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Rongbaozhai: Advancing the Art of Woodblock Printing
(Part 2 of a 3-part series)

Woodblock printing techniques have been around for more than a thousand years, but letter paper decorated with woodblock-printed poems or pictures did not come into use until the late Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911).

Translator Lin Qinnan originated the use of woodblock print on letter paper, and before long famed painters Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian followed his lead with images of their own. Under such talented hands, decorative letter paper represented the top skill in woodblock printing as well as the painting genres typical of the period.

Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, was very fond of woodblock-printed letter paper. He often went to Rongbaozhai to buy their letter paper. Scholar Zheng Zhenduo, who was to become a deputy minister of culture after the founding of the PRC, shared Lu Xun's fondness for the special paper.

But in the 1930s, the letter paper industry was in a decline, in large part because of the political and economic upheaval China was suffering at the time.

Lu Xun and Zheng Zhenduo were afraid the art of printing decorative letter paper would disappear. They collected as many samples as they could and compiled them into the Collection of Decorative Letter Paper in Peking. They entrusted Rongbaozhai with the job of publishing the book. In the following year, Rongbaozhai printed the Collection of Shizhuzhai Decorative Letter Paper.

In printing these compilations, Rongbaozhai was also able to collect the techniques of woodblock watercolor printing, which established a firm foundation for further development.

Zhang Daqian, together with his family and students, went to Dunhuang in 1941 to study the frescos in the Mogao Grottoes.

During the next two years, Zhang copied 276 frescos. Despite repeated offers to buy his work, Zhang Daqian, who lived by selling paintings, would not sell anyone the copies of the Dunhuang frescoes.

Rongbaozhai manager Wang Renshan, already a friend of Zhang's, suggested that the shop could try to copy the paintings using woodblock watercolor printing. The results surprised Zhang Daqian, who delightedly sent copies of the prints to his friends.

Tian Yongqing created the prints of the Dunhuang fresco paintings, and with them he created a transition to a new stage of woodblock print art.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Zheng Zhenduo and other intellectuals helped Rongbaozhai to become a public-private joint ownership company. Many famous painters and artisans worked with the new company to help develop the art of woodblock watercolor printing.

The first color film produced by Wenhua Film Studio is a documentary focusing on the woodblock watercolor printing of Rongbaozhai.

The detailed accuracy of Rongbaozhai's woodblock print copies of paintings could fool even the sharpest eyes.

One day, Hou Kai, then the manager of Rongbaozhai, invited top painter Qi Baishi, whose trademark works were of shrimp, into the studio. Hou hung two paintings of shrimp before Qi and asked which was Qi's original and which was the duplicate. Qi Baishi studied the painting for a long time, finally admitting, "Er, I don't think I can tell."

With the reformation of the social economy in 1960s, Rongbaozhai became a state owned enterprise. The woodblock watercolor print skill and picture mounting techniques got better and better, and Rongbaozhai got many chances to show its fine art to the public.

Many of China's state-level cultural relics are collected in the Forbidden City. Preserving these priceless treasures while allowing scholars to study them in detail had long been a thorny problem.

Somebody suggested that Rongbaozhai's woodblock watercolor prints might be the solution. Scholars could study the virtually identical prints without any danger of damaging the original paintings.

But no one was certain that it would work. Rongbaozhai's prints were all made on paper, and the painted treasures that were the primary concern here were on soft silk scrolls. The artists were so nervous about attempting the copies that the project was almost abandoned before it even started.

Woodblock artist Tian Yongqing found the solution to the problem that had stymied them. By chance he noticed that cloth used to wrap packages for mailing was easy to write on, unlike the silk that they needed to use. He discovered that treating the fabric with sizing made it relatively easy to write on and manipulate. Thus, almost by accident, the first hurdle was eliminated and Rongbaozhai was able to set to work.

The first silk scroll woodblock watercolor printed work was Pavilion in the Moonlight, originally painted by Wang Yun in the Qing Dynasty.

Because all the original paintings were invaluable relics, working copies had to be made. It took Rongbaozhai 12 years to copy them.

The Night Revel of Han Xizai, a result of the efforts made on the Forbidden City collection, is regarded as the pinnacle of woodblock print art. Chen Linzhai was the copyist; Zhang Yanzhou, the woodblock carver; Sun Lianwang, the printer.

They began planning and preparing The Night Revel of Han Xizai in 1959, and finished it in 1979. It took the three experts 20 years to make this great work.

Chen, Zhang and Sun have all passed away now, and none of their followers at Rongbaozhai has yet felt capable of printing another run of their work. The blocks have slept now for 25 years, and it is possible that they will never be reawakened.

(China.org.cn translated by Chen Lin, May 2, 2004)

Rongbaozhai: A Look at the Past
(Part 1 of a 3-part series)
Donated Japanese Collection on Display
Japanese Woodblock Prints Donated to Museum
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