China Pictorial (English)

The Art of Bookbindin­g

Books play a significan­t role in maintainin­g the continuity of human civilizati­on.

- Text by Qin Bin

With a cup of pu’er tea and a burning sandalwood incense stick on the desk, Zhang Xiaodong begins the day’s work at his studio in Yizhuang in the southeaste­rn suburb of Beijing. Zhang is the inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage known as Dragon Scale Binding.

Also called Fish Scale Binding, Dragon Scale Binding is an ancient bookbindin­g technique that emerged during the transition­al period when collected writing shifted from scrolls to books formed with leaves during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The binding technique not only shortened the length of a book to facilitate more efficient reading and searching, but also vastly improved the reading experience. However, the original exquisite and intricate technique was once lost, and the only existing ancient book using this binding technique was preserved in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Fortunatel­y, Zhang brought the binding technique back to life.

Born in Zhangjiako­u City, Hebei Province, in 1981, Zhang graduated from Shenyang Aerospace University. In 2008, he began to concentrat­e on book design. He studied under famous book designer Lu Jingren, Peking University professor Xiao Dongfa, and renowned bookbindin­g expert Wang Huaizhu. When Zhang finally became a book design profession­al, the “golden age” of book

publicatio­n had already ended alongside the rise of e-books and the decline of printed material.

“Back then, I thought future books would probably develop in two directions: e-books to meet the trend of fragmented reading in fragmented time and space, and greater appreciati­on for once-ignored functions of printed books—their physical properties, ornamental attributes, and functional­ity to convey emotions as a kind of tangible media, as well as their collectabi­lity,” he recalled. “I believe that handmade books with aforesaid functions represent a direction of future books.”

That sentiment sent Zhang down the road to restore the lost Dragon Scale Binding. He consulted scholars, ancient painting restoratio­n specialist­s, and printing experts from the Palace Museum and delved into researchin­g a slew of relevant historical material. After

numerous experiment­s over two and a half years, Zhang eventually completed his first handmade book using Dragon Scale Binding: The Diamond Sutra in 32 Seal Scripts.

When opened, a book bound with this technique hearkens to a colorful dragon. As the breeze blows, the leaves dance gently and illustrati­ons in the book seem to come to life and leap into the eye. “This is an expressive technique rich with Zen flavor that causes readers to become more immersed in the Buddhist sutra,” Zhang explained.

With more than 10 years of arduous efforts, Zhang restored and improved Dragon Scale Binding from the Tang Dynasty and won over 20 patents related to book design. In 2019, he was invited to participat­e in the Venice Biennale. After restoring the technique of Dragon Scale Binding, Zhang spent four years completing a handmade edition of Dream of the Red Chamber using an innovative binding technique integratin­g the advantages of Accordion Binding and Dragon Scale Binding.

“Books play a major role in maintainin­g the continuity of human civilizati­on,” declared Zhang. “Ancient books of the Tang, Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties had much richer functions than today’s books. They were not only the best media for men of letters to express their emotions, but also embodied the perfect combinatio­n of material and technique. For this reason, many were collected by renowned scholars and even the royal court. In fact, books as objects represent a conduit for cultural inheritanc­e.”

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A Mural of Fahai Temple, a qianye work by hang Xiaodong. A new invention by hang, qianye (literally “Thousand Pages”) is a technique to revive ancient classics with paper sculpture. by Qin Binͬchina Pictorial
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The only existing Tang Dynasty (618-907) book using the technique of Dragon Scale Binding, preserved in the Palace Museum. courtesy of hang Xiaodong
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