after checking that it fits, trimming if necessary— glue the bottom square to the tabs. Gently open the box immediately. If you leave the box closed and there has been any glue seepage, the box will be permanently glued shut. Here are my boxes drying.

Next week’s post will describe the successful conclusion of my hunt for the star fold box. I will also include instructions for several different styles of boxes that can be used for the  top layer of a Zhen Xian Bao, as well as information on making the boxes for the lower layers.

In other book arts news:

Another stage in the postcard swap has been completed. I am not showing the card so that it will be a surprise for the recipient, but I can show you the decorated envelope that it arrived in, along with some bonus goodies.

In other news:

The garden is doing well, though we did sustain a little hail damage in a recent thunderstorm.

Baby cucumber:

Baby corn:

Cousa getting too big:

Some of the volunteer sunflowers (self-seeded and bird-planted) at the north end of the garden were starting to shade other plants. I took this picture before David removed some of them.

The deer fence is eight feet tall, and some of the sunflowers are much taller! The cut ones have not gone to waste: David mulched the stems and brought the best of the flowers in. Here’s one of the two large bouquets.









About Byopia Press

I have been working in the book arts field for more than thirty years, and operating Byopia Press with my husband David since the late 1990s. I began producing artist's books and altered books in 2004. I also create prints and drawings that are frequently text-inspired or text-based.
This entry was posted in artist's books, book arts, Design, instructions, moveable books and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Making a Zhen Xian Bao/Chinese Thread Book: Part One

  1. Looking forward to hearing about your search! Sounds like exactly what I went through.. am at the edge of my seat wondering if we both found the same sources.

    About the twist box: looking at the photos in Ruth Smith’s book, it looks like this two-piece method you are showing is the traditional method of construction. I personally don’t like making tabs, so doing it as a one, not two, piece construction is my preference. I really like that there doesn’t seem to be any one absolutely authentic Chinese Thread Book, thus we’re all given the freedom to personalize our decisions according to our own whim and aesthetic. And those of us with bookmaking skills, well, it feels like this structure is a great playground.

    I am excited to be following your exploration of this structure!


    • Byopia Press says:

      As far as I can tell from having looked at dozens of images of the insides of Chinese Thread Books, they were frequently constructed using an absolute minimum of materials, and the tabbed structure is extremely common. Recycling appears to have been common as well: the second image in today’s post shows a Zhen Xian Bao made from cigarette packages!
      It would also appear that as well as regional variations in overall style, structures were determined by the individual so there are almost as many variations as there are books! Even ones that look superficially the same may have differences in the number of boxes, the number of layers, the depth to which the boxes open, the style of the top boxes, the material of the outer wrapper, the style of decoration, … Some variations may have been purely personal preference, others determined by what materials were available.

      I figure if you are making one for yourself, you can do whatever you like! ; ]


      • I love what you’re saying here, especially about there seeming to be almost as many variation as there are books! This fact gives us, the makers of our own books,, the directive to make our decisions. I think what I respond to the most about this structure is that balance between its own rigorous logic and personal whims & whimsy. Oh,and all with a regard to what materials are available, which is easy to forget when we are lucky enough to have so many choices of paper to use. I’ve been having fun using both precious papers and found papers, but, honestly, I doubt i will make any our of cigarette packages, even though the one you showed above looks just fine.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. wendyfe says:

    That is an ingenious new (to me) little box structure, Cathryn! I love the thread book and would like to make more. I used the Ruth Smith instrutions last time. Thank you for all the pics, too.


  3. Hilke says:

    I think I saw instructions for it somewhere… Don’t quite remember. Might be, that I am remembering not the twist box but the actual instructions you posted before, but will have a look as soon as I can. I know that I was intrigued by the thread boxes since I first saw them. And I do seem to remember I gave up when I saw the instructions, and they went on, and on, and on. – I am no good at origami, and these are too much like origami to me. But maybe I was wise enough to print them off. Maybe I’ll get a chance to search through my folder this weekend.


  4. Pingback: Making a Zhen Xian Bao/Chinese Thread Book: Part Two | Byopia Press

  5. Cathryn,

    Looking forward to reading the other parts of this post. I so enjoyed your sense of humour and info. Looks like your garden is as wonderful as last year.


    • Byopia Press says:

      Hope you enjoy the rest as much! And there’s nothing better for a productive garden than enough rain at the right times and lots of heat, both of which we have had this summer. We are giving away zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes.


  6. Pingback: Revisiting the Zhen Xian Bao: Part 2 | Byopia Press

  7. Pingback: Byopia Press 2018 Advent Calendar: Day Nine and a Menko Card | Byopia Press

  8. Pingback: Byopia Press 2018 Advent Calendar: Day Eighteen and Four Versions of A Twist-Close Box | Byopia Press

  9. Pingback: Little Projects | Byopia Press

  10. Pingback: Notes from Beyond – Playful Bookbinding and Paper Works

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.