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China Engraved Block Printing Technique

Last updated by peggie at 2015/5/23

Block printing, or woodblock printing as it is more generally called, originated – as did many of mankind's other cultural "firsts" – in ancient China. It should come as no surprise that a feat such as woodblock printing would come from China, given the advanced stage of development of ancient China compared to most of the other contemporaneous (roughly from the year zero to the Renaissance period in the West) parts of the world. When you think about it, woodblock printing has to be one of those "Why didn't I think of that?!" kind of inventions; one truly wonders why it wasn't hit upon much earlier than it was, at least for the reproduction of books.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, for example, books were copied, by hand, by scribes (generally monks), and although such a copy would today fetch a very handsome price, it was an extremely inefficient way in its day to mass-produce books – or any printed material, for that matter. Yet, woodblock printing wasn't invented for the purpose of printing text – it was in fact first used to print an image on textiles (a drawing of a flower or an insect, a geometrical design, etc.), i.e., as a decoration for, for example, women's apparel.

It was only later that someone got the bright idea of creating a woodblock containing text, and even then, the Chinaman who got this bright idea combined only small amounts of text with large amounts of imagery – typically a drawing or a design that was adorned with a short religious proverb, or precept. It was much, much later that the notion of using the woodblock as an instrument for printing primarily text – from pamphlets to books, and perhaps adorned with small amounts of imagery – arose in China, whereas in Europe, where the woodblock had been introduced by Arabs (although it is overwhelmingly improbable, given China's 7th century CE invention of the woodblock and given the Arab traffic along the Silk Road, that the Arabs hit upon the concept of the woodblock independently of China – yet, the cylindrical seal, in essence, a principle almost identical to the woodblock, was in use in Mesopotamia as early as BCE 3000... see below), the woodblock, once adopted, was used extensively for the purpose of printing texts of varying lengths, including books.

Your kids will love to see the Terracotta Army!

It is important to note that writing by freehand on any number of materials – from animal bones (large, flat shoulder blades of oxen) and turtle shells (the ancient custom of recording data on animal bones and shells, the first media to be used for any kind of writing in early China, is called "oracle bone" writing), to baked clay and wood planks, to palm leaves and silk, to coarse paper made of hemp (Cannabis sativa) fibers and smooth, quality paper made of mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) fibers (the latter being T'sai Lun's CE 105 Chinese invention that revolutionized the art of papermaking) – and in a variety of formats – from flat "leaves" (shoulder blade pieces from oxen, baked clay tablets, wood plank sections, palm leaves, squares of silk, hemp paper and mulberry paper) – go back to the beginning of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, if not to the close of the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty.

Moreover, it is important to note that the art of bookmaking (NB: the publishing, not the mafioso, variant!) in China lies somewhere in between the custom of freehand writing on the various media described above and the invention of the woodblock (much closer to the former, in fact). The art of bookmaking involved assembling "leaves" (as described above) in one fashion or another (the "leaves" were either tied together or were placed inside a two-sided covering that was secured with, say, pegs and looped string), even if the much-later-to-come woodblock printing on T'sai Lun's high-quality mulberry paper first appeared as a scroll (the reason for the latter is, curiously, that high-quality mulberry paper was too fine, too delicate to be "bound" by the imported Indian pothi (fanjia zhuang, in Chinese) method, whereby thick, tough "leaves" were tied together with a piece of string that was run through one or more holes through the margin, or edge, of the "leaf").

A pothi style book may or may not have had a protective covering. The purpose of the string that held the "leaves" together was to prevent the "leaves" from being misplaced or lost, not for the purpose of "paging" the book as we know it today, though, if the connecting loop is tied loose enough, paging is of course possible; the reader most likely untied the bundle of "leaves", then read the "leaf" or "leaves" of interest before stringing them up again. The famous walled-up library of the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang in Gansu Province that yielded up a treasure trove of ancient printed manuscripts had countless books and manuscripts that were "bound" in the pothi style.

