The ancient art of wood block printing

Two visits to places preserving Chinese block printing

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 am

 

In the past week, we've had the chance to visit two places where the focus is on preserving and maintaining the ancient tradition of Chinese woodblock printing.  Since at least the Tang dynasty (almost 2000 years ago), the Chinese have used woodblocks to print documents, books, posters and images--a much more efficient process than hand-drawn calligraphy for producing multiple copies.  While the creation of the woodblocks themselves is just as laborious, the block can then be preserved and used for centuries if properly stored.

The China Block Printing Museum in the city of Yangzhou (yong jo) was founded in the 1950s, but moved to a beautiful new purpose-built museum just a few years ago.  It shares the building with the Yangzhou Museum and is based to 300,000 woodblocks amassed by the Guangling Press of Yangzhou.  The displays include woodblocks, books produced from the blocks, information on the printing process, and an impressive open storage area housing the blocks themselves. 

Downstairs in an atrium, under a skylight, the Museum presents ongoing demonstrations of the woodblock process.  The entire process requires about 18 steps--we saw 5 steps.  On thin vertically lined paper, a man copyied out the text to be printed, using extremely fine calligraphy.  Modern Chinese is written horizontally, left to right, just like Western text.  But traditional texts are still written top to bottom, right to left.  The paper is then pasted face down onto a woodblock.  Wild pear wood makes the best blocks.  They are very durable, but soft enough to take the ink.

The carver carves around each character until it is raised above the surrounding wood.  He carves out the vertical lines as well, so that they will print.  Watching him work was extraordinary (as was the calligraphy).  His hands were so deft as he did intricate work with a very sharp knife.  There is no room for error in this work, and takes years to master.

Once the block is completed, it is inked using a big stiff brush.  Ink is brushed liberally over the surface, then the printer lays a piece of paper on top of the block and rubs it several times with a wooden block padded by layers of large leaves.  The print is pulled off the block and set aside to dry.  Later the pages are collated, stacked, folded, trimmed, covered and hand-bound.

At the Jinling Buddhist Publishing House (aka Buddhist Canon Publishing House), an oasis in the middle of high-rise Nanjing, a small staff preserves this process at a living museum.  In a beautiful old compound, using blocks that are 150 years old, they continue to produce Buddhist texts using the traditional methods, which they feel are closer to the tenants of Buddhist practice.  The director gave us a wonderful tour, including a visit to the storage room where they keep 120,000 blocks, neatly organized by book.  We saw two women pulling pages off the woodblocks, taking less than 10 seconds to print each page.  A woodcarver was creating a new block to replace an old one damaged or lost.  And 9 women were collating, stacking, folding and binding the books, which are then sold to Buddhist sites around China (and the world).

Jinling is so important that the Japanese government paid to rebuild it after the Japanese occupation forces during WW II destroyed it.  And during the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party stopped the destruction of the wood blocks by the Red Guard.  They are too important to the heritage of China even for those difficult times.  Even so, 30,000 blocks were lost.  The director estimates it would take 10 carvers 100 years to replace them.

These visits help bring alive an exhibition we are planning on the rise of commercial printing in China from the Ming and Qing eras.  We will be working with the museum in Yangzhou to bring people to Grinnell to demonstrate this process, and I now know how exciting it will be to add their expertise to our exhibition.