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Chinese Arts - Plastic and Graphic Art
Printing 印刷


In China, the standardization of the script has taken place during the unification of the Chinese empire by the Qin 秦 and Han 漢 dynasties. From the oldest symbols for recording events, carved on clay pottery and oracle bones (jiaguwen 甲骨文) during the Shang Dynasty 商, the Great and Small Script (dazhuanti 大篆體 or zhouwen 籀文, and xiaozhuanti 小篆體), engraved in bronze vessels ("bronze inscriptions" jinwen 金文) and stone steles (shipai 石碑) or in cliffs (yanbi 岩壁) (so-called "stone carving texts" shikewen 石刻文) or bricks (zhuanwa 磚瓦) during the Zhou Dynasty 周, became a standard script during the rule of the First Emperor of China 秦始皇帝. The development of brush (bi 筆) and ink (mo 墨) - to write on bamboo slips (jian 簡) or silk (sijuan 絲絹) - and of paper (zhi 紙) during the Han Dynasty eventually lead to the development of the Chancellary Script or Clerical Script (lishu 隸書) and the Standard Script (kaishu 楷書 or zhengshu 正書) until the Six Dynasties Period (Liuchao 六朝). The Han Dynasty silk texts found in the tomb of Mawangdui 馬王堆/Hunan and in Dunhuang 敦煌/Gansu are called bowen 帛文. More information about the development of Chinese script can be found on the Chinese script page.

Seals and Reverse Engraving

The importance of engraving reverse characters is already seen in the inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou Dynasty bronze vessels - most of them being offering texts or contracts of enfeoffment (see the inscription of the Kettle of Duke Mao 毛公鼎). The characters were engraved in the clay moulds before casting the bronze vessels and are therefore elevated from the surface of the vessel - already a kind of printing block that would create reverse characters on a paper. Like in Europe, seals (yin 印) were an object to sanctify a decrete or any other object of writing. The oldest seals were carved during the Shang Dynasty. There are two types of seals: characters elevated from the seal's surface (relief or yin 陰), making the printed letters red, and characters engraved into the surface of the seal, leaving out the letters and producing a red frame (intaglio or yang 陽).
Stone inscriptions are a second important step towards the invention of printing. The oldest extant stone inscriptions are the Ten Stone Drums (Shi Shigu 十石鼓) from Shaanxi, dating from the Spring and Autumn period (Chunqiu 春秋時代). The unifier of China, the First Emperor of Qin, had made edicts and proclamations that were engraved in stone tablets and cliffs, e.g. in Langyatai 琅邪臺 and on Mount Taishan 泰山 (both Shandong Province). The Han emperors adopted Confucianism as state doctrine and had the Confucian classics engraved in stone steles (the so-called Xiping Stone Classics Xiping Shi Jing 熹平石經). Tomb stones, epitaphs and steles (bei 碑) are other objects where funeral texts (muzhi 墓誌, zhiming 誌銘) and poems were engraved in stone. During the Song Dynasty, when the first scholars showed interest in archeology, they began to collect impressions or ink rubbings of stone steles. Later, famous calligraphies were cut into stone and are preserved as rubbings.

Book Binding

To keep together texts written on bamboo slips, the slips were tied together to a "book" roll (jiance 簡策). This lead to the division of old books in "rolls" (juan 卷) instead of chapters. Later, when books were printed on paper, these divisions were still employed although it had nothing to do with the modern physical appearance of the printed text in booklets. When texts could be written on paper, they needed far less place than the old rolled-up bamboo strips. From the later Han Dynasty on, texts were stored in long "reel" scroll-rolls (juanzhou 卷軸) like the oldest Bible texts found at the Dead Sea. A special book binding is the so-called whirlwind binding (xuanfeng 旋風). It is a scroll-roll binding with paper sheets inside the roll. The sheets can be folded up and down and built a long-stretched book inside the roll. Buddhist writings are often written or printed on a folded binding (zhezhuang 折裝) that is nothing else than an oblong sheet of paper folded like a leporello booklet. Especially Tibetian or Sanskrit texts are still printed on (Fanjiazhuang 梵夾裝) narrow traverse paper sheets. Since the Ming Dynasty, texts are bound with a thread binding (xianzhuang 綫裝) in thin booklets. The paper sheets are only printed on one side and then folded together in the center to form a fascicle. This kind of binding originated in the Song Dynasty when the sheets were glued together and the cover added separately (baobeizhuang 包背裝). The thread binding encloses the cover that is made from paper too. The last two kinds of binding require a cutting of the printed pages, like modern books do.