The first all-text woodblock prints in China were apparently tiny mini-texts (fortune-cookie length religious proverbs and the like, in scroll form) that were worn as charms by devout believers. It is not surprising that color was used also in the printing of paper texts, since some of the earliest extant examples of woodblock printing on textiles are multi-colored. For example, the earliest surviving Chinese example of a multi-colored printed text is the Diamond Sutra, printed in two colors (red and black ink) at Zifu Temple, Hubei Province, in CE 1341.*

The first Chinese example of an illustrated book printed in three colors – red, black and white (the mulberry paper itself could be white, but was typically, as here, light brown, while most that have survived have become at least medium brown) – was made on the order of the famous Italian Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). Ricci presented the book, printed in 1606 and known as the Chengshi moyuan ("Ink Garden of the Cheng Family"), to his friend and master ink-cake maker, Cheng Dayue. The Chengshi moyuan, which was a eulogy to the ink-cake-making skills of Cheng Dayue, included a number of Biblical illustrations from the Gospels (i.e., the New Testament). The Jesuits of China would become avid disseminators of books and leaflets printed by means of the woodblock method.

As will be seen below – and for reasons explained there – the Chinese bookmaker stuck with the woodblock method long after moveable type was introduced in China in CE 1041 (i.e., Bi Sheng's baked clay moveable type), and even after Gutenberg had invented his famous-to-be printing press.

The Methods Of Woodblock Printing

Woodblock printing involves carving an impression (a reverse impression, where text is concerned, i.e., "q" instead of "p", "d" instead of "b", etc.) "in relief" of the images and text to be reproduced, by which is meant that areas that are intended to be white are cut away, leaving the remaining raised impression to receive the ink that will be applied to the carved woodblock, to be thereafter transferred to the cloth or paper printing medium (note that intaglio printing is just the opposite: the carved out parts/ depressions receive the ink ("pools" of ink of varying size), which is then transferred to the print medium). There are two general methods of transferring the woodblock impression to the textile or paper medium, which corrrespond to 'bringing the mountain to Mohammed' or 'bringing Mohammed to the mountain': stamping or rubbing, respectively.

Stamping, as the name suggests, is the technique of pressing (stamping) the ink-wetted woodblock to the desired medium, in much the same way that a modern rubber stamp transfers its impression to a sheet of paper (or to the back of your hand at a rock festival). The typical Chinese woodblock method seems not to have been stamping, though small stamps used to mark the seal of the "king" (emperor or pharaoh) on "documents" (anything that could receive an image, such as wood or clay plates) were used in ancient China as well as in ancient Egypt, and predate the use of the woodblock as we conventionally know it.

Rubbing is the method of placing the medium just above the ink-wetted woodblock, affixing, or framing, the medium rigidly vis-à-vis the woodblock, then gently rubbing the medium against the ink-wetted surface of the woodblock underneath it. The instrument used for rubbing needed to be smooth, and ideally slightly rounded, at least on two opposing sides if one wished to agitate the rubbing instrument from side to side (think of, for example, the back side of a thick, wooden spoon), but "rubbing" need not be interpreted literally, for any implement – such as a felt-covered block of wood that has been rounded on one side (think of the blotter used to absorb the excess ink from a regent's signature via a gentle rocking motion)– that can roll, or rock over the backside of the paper, pressing the affixed paper against the ink-wetted surface of the woodblock, will achieve the same result.

This latter variant to the rubbing method is the principle behind the cylindrical seal whose surface corresponds to the specially carved woodblock. Here, the ink-wetted cylinder is rolled, as a variant to the stamping method, over a sheet of paper, and the image is thus neatly transferred to the print medium. Cylinder seals designed to roll an image (an impress) onto clay tablets were used in ancient Mesopotamia as early as BCE 3000, possibly predating even the first Chinese woodblock. However, Mesopotamian cylinder seals were apparently not used for imprinting text, but only decorative images.

From Pages To Books

To make a book by means of a woodblock requires printing each sheet separately – either by stamping or by rubbing (see the two methods described above) – where each sheet corresponds to a single woodblock. The humble woodblock method of printing was also used when numerous copies of a book were envisioned "published" all in one go, though apparently no one knows whether each book was printed in its entirety before another book was begun, or whether one individual saw one book through to completion while another person simultaneously saw another book through to completion.

