The Mianzhu Woodblock Rubbing Mystery

David Leffman Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Here are two ink rubbings, apparently taken from engraved stone tablets, of deities Zhao Gongming, the military wealth god (riding the tiger); and the sword-wielding demon-catcher Zhong Kui. The Chinese characters 鎮(家)宅 identify them as door gods protecting a household.

On the left (永鎮家宅) a typically ugly, fierce image of Zhong Kui with bat (skimming the ground lower left) and sword. The qin (Chinese zither) in its case under his arm is less typical, reflecting his cultured achievements. On the right (趙公鎮宅) is Zhao Gongming, the military god of wealth, riding his tiger. I don’t know what the little clutch of birds represents.

But are they what they seem? Engraving stone tablets with the calligraphy and paintings of famous artists has a long history in China, passing down their work to future generations in a lasting way. To make a rubbing, paper is laid over the face of the engraving, dampened and tamped down so that it sinks into the design, before a cloth bag of paint powder (usually black) is banged and stamped all over, blackening the paper’s surface but leaving the sunken parts white. Peel the paper away, and you have your copy.

And yet according to print historians Feng Jicai and Wang Shucun, these door god rubbings were made at Mianzhu in Sichuan province using wooden blocks, not stone. Indeed, there’s a photo of an antique rubbing of Zhao Gongming in Wang Shucun’s Ancient Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints, where you can clearly see both the uneven dabbing effect typical of rubbings, and the vertical planks which make up the woodblock itself.

From Wang Shucun’s Ancient Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints. Vertical line running through 公 marks the joining edges of planks which make up the large printing block.

My rubbings measure about about 24cm x 54cm, while the size of the Zhao Gongming in Wang Shucun’s book is given at 66cm x 133cm. Many workshops in China (such as Wu Caizhen of Foshan) routinely produced differently-sized versions of the same image, which could be sold at a range of prices to suit the customer. It’s also possible that these smaller versions were made during China’s late 1980s woodblock-printing renaissance, which is when I’d date mine to (they were bought from a shop which acquired most of its stock then).

Further information from the Hong Kong Baptist University Library, which has a large collection of these rubbings, suggests that they were probably made by Mianzhu master printmaker Chen Xuezhang (陳學彰, born 1947) or his son Chen Jian (陳建, who also worked with another master, Zhang Xianfu 张先富).

I had a moment of doubt that mine were not rubbings at all but actual woodblock prints, made in homage to the larger originals. However, a quick look at the back and a feel of the paper showed up the heavy embossing typical of the rubbing process. Unless deliberately blind-stamped, woodblock prints never show such tangible embossing.

Frankenstein flash to capture how the paper has been embossed by the rubbing process

There’s a bit of a mystery behind all this. A skilled printer can run off ten or more monochrome woodblock prints a minute – I’ve seen them do it – but making a large rubbing would probably take at least an hour. So if you had your design cut into a woodblock, why not just print from it quickly instead of resorting to such a slow, cumbersome process?

The question will have to wait until I have a chance to visit Mianzhu later this year.


Wang Shucun Ancient Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints (Foreign Languages Press 1985)

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