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Although the Chinese invented paper and woodblock printing, the knowledge about Chinese woodblock prints in Western countries has been very limited. With the economic and cultural opening of China, art friends can now learn about a new and fascinating world - modern Chinese woodblock prints, based on traditional techniques that are pretty different from those used for Japanese woodblock prints.
First Publication: July 2004
Latest Update: April 2013
Like paper, also the woodblock printing technique was developed in China. The oldest book made of woodblocks known so far, is the Diamond Sutra from Dunhuang - dated to 868. This book is of such high technical standard, that a much earlier use of Chinese woodblock prints can be assumed.
In 770 the first textual print in Japan had been produced - the dharani. It had obviously been strongly influenced by China. These were Buddhist prayers that had been commissioned in an edition of one million copies by Empress Shotoku. But it is not known if the blocks for these prints had been made of wood or of other materials.
The first woodblock prints were of religious kind. Buddhist worshippers used woodblock printmaking to copy images of Saints and religious amulets. During the Song Dynasty (960 - 1278) lavishly decorated books were produced using woodblocks.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) the technique was for the first time used for artistic purposes - to reproduce ink paintings, letters and poems like the Ten Bamboo Studio Collection. It had been published from 1622 to 1627 by Hu Cheng Yen (1582? - 1672?), an artist in the service of the Chinese court. He is considered to have invented the technique of color gradation.
However woodblock prints were not regarded as an art form of its own. They were rather meant as a means to make a precise reproduction of existing paintings. This attitude changed only as early as the beginning of the 20th century. Then artists began to design, carve and print woodblock prints themselves.
In the 1930s the writer and intellectual Lu Xun initiated a new woodblock print movement. He saw the medium as a means of political expression. Lu Xun organized exhibitions with prints by the German artist K�the Kollwitz and others. They had a strong influence on Chinese woodblock prints at that time, and many prints in black and white were created with subjects expressing criticism of society and social order.
In the 1940s Chinese woodblock prints became an instrument of political propaganda for the Communist Party. The style was closely adopted to social realism of the former Soviet Union.
Today, in a lively and politically relaxed art scene, woodblock prints are an art form practised in various forms: either with oil or with watery colors, and with several different registration systems.
The following explanations of the technique of woodblock prints refer to the traditional forms, which are still practised in quite a few studios.
The design is drawn or painted on a special, thin paper. To transfer it on the block, the woodblock is covered with rice paste. Now the paper can be pasted with the front side against the block. Next the paper is cautiously rubbed off, and only the design itself is left on the block.
The wood used is preferably taken from pear trees or the jujube tree. The carving is done with a special fist knife, called Quan Dao. The knife is perfectly adopted to the fist. Its origins go back to the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). It has a slightly curved form - in contrast to the Japanese hangi-to with its straight form. The Quan Dao has two metallic ends for cutting and carving. The front part is used for carving the lines and the back end for scratching off whole areas. Thus all detailed carving can be done just with one knife. For larger areas some other metal tools are used in addition.
In contrast to Japanese as well as Western woodblocks, the complete design is not necessarily carved into only one woodblock. The Chinese artists rather compose the final design from several blocks. When all blocks are printed, they are firmly fixed on a printing table (see image) with a resin that was warmed up before.
Dry paper or silk is used for printing. Before the process is started, the complete set of papers to be printed is piled up - next to a gap in the printing table and fixed.
Next the first sheet of the paper pile is positioned to fit with the woodblock pasted on the table. For each print, the woodblock is coated with color by the help of an ink brush. The printing brush is made out of palm tree fibers. By tradition, vegetable colors are used and sometimes diluted with water to achieve a less brilliant effect.
To achieve color gradations, the color can be intensified using another brush or diluted with water. Finally the sheet to be printed is laid over the woodblock(s) and rubbed with a Chinese kind of baren. This require a lot of skill as the quality of the color (concentrated, diluted, pastos, very dry, watery) and the pressure has a paramount influence on the final result.
The Chinese baren has a kernel made of wood and is covered with palm trees. And on top of that concoction, horse hair is applied. After the printing, the paper is dropped into the gap in the table. When all papers have dried, the whole procedure can start again with the next color.
(translation by Dieter Wanczura
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