Reproduction: IssuCultural Sources of Chinese Calligraphy – The Role of Reproduction in Chinese Calligraphy: Issues of Originality

Rubbings of Chinese Calligraphy: Transmission and Preservation

Ever since Calligraphy has been a celebrated art form, ink rubbing has contributed to the tradition by providing a means of transmitting and preserving works far beyond the likely lifespan of an ink and paper work. Although paper and ink became the standard media for calligraphy, the origins of Chinese writing in inscriptions was never forgotten. Even after writing styles began to emphasize the fluidity and movement that ink could provide, works were inscribed on stone so that they would not fall prey to the vagaries of time. More than this, inscribed works could be reproduced quite easily in the form of rubbings.

This is not to say that the inscription of works, and the rubbings made by them, should be seen as uncomplicated reproductions, retaining all the expression and character of the originals. In many cases, inscriptions were reproduced over and over until all semblance of the original was lost. While the tradition of ink rubbing is indeed a central part of Chinese literary culture, it has leant itself, over time, to no small degree of abuse by mercenary commericial interests. For this reason, a degree of caution is necessary when approaching the subject of rubbings, either in copy books or as original works. It is important not only that you not waste resources on a poor quality reproduction, but also that the strength and integrity of your own calligraphy is not affected by emulating an inadequate copy.

Block Printing: A Challenge to Elite Literary Culture in Chinese Calligraphy

For centuries, the literati arts of painting and calligraphy were accessible only to a very rarified class. Indeed, the term literati implies that these arts were the sole domain of the lettered class. As the modern period approached, however, literacy was easier to acquire to those outside the scholarly official class. This was due to a number of factors, including increased commercialization and a globalizing world, emphasis on the civil service examinations and growing social mobility in general. Although basic literacy was on the rise, cultural literacy, especially when it came to the evaluation and recognition of artworks, remained a refined skill that carried with it no small degree of social cachet. While the Chinese literati culture had spent hundreds of years developing a complex aesthetic in painting and calligraphy, the population more generally was suddenly provided, in reproduced block-printed books, an unprecedented avenue of access.

Perhaps the most famous art manual in Chinese history is the “Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting and Calligraphy” (十竹齋書畫譜/Shi Zhu Zhai Shu Hua Pu/Shih Chu Chai Shu Pu). Produced by Hu Zheng Yan (胡正言/Hu Cheng Yen, 1582-1672), this eight-volume primer on Chinese art was widely reproduced and emulated. It included over a hundred examples of calligraphic poetry in its final volume and attempted to systematically provide the budding art student with a guide to artistic style. Clearly the advent of an efficient means of reproduction provided many thousands of readers with aesthetic ideas that only a few centuries earlier would have been considerably beyond their ken. While albums of the quality of the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual were still luxury items, numerous works of lesser quality would have been accessible to many.

Seen in this light, it is not difficult to understand the growing concern in elite circles about the validity of different approaches to art. The orthodoxy of amateur art espoused by Dong Qi Chang (董其昌/Tung Ch’i Ch’ang, 1555-1636) and his successors is more understandable when one takes into account the fact that the privilege of the literate class, especially their claims as arbiters of aesthetics, was threatened by the rise of print culture.