At times this craft has been close to ex­tinc­tion, but its stal­wart de­fend­ers are un­will­ing to let it die

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By XING YI By XING YI xingyi@chi­nadaily.com.cn xingyi@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Jiang iang Xun Xun calls calls them them “the re­flec­tion“the re­flec­tionof our civ­i­liza­tion”,of our civ­i­liza­tion”,an ob­ser­va­tio­nan ob­ser­va­tion that would be that on wouldthe mon­eybe on even the if mon­eyhe were even talkingif he about were the talk­ing mo­bile about de­vices­the of mo­bile­to­day that de­vices have of be­come­to­day so that much havea part be­comeof our lives.so muchAs it hap­pens,a part Jian­gof our is talk­ing of the prod­uct­slives. of a much ear­lier medi­umAs it hap­pens,of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,Jiang is talk­ing etche­dof the wood­block­prod­ucts of a print­ing.much ear­lierIn sharp medium re­lief of to com­mu­ni­ca­tion,the dig­i­tal print­ing etche­dof to­day, wood­blockin which print­ing.speed of In pro­duc­tion­sharp is vaunted, the crafts­men of this early re­lief to the dig­i­tal print­ing of to­day, in which

craft took great pride in the painstak­ing, speed of pro­duc­tion is vaunted, the crafts­men

time-con­sum­ing de­tail that went into turn­ing of this early craft took great pride in the out their ex­quis­ite wares. painstak­ing, time-con­sum­ing de­tail that

In China 1,000 years ago it was the most went into turn­ing out their ex­quis­ite wares. com­mon way of print­ing books, and count­less I Chi 1 000 it th t crafts­men through­out the land carved out char­ac­ters on wood blocks. To­day those who prac­tice it are few, a stub­born bunch who refuse to let the craft die.

A few blocks south of Tian’an­men Square in Bei­jing, in Yang­meizhu Al­ley, is Mo­fan book­store, a re­doubt of the craft that in ad­di­tion to sell­ing books has a work­shop for Jiang, 46, and a hand­ful of wood­block crafts­men, two full-time and three part­time, who con­tinue to pro­duce works of great beauty.

Jiang’s re­mark about the char­ac­ters and their re­flect­ing civ­i­liza­tion is all the more apt given that wood­block prints are a mir­ror im­age of the carv­ing from which they are printed, and in their hey­day they were the most com­mon way, apart from the spo­ken word, of pass­ing on knowl­edge from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

Wood­block print­ing was largely used to print Bud­dhist texts at first when the spread of Bud­dhism in China reached a peak dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907). The old­est re­main­ing wood­block-printed book is a copy of the Chi­nese ver­sion of the Di­a­mond Su­tra, which dates back to AD 868.

The book, now in the Bri­tish Li­brary in Lon­don, is in the form of a scroll, dis­cov­ered in the Mo­gao Grot­toes in Dun­huang, Gansu prov­ince, in the early 20th cen­tury.

Jiang has col­lected more than 30,000 wood­blocks, about one tenth of which date back to the Ming Dy­nasty (AD 1368-1644), which means he may have the largest wood­block collection of any in­di­vid­ual in China.

Be­tween 2009 and 2012 a few of his prints were on dis­play in a branch of the Na­tional Li­brary in Wen­jin Street, Bei­jing, the only one of its kind in the cap­i­tal.

“In a sense, wood­blocks are pro­gen­i­tors of the book,” says Jiang, who is also renowned in China as a book de­signer. “All my works are as­so­ci­ated with books.”

In late 2014 when the No­bel Mu­seum in Stock­holm in­vited him to de­sign a book for the 2012 No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture lau­re­ate Mo Yan to present in its ex­hi­bi­tion, Jiang de­cided there was no bet­ter way of in­ter­pret­ing Mo than through a tra­di­tional Chi­nese thread-bound book printed us­ing wood­block.

The book is a short story called Gale that Mo chose from his early works that has about 4,000 char­ac­ters, and Jiang de­cided to use a font from CaochuangYunyu, a poetry an­thol­ogy by the poet Zhou Min in the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279), for the book.

Jiang says it took him three months to choose the match­ing char­ac­ters from Zhou’s po­ems and piece them to­gether for Mo’s short story.

Then he needed to pre­pare the wood­blocks for print­ing, a process in which wood is carved away, leav­ing the char­ac­ters to stand out as a re­lief pat­tern for ink­ing and print­ing.

“The process is dif­fi­cult be­cause it is such a rare font,” says Zhao Yishen, 30, who carved pages one to six of Mo’s book. “It’s like cal­lig­ra­phy, with many el­e­ments of hand­writ­ing.”

Zhao says that with most print­ing fonts he can carve about 30 or 40 char­ac­ters a day, but with the font for the Mo book the num­ber was halved.

“As carvers we aimed to make the char­ac­ters look as nat­u­ral as the orig­i­nal writ­ing, not too stiff.”