It would probably have been the first historical example of the division of labor, however embryonic – preceeding Adam Smith and the Industrial Revolution – had the bookmakers of ancient China printed each page in the desired quantity (assuming that we are not speaking of a scroll), then assembled the loose pages into books. Alas, we do not know how this was done, and we may never know, for nothing written on the subject has been discovered to date. We do know, however, that the first such non-scroll books were glued, not bound, though later versions were indeed bound.

It has been suggested that a special type of woodblock for the mass printing of books via the stamping method existed – i.e., some kind of device that could lift a set of weighted woodblocks, then lower them onto the affixed set of paper sheets (think of the machine in a bowling alley that deposits a fresh set of bowling pins) – but apart from a vague textual reference to such a method, no specifics exist describing the technique, though something along these lines is not unthinkable, since it is hard to imagine the leap from the simple, single-page woodblock to the moveable type printing press of early China or of Europe without some kind of intermediate, or missing-link, step.

We do know something of the technical progression of the pagemaking process itself, once the printing of booklets and books became widespread in China. We know, for example, that the first books were not books per se, but scrolls, and they were surely made one page at a time, one scroll at a time. The first book in the format that we know it, i.e., with pages as separate "leaves", were made by gluing a collection of double pages together, where each double page was a single sheet of paper folded in the center, and on which the text was printed on one side (the inner, or folded side) only, meaning that the outer side of the folded, double page was blank (this form of book was sometimes called a codex, or "leaf-book", the technique itself known as "butterfly binding"). These folded pages, consisting thus of two pages of text and imagery, alternating with two blank, back-side pages, were glued together at the base, or at the fold.

Presumably an interim techinque between the scroll and the leaf-book was a scroll that had been folded concertina-style (the Jingzhe zhuang, or "Sutra binding"), such that the folded, flattened concertina-scroll could be tied with a ribbon when not in use, and when in use, could be opened to the desired page, or fold, without having to unfurl the entire scroll. The interim techniqueof the concertina-scroll is what probably gave rise to the first book of blank-backed double pages, for all that is required in order to transform the concertina-scroll into a leaf-book is to cut the concertina-scroll into blank-backed double pages, then glue the folds together along the spine, and, if desired, a protective cover can be added.

In the 14th century, the un-cut concertina-scroll was glued at the spine, creating a leaf-book with outward folds, where each outward fold consisted of text and imagery on the visible, outer sides of pages, and with blank surfaces on the inner, or "tubular", sides of the folded pages. The result was a book consisting of continuous pages, at least on the outer side of the concertina-scroll. Though the official record makes no mention of it, one imagines that the next improvement was that the inner, tubular sides of outward-folded concertina pages were eventually glued together, creating double-thick pages that folded neatly and compactly, and with text and imagery on all visible surfaces.

The next step in bookmaking seems to have been the binding, rather than gluing, of these concertina-paged books. Since the sewing technique employed in the earliest bound books was primitive, there was a limitation on how many pages that could be bound together; generally, only leaflets and shorter books could be sewn together in a single book.

Larger books (books with numerous pages) were bound in small volumes, or juan, then all of the volumes would be placed into a specially designed, top-and-bottom wooden cover, called a tao, with looped straps on the bottom cover that fit snugly around wooden pegs on the top cover in order to hold the entire set of volumes together as a book. For example, a complete Buddhist tripitaka (tri-pitaka, or "set of three baskets", a reference to the Sutra Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka and the Vinaya Pitaka) might consist of upwards of 600 tao, each holding 10-12 juan, or between 6000 – 7200 juan in all.

Even after the Chinese had invented a simple form of moveable type (the Chinese first invented a form of moveable type made of baked clay during in the 11th century CE, but baked clay is brittle and thus breaks easy, while moveable type made of metal appeared in neighboring Korea during the 13th century CE), and for some time after Gutenberg invented his very efficient typesetting printing press, the woodblock method of book printing remained the preferred method for book reproduction in China, for one simple reason: the language of ancient China consisted of so many alphabet-characters (upwards of 40,000!) that typesetting would have been more cumbersome than carving out text, page by page, into a block of wood (by comparison, the typical European language has only about 30 alphabet-characters).

