- Traditional Techniques in Contemporary Chinese Printmaking
Scholars of Chinese woodblock printing technology, art history, and the history of the book will be grateful to David Barker for the precise and expert descriptions of Chinese printmaking techniques he provides in Traditional Techniques in Contemporary Chinese Printmaking. Despite the long history of woodblock printing in China-the origins of printing are now dated to the eighth century at the latest-and the importance of woodblock printing or xylography in the history of Chinese publishing, no detailed technical descriptions in Chinese of the process of block cutting and printing have survived from before the twentieth century. Tsien Tsuen-hsuin, in his overview of woodblock printing in the Science and Civilisation in China series, notes that "the technical procedures of printing have scarcely been documented in Chinese literature" and relies for his description of the technology on interviews conducted in 1979 with craftsmen who were still producing woodblock texts.1 Western observers in nineteenth-century China occasionally supplied illuminating descriptions of the cutting and printing processes,2 and certain Western missionaries, such as William Milne, eager to produce Bibles and religious tracts, experimented with woodblock printing and left reports that provide useful information about woodblock printing.3 But we lack full, detailed, technical explanations of the process of cutting and printing from Chinese sources during the long period, from the Tang through most of the nineteenth century, when woodblock printing dominated Chinese publishing.4
Failing the discovery of new primary sources, there is obviously no way of adequately compensating for this lacuna. Barker, however, goes a long way toward supplying scholars with valuable information about cutting and printing (especially the cutting and printing of color woodblock illustrations and prints). A printmaker (and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers) and former teacher of printmaking (at the School of Art and Design at the University of Ulster), Barker has the technical and aesthetic knowledge to understand and analyze the process of woodblock cutting and printing. As a scholar of Chinese printmaking (and an Honorary Professor at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts and the Chinese National Academy of Fine Arts), translator of Chinese works on printmaking (most notably, Zhou Wu's study of the Hui 徽-school woodblock prints), and author of a glossary of Chinese-English printmaking and the contemporary Chinese printmaking scene to make his study authoritative. It is of great value to scholars of the Chinese book for its detailed [End Page 343] description of the materials, tools, and procedures of woodblock cutting and printing.
Barker, however, is not writing primarily for Chinese art historians or scholars of the Chinese book. Traditional Techniques in Contemporary Chinese Printmaking is first and foremost a guide to printmaking techniques for printmakers. Its precise technical descriptions of different printmaking processes and frequent references to modern materials (there is a list of printmaking-material suppliers on pp. 119-120) earmark it as a practical handbook intended principally for artists and secondarily for collectors interested in understanding the technical challenges of printmaking. As a student of Chinese woodblock printing with no artistic training and no experience as either a printmaker or collector, I am not able to assess the value of the work to these readers. But I can suggest something of its usefulness to those interested in the history of Chinese art, of printing technology, and of the book.
"The Origins of Contemporary Chinese Woodblock Printing," the opening chapter, provides a brief overview of the history of Chinese printmaking and of the development of different techniques of decorative and color printing. "Twice printing" (shuang yin 雙印), "filled-in color printing" (shese taoyin 設色套印) or "one-block many-color printing" (yiban duose -板多色), "variegated printing" (xiuzi 繡梓), blind embossing (gonghua 拱花), and "assembled block printing" (douban 餖版) are all explained, clearly and concisely; so too are the various methods developed to register or align blocks for color printing, to ensure proper placement of the colors. Here Barker focuses appropriately on the innovations of the block cutters and publishers of...