Chi­nese print­ing hub turns a new leaf

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - By XIN­HUA in Fuzhou

Ma Li brushes a layer of ink on a wood­block en­graved with 324 Chi­nese char­ac­ters, be­fore spread­ing a sheet of pa­per over it and rub­bing it with a dry brush.

The 32-year-old is work­ing on a re­pro­duc­tion of the Preface to the Orchid Pav­il­ion, a piece of Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy pro­duced al­most 2,000 years ago by renowned cal­lig­ra­pher Wang Xizhi.

“I’m try­ing to use tra­di­tional print­ing tech­niques and ma­te­ri­als to re­pro­duce the charm of Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy,” he said. “I’ve sold more than 5,000 copies this year.”

Ma is one of two wood­block en­gravers rec­og­nized by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment in Sibao, a re­mote moun­tain­ous town in Liancheng county, Fu­jian province. The town was renowned as one ofChina’s four ma­jor wood­block print­ing cen­ters dur­ing the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dy­nas­ties.

“Sibao boasts a wood­block print­ing his­tory of more than 300 years,” said Qiu Qing­sheng, Party chief of the town. “More im­por­tantly, it’s the only sur­viv­ing site of China’s an­cient print­ing cen­ters, with 34 old print­ing houses still well pre­served.”

Ac­cord­ing­tolo­calchron­i­cles, about 60 per­cent of Sibao’s pop­u­la­tion used to be em­ployed in the town’s more than 100 print­ing houses. Qiu Qing­sheng,

More than 1,000 books were pro­duced there and sold all over China, with­someeven ex­ported to South­east Asia. Wood­block print­ing be­gan to de­cline in the mid-19th cen­tury, as more ad­vanced meth­ods were de­vel­oped in theWest. Sibao’s last print­ing house closed in 1942.

“Tra­di­tion dies hard,” Qiu said. “The smell of ink has never left Sibao. As time goes by, more peo­ple have be­gun to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of its pre­cious cul­tural her­itage.”

The 34 re­opened print­ing houses, which once housed their own­ers’ fam­i­liesand­servedas­work­shops, arenow listed as key cul­tural relics un­der State-level pro­tec­tion. Re­cent ren­o­va­tions have sought to re­store these build­ings to their for­mer splen­dor.

“We’ve been try­ing to con­serve these na­tional trea­sures,” Qiu said. “Af­ter the ren­o­va­tions are fin­ished, two of the houses will be used to demon­strate the com­plete wood­block print­ing process.”

Yet carved wood­blocks are re­quired to recre­ate this process. These used to be handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion among Sibao’s fam­i­lies — but as the in­dus­try de­clined, so did the num­ber of wood­blocks in cir­cu­la­tion. Large num­bers were de­stroyed dur­ing the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-1976).

“Twenty or 30 years ago, you could buy wood­blocks like these for only one yuan (15 cents),” said Ma, hold­ing a small one aloft. “But a few days ago, I had to per­suade a friend to sell this to me, and the price was 4,000 yuan.”

De­spite the in­flated prices, Ma still thinks of these old wood­block as pre­cious. “You can see how finely these char­ac­ters were cut,” he said.

Born in Sibao, Ma fell in love with wood­blocks as a child. He learned wood carv­ing af­ter grad­u­at­ing from ju­nior high school, while work­ing in Fu­jian’s Xianyou county and Dongyan in Zhe­jiang.

In ad­di­tion to print­ing the Preface to the Orchid Pav­il­ion, Ma and his team plan to pro­duce a book of an­cient epi­grams con­tain­ing more than 6,000 char­ac­ters be­fore the end of the year.

“We’ve been carv­ing the wood­blocks for half a year, and we need an­other three months to fin­ish,” he said. “This will be the first book I have printed us­ing wood­blocks I made­my­self.”

As time goes by, more peo­ple have be­gun to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of its (Sibao) pre­cious cul­tural her­itage.” Party chief of Sibao town in Liancheng, Fu­jian province

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