China Pictorial (English)
The Art of Bookbinding
Books play a significant role in maintaining the continuity of human civilization.
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.”