The shop was founded in 1672, under the original name of Songzhuhai (meaning “The Sea of Pines and Bamboos”). For a long time, the shop had used to be the exclusive supplier of writing paper used in imperial civil service examinations. It changed into its present name of Rongbaozhai (meaning “Taking pride in dealing in art treasures) in 1894, and thrived under the new manager Mr. Zhuang Huchen. It survived the turmoil of invasion and occupation by the Eight-Power Allied Forces in the incident of 1900~1901, in which Zhuang negotiated with the German invaders and managed to protect the whole Liulichang Street.
The shop developed to be the most prosperous store on the Street in the first half of the 20th century, and opened branches in Nanjing and Shanghai. However, as eastern China fell to the Japanese invasion forces in 1937, most of its stock was lost due to pillage, and Rongbaozhai ran into heavy debts, merely surviving on the brink of bankruptcy. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the shop was reorganized, thanks to wide support from the cultural circles, and became a public-private joint ownership enterprise, bringing the shop back on the right track.
With centuries of business dealing in collection and exchanges of arts items, Rongbaozhai has made a unique contribution to Chinese traditional arts. It is an influential collector and exhibitor of art treasures, many of which of Yuan, Ming or Qing Dynasties origin. Modern artists and literati would take it as an arts salon. It helped some artists rise to fame. For example, renowned modern painter Qi Baishi was ignored at the beginning, but had his artistic talents discovered by Rongbaozhai’s manager Wang Rensheng who promoted his works cordially, and gained fame gradually.
And furthermore, Rongbaozhai further developed woodblock watercolor printing, a technique listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Beijing. The consummate skills of Rongbaozhai masters enable precious Chinese paintings to be reproduced with such an accuracy that the reproductions look almost genuine.
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