Another possible reason for continuing so long with woodblock printing in China is the fact that most of the books that were printed, up until the 14th-15th century, were religious in nature, and therefore the integrity of the reproduced text was of prime importance; once produced, a woodblock can in principle (if taken care of) last indefinitely, and thus represents an immutable page of scripture, whereas with typesetting, errors frequently occur (the earning potential of stamp and coin collectors would be considerably constrained without them!), leading to the notion of different editions.

The History Of Woodblock Printing In China

How early the Chinese began printing using the woodblock method is anyone's guess, but the earliest extant example of a Chinese textile with woodblock-imprinted imagery is a fragment of silk cloth with a flower motif in three colors that dates from the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty. By comparison, the earliest Egyptian textile bearing printed imagery stems from a century later, i.e., during the 4th century CE. The arid climate of much of Egypt and of certain parts of China were ideal for preserving fabric, compared to the often moist, humid conditions that prevailed in India, so even had India developed the art of blockprinting, it is highly unlikely that any older examples of such textiles would have survived – in India itself, at least (but no such Indian example has surfaced outside of India, at least not to date).

The earliest extant example of Chinese woodblock printing on paper – albeit paper made of hemp fibers, which is coarser than the paper that appeared in CE 105, made of mulberry fibers – is a copy of the Mugujeonggwang ("Pure Light") Great Dharani Sutra, dated to between CE 650-70, i.e., from the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty period. The find was unearthed in 1974 near the ancient city of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an, home of the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty Terracotta Warriors).

Another such find was the discovery of the Saddharma-Pundarika Sutra (aka the Lotus Sutra) in the Tianfeng Pagoda, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. The book, printed during the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, is the first double-sided printed cultural relic in China and was discovered in 1982 by the Ningbo Cultural Relic Bureau. It is on display in the Cultural Relics Museum of Ningbo's Tianyi Pavilion. An even older extant exemplar of this work dates from the period CE 690-699, i.e., during the first half of the Tang Dynasty.

The world's earliest precisely dated printed book is a Chinese scroll about 16 feet in length containing the text of the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra (aka the Diamond Sutra), "found" in the famous walled-off library of the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang in 1907 by Sir Marc Aurel Stein and eventually put on display in the British Museum (this Chinese cultural relic, along with numerous others from the same library, was purchased by Stein from the library's self-appointed Chinese caretaker for the paltry sum of £220! – read more). This precious exemplar of the Diamond Sutra is annotated with the following note, which reveals the book's precise date of "publication":

Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the 13th day of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e., the second, or Xiantong (CE 860-873) reign of Emperor Yi Zong of the Tang Dynasty, or the date of May 11, 868].

The book exhibits such exquisite design, such clever layout and such excellent workmanship that one can only conclude that the art & science of woodblock printing had long been under way in China. And though no exemplar in question has survived, an Imperial decree in CE 593 by Emperor Wen-ti of the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty ordered the (woodblock) printing of numerous Buddhist images and accompanying short scriptures (surely as "charms", as were most early woodblock printed texts).

Throughout the Tang Dynasty, the production of books by the method of woodblock printing was still quite limited. It was not until the Later Tang (CE 923-936) Dynasty of the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) Period that the state, on the urging of Prime Minister Feng Tao, sponsored the first mass reproduction of the famous Confucian work, the Wujing ( The Five Classics), by the method of woodblock printing. This seminal act seems to have ignited the notion of the mass reproduction – by the method of woodblock printing – of contemporary "bestsellers" thereafter.

Inexpensive books printed by means of the woodblock method were widely available among China's educated – a relatively large swath of Chinese society, in fact, given the popularity of the Imperial examination as a means to attain an official position – already during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty.

Toward the end of the 10th century CE in China, the woodblock printing of the complete Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka – consisting, when completed, of some 130,000 pages – was commissioned. This leviathan task began in CE 1080 and was first completed in CE 1102. As Buddhism became more and more dominant in China, with more and wealthier backers, temples all across China undertook similarly large "publishing" endeavors, though most of their fruits have since perished, since all but the most arid regions of China are simply too humid for ancient parchment to have survived.