With five other carvers, Zhao worked on the book each day for three months from 8 am to 6 pm.

“It needed the ut­most con­cen­tra­tion. I took breaks when­ever my eyes got sore, and when­ever I be­gan to lose fo­cus I stopped to avoid mak­ing mis­takes.”

The work lasted un­til March last year, af­ter which 274 copies of the book were printed, and they went on dis­play in Stock­holm in mid April.

“It’s all hand­made, from carv­ing to print­ing to bind­ing,”Jiang says. “When the book and the wood­blocks went on dis­play in Stock­holm, those who saw them were in awe be­cause in the West there is no tra­di­tion of thread-bound books.”

Jiang kept just one wood­block piece from the Mo pro­duc­tion — a piece pro­duced twice in er­ror.

When Zhao was study­ing at Bei­jing Jiao­tong Univer­sity for a law de­gree, which he gained in 2010, he be­came en­grossed by an­cient clas­sic texts in the tra­di­tional thread-bound form in li­brary.

“Dif­fer­ent books have dif­fer­ent fonts depend­ing on when they were pub­lished,” he says.

Apart from the lit­er­ary con­tent, the beauty of the char­ac­ters thrills Zhao. “It’s sim­ply beau­ti­ful.” These days only around five pub­lish­ers in China pro­duce books through tra­di­tional wood­block print­ing, and the year Zhao grad­u­ated he vis­ited one of them, Guan­gling An­cient Books Print­ing House in Yangzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince. copy of the Chi­nese ver­sion of the Di­a­mond Su­tra, which dates back to AD 868.

The book, now in the Bri­tish Li­brary in Lon­don, is in the form of a scroll, dis­cov­ered in theMo­gao Grot­toes in Dun­huang, Gansu prov­ince, in the early 20th cen­tury.

Jiang has col­lected more than 30,000 wood­blocks, about one tenth of which date back to the Ming Dy­nasty (AD 1368-1644), which means he may have the largest wood­block collection of any in­di­vid­ual in China.

Be­tween 2009 and 2012 a fe­wof his prints were on dis­play in a branch of the Na­tional Li­brary in Wen­jin Street, Bei­jing, the only one of its kind in the cap­i­tal.

“In a sense, wood­blocks are pro­gen­i­tors of the book,” says Jiang, who is also renowned

ac­cred­ited master of in China as a book de­signer. “All my works

en­graved block print­ing are as­so­ci­ated with books.”

In late 2014 when the No­bel Mu­seum in St kh l i it d hi t d i b kf “It was the first time I had re­ally seen what those wood­blocks were. It seemed like an im­pos­si­ble mis­sion for me to make one, but I wanted to try.”

He de­cided to stay as an in­tern, and af­ter a year’s in­tern­ship in the print­ing house he be­came a stu­dent of Chen Yishi, one of the few peo­ple who holds state ac­cred­i­ta­tion as a master of the en­graved block print­ing tech­nique.

Chen has a fam­ily tra­di­tion of en­graved print­ing. His grand­fa­ther was a wood­block printer in the late Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), and opened a fam­ily work­shop in the town of Hangji in Jiangsu, once a book print­ing cen­ter.

How­ever, dur­ing World War II many wood­block print­ing work­shops closed, in­clud­ing Chen’s, and later, dur­ing the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76), a call for tra­di­tions to be swept away all but put paid to the an­cient craft.

Chen says his fa­thers words “We must pass on the craft” made a great im­pres­sion on him, so he went back to the trade in the 1980s, and since re­tir­ing from Guan­gling An­cient Books Print­ing House in 2007 he has con­tin­ued to train ap­pren­tices.

“Over the years I have had about 100 stu­dents, but only about a quar­ter of them are still do­ing this work. It doesn’t pay well, and there are not enough com­mis­sions, so they work on and off for some time and even­tu­ally do some­thing else.”

But Chen says that since the tech­nique was in­cluded in UNESCO’s hu­man in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage rep­re­sen­ta­tive list in 2009, things have im­proved. Seven stu­dents study with him, some sent by pub­lish­ers such as Guan­gling An­cient Books Print­ing House, and some, like Zhao, com­ing in­de­pen­dently.

“I aim to teach them ev­ery­thing I know,” Chen says. “Only about 20 peo­ple in Yangzhou have mas­tered this skill, so if I don’t teach them I am afraid the skill may be lost.”

Chen Yishi,

Over the years I had about 100 stu­dents, but only about a quar­ter of them are still dong this work. It doesn’t pay well, and there are not enough com­mis­sions.”

PHOTOS BY FONG YONGBIN / CHINA DAILY

Above: Wood­block carver scrapes off parts of the block with var­i­ous cut­ting tools. Left: Note­books de­signed by Mo­fan book­store. Right: Book printed with wood­block.

Left: JIang Xun with his de­sign of Mo Yan’s book Gale. Right: a view of Mo­fan book­store.

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