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Rong Bao Zhai 荣宝斋

"The Chiseled Image: Traditional Chinese Woodblock Printing"

Three master woodblock carvers and printers from one of China’s oldest extant print shops, the Rongbaozhai 荣宝斋, lectured on and demonstrated carving and printing techniques from the repertoire of traditional Chinese woodblock printing. They also discussed the nuances of their work and what separates it from other woodblock traditions.


In April of 2016, Harvard Visual China was delighted to welcome a group of three master printmakers from the Rongbaozhai print studio to the Harvard Art Museums materials laboratory for a demonstration of traditional Chinese printing and carving. Rongbaozhai is a renowned print studio over three centuries old that is located just off the main street of Beijing’s traditional arts district, Liulichang. Beginning as a shop dedicated to Chinese New Year’s prints, Rongbaozhai has come to specialize in the traditional Chinese woodblock printing method using water-based inks. Because their inks are identical to those used in traditional Chinese painting, Rongbaozhai artisans have become experts in reproducing famous examples of classical Chinese painting through the woodblock printing process. To the eye of an average viewer, the “paintings” that Rongbaozhai reproduces in their woodblock prints are nearly indistinguishable from the original works. The mastery of the artists at Rongbaozhai, combined with their vast knowledge of the classical tradition, led the Chinese government designate the studio part of China’s “intangible cultural heritage.” Rongbaozhai has flourished and grown over the past two decades as its wares have become increasingly appreciated across Asia.


Despite the recognition that Rongbaozhai has received in China, the traditional woodblock printing process used by the studio and a small handful of workshops across China is little-known in Western art circles. While there is a long history of appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints in the West and many Western art academies that teach the Japanese process, the Chinese woodblock technique is little known and poorly understood in America and Europe. Recognizing the importance of the Chinese process, Laura Post (Master of Fine Arts, Printmaking, Rhode Island School of Design) and her printmaking advisor, Brian Shure, developed an exchange program with Rongbaozhai in which they apprenticed at the studio during the summer of 2015. Having traveled to Rongbaozhai to study paper mounting in the 1980’s, Professor Shure was eager to return with Laura to study the intricacies of the Chinese block carving and printing techniques. Following their successful stay, three master-artisans from Rongbaozhai traveled to the Rhode Island School of Design during the spring of 2016 to conduct workshops before coming to the Harvard Art Museums for a further round of exciting demonstrations.


Chen Ming, a former printer and current division head at Rongbaozhai, along with master block carver, Lu Min, and master printer, Liu Baoxiang, set up shop in the materials laboratory of the Harvard Art Museums on April 29, 2016. In the accompanying video, you can see their array of materials, including a traditional Chinese printing table, water-based inks, printing tools, carving tools, and Chinese pear-wood blocks. Lu Min demonstrated the carving of human figures into a woodblock, while Liu Baoxiang and Chen Ming showed off the unique method of Chinese printing. Laura Post, Brian Shure, and members of the Harvard Visual China crew were on-hand to translate for a delighted audience as the Rongbaozhai artisans actively involved participants in the printing process.


As you watch the video and enjoy photos from the event, we encourage you to pay close attention to two key terms that make the traditional Chinese woodblock printing process truly unique:


1. Registration—This term refers to the method by which woodblock printers align their carved woodblocks to the paper on which their designs will be printed. Most prints involve the use of many individual woodblocks that contain different parts or colors to be included in the final design. Therefore, it is crucial that the blocks are properly aligned during the printing process through registration in order for the final design to print properly. In the traditional Chinese process, a stack of papers is clamped onto a special printing table. Once clamped in, the papers do not move during the printing process. Instead, the woodblocks are moved freely on the table and aligned to the fixed paper. Once a sheet of paper has been printed with a block, it is tucked down beneath the table through a slot in the wood while remaining clamped to the stack of papers. Then, each subsequent sheet in the stack is printed with the block and folded into the slot until all sheets have been printed. This process of registration is opposite from the Japanese woodblock process, in which the woodblock stays stationary and the paper is aligned to the block through a carved registration mark.


2. Carving—The carving tools used in the Chinese woodblock process are nearly all handmade and customized to the individual carver’s needs. There are many different types and sizes of carving tools—from large chisels to small picks—depending the quantity of wood and type of detail that is being carved. In the video and photos, you can see a variety of different carving tools being used. The carving tools used in the Chinese process are again distinct from the Japanese woodblock carving method. Although they look alike, the Chinese tools are sharpened on the opposite side of the blade from their Japanese counterparts, making the carving motion completely different for the artisan.

Event summary by Fletcher Coleman

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