Since the early 20th century, Grinnellians have travelled to China for study and teaching and have invited Chinese colleagues to Iowa; since 1987 the College has had an active partnership with Nanjing University.
This fall, three woodblock printing masters from the Yangzhou Block Printing Museum spent 10 days in the Faulconer Gallery demonstrating different processes involved in woodblock printing and sharing Chinese culture with college and high school students, faculty, staff, and community members. Their visit was put together by Professor Emeritus Andrew Hsieh, the Center for International Studies, and Lesley Wright, director of the Faulconer Gallery, as part of the programming for the exhibition From the Book Forest: Commercial Publishing in Late Imperial China.
Chinese woodblock printing for books involves creating a relief image of an entire page by carving characters into blocks of wood, inking them, and using the wooden block to print copies on rice and other paper.
Each workshop, which took place next to From the Book Forest, involved a discussion of the processes and included optional hands-on participation. Leading audiences right to left, the translator shared a bit about the process and allowed participants’ questions to guide the talks.
The masters’ final projects were distributed to observers and volunteers. Toby Cain ’12 said, “I have the print he [Master Hou] made and the one I helped make. The translator said the master wanted me to share one with a friend so I’m going to send it to my friend at Columbia.”
Mona Ghadiri ’11 sat down with their interpreter, Cathy Zhang, lecturer and interpreter in the Department of Applied Foreign Language Studies, Nanjing University, for a short interview:
MG: How does the woodblock printing process work?
CZ: There are three parts. First, there is a calligrapher that painstakingly copies the text onto grid-lined paper. The paper is then pasted to a woodblock made from a pear tree, where the next craftsman cuts the characters into the wood. The third and final part involves the inking and printing process. The third craftsman paints the ink onto the woodblock with a special brush made of palm fiber, lines up the paper, and creates the relief image.
MG: What kind of training did these masters go through?
CZ: They have dedicated their entire lives to woodblock printing. For example, the woodcutter spent a whole year just cutting straight lines.
MG: None of the masters speak English. How have they communicated with visitors besides using your translations?
CZ: They rely on a lot of really basic gestures to convey their messages. It actually works decently well. It takes perseverance, but I saw a student who knew no Chinese bind a book while getting only this kind of instruction, and he did a lovely job.
Tad Boehmer ’12 was that student. He worked with the printer to create his own book, which he took with him after the workshop. “It [the workshop] was great because it was hands-on and I got to take the final project home.”
The masters also taught students as part of a three-week short course, Introduction to the Chinese Book, taught by Dr. Deborah Rudolph of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library at University of California-Berkeley and curator of the Faulconer exhibition. In the course, students learned about the origins and history of books in the Eastern tradition, from scratchings on oracle bones to typeset printing. They spent their second week of class dedicating a day to each part of the woodblock printing process.
Cain said, “Grinnell is extraordinary lucky to have the resources to bring artists like this to campus. I don’t think would I be able to interact with a master Chinese craftsman in any other sphere of my life. I wish I spoke Chinese so I could’ve told them, ‘Thank you.’”
by Mona Ghadiri '11