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Wood block printing

The Qin (221-207 B.C) and Han (206 B.C.-A.D.220) dynasties built magnificent palaces. The carved beams and painted rafters of the grand wooden structures showed wood carving had long been prevalent, but to engrave a block for printing in order to spread civilization was a much later event. Block printing could come about only when textiles and papermaking had developed, so that reverse type could be printed on silk or paper. As for the date of the earliest block printing, we shall quote several estimates.

Block printing started in the Sui Dynasty (sixth to seventh century) is the first estimate. In his sketchbook He Fen Yan Xian Lu Ming scholar Lu Shen stated, "On the eighth day of the twelfth month, in the thirteenth year of Kaihuang (593), Emperor Wendi of the Sui Dynasty ordered all dispersed Buddhist portraits and scriptures reprinted. This was the beginning of book printing, which was before Feng the Prince of Ying (Feng Dao). Feng Dao was prime minister in Later Tang (923-936) and was made Prince of Ying. Many people say it was he who first printed books. At the end of the Tang Dynasty the central regions were in complete chaos. The princedom of Later Shu secluded itself in Sichuan, which was more orderly, making the most of the opportunity to develop its economy and culture. Printed books were sold in the market. When the Later Tang conquered Shu, the court was unable to engrave the classics on stone; Feng Dao, following the example of Shu princedom, ordered Tian Min, president of the imperial academy, "to have the Six Classics proofed and printed from carved blocks." This is the earliest record that the classics were published by the authorities. That is why some people attributed this accomplishment to Feng Dao, but this assertion has long been refuted by others.

Another assertion is that block printing began in the Tang Dynasty. In the second year of Dali (767) the great poet Du Fu wrote a song on "The Han and Qin Scripts' for his nephew Li Chao that said, "The monument on Yishan Mountain has been demolished by wildfire; On the recarvings of datewood the character strokes are too fat." This proves that people engraved inscription on datewood, but that was not for printing.

In the fourth year of Changqing of the Tang Dynasty (825) the poet Yuan Zhen wrote a preface for his friend Bai Juyfs works:" Chang Qing Ji (Selected Poems of the Changqing Period) is written by Bai Juyi, a native of Taiyuan. His other works, such as Qin Zhong Yin (Songs of Internal Regions of Qin), He Yu (Congratulate the Rain), and Feng Yu (Poems of Allegories),are little known to the world, yet in these twenty years no palace, temple, rest stop or tavern wall is without one of his poems inscribed; the mouth of no prince, noble, courtesan, village woman herdsman or groom does not his poems recite. As for copying or rubbing them down and selling them in the market or exchanging them for wine or tea, everywhere people are doing that." Rubbing (mu le) has been taken by some scholars to mean printing, yet there is no accurate proof.

In the ninth year of Taihe in the Tang Dynasty (835) Emperor Wenzong issued an edict that no province should have its own private blocks for printing the imperial calendar; this is proof of privately printed calendars among the people. In the sixth year of Xian-tong (865) a Japanese Buddhist student, Zhongrui, returned to Japan with 134 scriptures and other assorted books, among them one copy of the Chengdu yinzi Tangyun (Tang Rhymes) in five fascicles and one copy of the Yinzi Yupian (Lexicon) in thirty fascicles. Yinzi is a printed book. In the ninth century of late Tang there is no doubt that printed books were sold among the people. The strongest proof is a passage of Liu Pian's remarks.

Tang Emperor Xizong, in the first year of Zhonghe (881), took refuge from the peasant-rebel leader Huang Chao in Chengdu, Sichuan; the premier's secretary, Liu Pian, was among the attendants. In the preface to his Liu Shi Jia Xun (Family Teachings of the Lius) he says, "By the third year of Zhonghe His Majesty had been staying in Chengdu for three years. On a holiday I visited the bookstores in the southeast of the city. Most of the books sold were about yin-yang, dream interpreting, geomancy, astrology as well as wordbooks and etymology. All were block-printed on paper, some of them ink stained and illegible."

This is an eyewitness account of printed books being sold in Chengdu, but they were only books about superstition and primary readers; perhaps calendars were also included. These books were fifty years earlier than Feng Dao's prints, but we haven't found any actual relics. Commercial printed books were too roughly made. Printed classics, aside from Buddhist scriptures, must have been started by Feng Dao.

In his Luo Shi Shi Yi (Luo's Sketch Book) Song scholar Luo Bi remarked, "There was no printed book in late Tang. Most books were hand copied, therefore quite refined. Volumes were not stitched but merely folded into brochures, then flat stuck with paper covers. Later, some were stitched into loose-leaf pamphlets. In Later Tang Emperor Mingzong's second year of Changxing (931) the premier Feng Dao ordered Tian Min to check the Six Classics and have them block-printed. The world began to know the convenience of printing. Before the Zhiping year (1064) of the Song Dynasty private printing was prohibited; publications had to be submitted to the imperial academy for approval. The ban was lifted in the Xining year (1968)." From these remarks we leam that block printing and publication in the whole country were first given imperial authorization at the end of the sixties in the eleventh century.

