Chinese printing hub turns a new leaf
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