Woodblock Printing (since late 6th cent. AD)

In Europe, the invention of printing helped to spread the writings of the Reformatorian movement. In China, block printing was essential for the development of Buddhism - printed sermons, prayers and pictures of the Buddha helped the Buddhist missionaries to spread their religion. The use of woodblock printing (diaoban yinshua 雕版印刷) began during the late Sui and early Tang Dynasties. The technology of woodblock printing is the following: The text is written on thin paper and pasted face-down on a woodblock. The text is then engraved reverse into the wood, cutting out the surroundings of the letters and leaving the reverse letters elevated. The block is then brushed with ink. Laying the paper on the inkened woodblock and mounting a support fabric, the text is touched upon the paper.
The earliest extant writings and pictures printed by woodblock printing are Buddhist writings, found in Turfan 土魯藩/Xinjiang and in Kyongju/Korea. The middle and later part of Tang Dynasty brought up many almanacs and calendars for private use, especially in Sichuan and the Yangtse area. Gradually, the state also adopted the new technique and had published Confucian writings, but also other official texts. During the Song Dynasty, private printing became extemely popular. Quality advanced, and the layout of the texts became standardized, resulting in the widespread Song facetype. Hand-coloured and two-colour woodblock printing came up during the Jin Dynasty in the north. But the main centres of printing were in the lower Yangtse area, Fujian and Sichuan provinces.
With the upcoming of large illustrated encyclopedias, pictures and illustrations (chatu 插圖) became an important part of printing. Hu Zhengyan 胡正言 (d. 1672) invented the water colour block printing (douban yinshua 餖版印刷) for coloured illustrations. Employing this technique, for every different colour of the picture, a separate woodblock is made. These blocks are printed sequentially.
Very important objects of Qing Dynasty private printing are the multi-colour new year pictures (nianhua 年畫).

Movable-type Printing (since the 11th cent.)

The invention of movable-type printing (huoziban yinshua 活字版印刷) as made by Bi Sheng 畢昇 (d.1052). The first moveable types were made of clay. Wang Zhen 王禎 created the first wooden movable types in 1297, metal movable types came in use during the Ming Dynasty.
The needed number of types is first determined by examining the text and the average usage of the respective characters. Engraved reverse and elevated in clay blocks, these small blocks are fired and sorted by rhyme (for rhymes, compare an excerpt from the rhyme dictionary Peiwen yunfu). The types are glues upon an iron plate with pine wax and paper ashes. This glue is hardened and dissolved by exposing the iron plate to a fire. A levelling board ensures that all characters are well-leveled. Printing is then done similar to the woodblock printing. The characters can be used several times. Wang Zhen, who first made wooden types, also created a round revolving typesetting plate (paizi pan 排字盤) for faster typesetting.

Paper Money

The first paper money of China came up during the Tang Dynasty in Sichuan. The printing of paper money was, of course, managed by the central government, and the notes were call feiqian 飛錢 "flying money", qianyin 錢引 "money vouchers", jiaozi 交子 "exchangers", or bianqian 便錢 "convenient money". Paper money experienced a great increase during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. The bad experience of paper money inflation during the late Ming Dynasty lead the Qing emperors to the decision to give up paper currency. Negotiable securities came up during the 19th century, together with the first "modern" bank notes.
The earliest trademarks in China came up during the Song Dynasty.
Art and Printing

  © 2000 ff · Ulrich Theobald · Mail