Chips off the old block

By Xing Yi ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-08-20 07:32:12

Chips off the old block

Woodblock carver scrapes off parts of the block with various cutting tools. [Photo by Feng Yongbin/China Daily]

At times this craft has been close to extinction, but its stalwart defenders are unwilling to let it die

Jiang Xun calls them "the reflection of our civilization", an observation that would be on the money even if he were talking about the mobile devices of today that have become so much a part of our lives.

As it happens, Jiang is talking of the products of a much earlier medium of communication, etched woodblock printing. In sharp relief to the digital printing of today, in which speed of production is vaunted, the craftsmen of this early craft took great pride in the painstaking, time-consuming detail that went into turning out their exquisite wares.

In China 1,000 years ago it was the most common way of printing books, and countless craftsmen throughout the land carved out characters on wood blocks. Today those who practice it are few, a stubborn bunch who refuse to let the craft die.

A few blocks south of Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, in Yangmeizhu Alley, is Mofan bookstore, a redoubt of the craft that in addition to selling books has a workshop for Jiang, 46, and a handful of woodblock craftsmen, two full-time and three part-time, who continue to produce works of great beauty.

Jiang's remark about the characters and their reflecting civilization is all the more apt given that woodblock prints are a mirror image of the carving from which they are printed, and in their heyday they were the most common way, apart from the spoken word, of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next.

Woodblock printing was largely used to print Buddhist texts at first when the spread of Buddhism in China reached a peak during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The oldest remaining woodblock-printed book is a copy of the Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to AD 868.

The book, now in the British Library in London, is in the form of a scroll, discovered in the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province, in the early 20th century.

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