Other, later, but equally famous Chinese examples of books printed by means of the woodblock method include the Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio, printed in 1633, and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual, printed between 1679 and 1701.

The earliest example of Chinese woodblock printing on "real paper", i.e., high-quality paper made of mulberry fibers, is estimated to have occurred sometime during the 7th century CE, though no exemplar of such a printing has survived. However, we know from historical references that China invented the method, just as China invented paper. We also are aware from the advanced state of the earliest extant Chinese examples of woodblock printing on high quality paper – albeit, of indefinite date (the closest dating approximation is a 30-40 year range) – that the process must have long been under way, therefore the assumption of its having occurred sometime during the 7th century CE seems entirely reasonable.

Moreover, we know from the earliest extant Korean and Japanese examples of woodblock printing on high quality paper – Buddhist texts which exhibit advanced craftsmanship, and some in fact in Chinese – that woodblock printing in China, where the art originated (and where it was also linked to the spread of Buddhism), simply had to have been under way for several years prior to its appearance in an advanced state in Korea and Japan; the earliest extant example of Japanese woodblock printing on mulberry paper is a set of eight mini-texts (darani scrolls) entitled the Million Pagoda Charms, now on display in the British Museum, that were printed in the period CE 718-64 on the Imperial order of Empress Shotoku (CE 718–70), while the earliest extant example of Korean woodblock printing on mulberry paper is a similar set of darani scrolls that date from CE 704-51, found in a stupa (stupa is Tibetan for "pagoda", indicating the influence of Tibetan Buddhism here as well) in the Buddhist Bulguk Temple in the village of Gyeongju, Korea, in 1966, making them the arguably oldest extant exemplar of woodblock printed texts in the world.

One very interesting conclusion that can be drawn from woodblock printing, as the art was practiced in China, is that there does not seem to have been a linear progression either in technique or the use of medium, in the sense that once a new technique or a new medium was developed, not everyone everywhere adopted it. On the contrary, older techniques and the use of older media continued to thrive alongside much newer techniques and media. One of the reasons for this in China is owing to the changing breadth of the empire at any given time.

For example, during the early Tang Dynasty period, China withdrew its military presence from the Western Regions for financial reasons (it was hard to maintain Han Chinese garrisons there, and proxies were not always reliable). The Western Regions stretched all the way to the foothills of the Pamirs, where the western extreme of the Taklamakan Desert ends (think Kashgar, the westernmost Chinese outpost of the overland Silk Road route). The result was that the Tibetans moved into the area, filling the power vacuum. Since mulberry trees could not be grown in the arid Western Regions, and since trade with China had been interrupted due to the Tibetan presence in the former Chinese Western Regions, quality paper was no longer available, so other, local types of paper, such as paper made of hemp, were used, and since the quality, or type, of paper determines the "bookbinding" technique that can be employed, we have a perfectly logical explanation for why there were so many pothi texts stored away in the walled-up library of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, which had suddenly found itself under Tibetan rule.

The Chinese art of woodblock printing finally received just international recognition when the art form was inscribed on the 2009 UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Prior to this prestigious but long overdue recognition, the China Block Printing Museum and its Research Center wing had been established in the city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, in August 2003. The museum displays some 30,000 ancient, carefully preserved original books and manuscripts that were printed during various periods of China's Imperial history, all by means of the woodblock method.






* It is often impossible to pin down a piece of information without recourse to a special, not-readily-available source, since not all books are available on the Internet, though a good many are (and if Google has its way, lots more will become available, though surely at a price). According to the online information available regarding this work – information that is blindly parroted by largely every online source I ran across – the CE 1341 printing of the Diamond Sutra took place at Zifu Temple, Hubei Province. Unfortunately, this particular parroted reference mentions no town, no village, no city nor county, though a few sources did mention a road, the complete such address being: Zifu Temple, Zhongxing Road, Hubei Province, which, alas, is only slightly more informationally useful (in the geographical sense), I presume, than: Dr. Livingstone, Private Bag, Zanzibar.