The Invention of Chinese Block Printing and the Rise of Woodcut Prints -Ending

However, the above evidence is derived only from records; there are no actual relics. The earliest woodcut print is the Diamond Sutra, dated 868, from which we can see the craft had arrived at its maturity. What Liu Pian saw in Chengdu in 883 had long been popular in the whole country.

Besides Sichuan, Jiangxi and Luoyang were printin8 centres, but the most concentrated district was Chengdu. Chengdu's printers included the Guos, the Fans, the Bians, and so on. Their publications were Buddhist figures, incantation books, calendars, superstitions books, Tang Rhpian, Yupian (Lexicon), etc., which met the requirements of the society of the time. Someone may ask, since block printing was already popular in late Tang, why did the Tang house still encourage hand-copied scriptures, until in the Later Tang when Feng Dao asked to have the Six Classics printed? Perhaps since Tang selected officials through imperial examinations, the classics and calligraphy were much stressed.

Classics should not be poorly printed. and the ban was not released until the beginning of the tenth century. The conservatism of the upper class hindered the free growth of block prints. However, block carving was fully developed by late Tang and laid the foundation for its flourishing in the Five Dynasties and Northern Song.

Two conclusions are possible:

(1) Only when block carving was skilled enough to make good prints, could the rulers enlarge production, giving rise to competition among printers; craftsmanship developed further, reaching a definite height and giving birth to the art of the woodcut.

(2) Printing was invented very early in China. Judging from the title page of the Diamond Sutra, printed in the ninth year of Xiantong, Tang Dynasty, the art of block carving had reached a mature stage. Compared to Jesus Christ, a Western woodcut of the late fourteenth century, this work is not only five hundred years older but a great deal finer. Therefore woodcut prints must have risen during the late Tang.

Woodcut Prints from the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties -Sequel I

From the remarks of Liu Pian we learn that books printed by the general public in 883 were of very poor quality, whereas the Diamond Sutra excavated from the Dunhuang caves in 868 was exceedingly clear and exquisite. The woodcuts of Buddhist scriptures were far superior to those printed by the general public. At this time woodcutting was developing in an unbalanced manner. This also reflected the relationship between politics and religion at the time.

Buddhism entered China in the sixth century, and although it underwent several persecutions, by the Tang Dynasty it was flourishing. Noted Buddhists Xuan Zang and Yi Jing visited India to fetch scriptures, and noted monks of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka came to China to spread the religion. Holy land was set aside in the mountains, and imposing temples were erected in the capital and larger cities throughout the country. Great multitudes, from the emperor to the common people, were converted into faithful followers. Preaching and printing were indispensable. Advocated by the rulers, Buddhist woodcuts developed abnormally.

From records we note that Xuan Zang printed portraits of the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence and distributed them among the masses; this is proof that woodcut prints were employed in the-seventh century to produce Buddhist portraits. Later, woodcut prints may also have been employed for Buddhist scriptures and preaching materials. In Xiantong years the imperial inspector Sikong Tu raised funds for Hui Que, the preaching monk of the Jing'ai Temple, Luoyang, to carve a block of Buddhist commandments. In the preface of the alms-collecting book he wrote that when Emperor Wuzong was against Buddhism in the year 841, scriptures were bumt the way the First Emperor of Qin had burned books.

Fearing that the commandment prints might be lost, Monk Hui Que raised funds to recarve them. Therefore block prints of Buddhist scriptures were nothing new at the time. The Diamond Sutra of the ninth year of Xiantong, and the carved blocks of the Dharani Mantra, which were unearthed from a Tang tomb at Chengdu in 1944, are the only extant objects today. The Mantra is around one square chi (about a square foot), with a Buddhist figure in the middle, surrounded by Sanskrit incantations and all sorts of small Buddhist images. To the right was inscribed, "Incantation Book printed by the Bians of Longchifang, Chengdu County, Chengdu Prefecture, in the Tang Dynasty." The actual relics are now stored in Sichuan Provincial Museum. Unfortunately, the carving block is much decayed and illegible, but it is still a vigorous witness.

Among the woodcut prints of early Tang were A Thousand Buddhas and The Scripture of a Thousand Buddhas' Names. Similar prints have been found recently in Tibet Autonomous Region and Gansu Province. Scrolls printed with small Buddhas have also been found in the district of Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Some of the scrolls have only Buddhist images, one with as many as 468 Buddhas. Some, such as The Scripture of a Thousand Buddhas' Names, have Buddha images within squares outlined in black, under which are the names of the Buddhas. It is evident that one or several wooden or clay moulds of Buddhist images were made beforehand, then put in rows on the upper part of the paper or silk hand-copied scriptures-a style of printing that evolved by the Song Dynasty into a pattern with plates on top and captions underneath.

The Diamond Sutra was found in 1900 in the Dunhuang caves. Dunhuang was sacred Buddhist land. Caves were dug on the sides of Mingsha Hill, Dunhuang County, Gansu Province. According to the inscription on the monument ereded by Li Huairang when he was repairing the Mogao Caves in Empress Wu Ze Tian's second year of Shengli (698), the earliest niche was opened in Fu Jian's second year of Jianyuan (366) in the Former Qin Dynasty. Monk Yue Fu made the first cave on Mingsha Hill, called Mogao Cave.