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The ancient carved wood block printing in China

The latest digital printing technology makes book printing so easy. Have texts ready and proofread, finish layout of the book, export to a PDF file, and take it to any printer and you’ll have as few as one book in a couple of days. 

This sequence is quite similar to how Chinese people began book printing around 1500 years ago. The major difference is that they did not have computers to do the layouts or to save ready-to-print files. What Chinese people did was to physically carve blocks of wood for printing books. 

A couple of my printable Chinese character posters try to capture what this ancient printing style looks like, such as this one.

printable Chinese character poster

But this representation is quite basic. How Chinese people carved blocks of wood for printing deserves to be elaborated with more details.

Carved wood block printing

In Chinese, it is called 雕版印刷 (diāo bǎn yìn shuā), carved wood block printing. 

Most scholars believe that the carved wood block printing was invented around 5th - 6th century. 

Prior to the invention of carved wood block printing, people had to copy each book by hand. 

For anyone who has learned how to write Chinese knows that it is a slow process. Also, from hand to hand, mistakes always slip in. It is so now. It was so then.

The carved wood block printing technology greatly changed how books were duplicated and distributed, produced massive amount of books and had a huge positive impact on social and cultural development. The flourishing culture of Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618 - 907) was not an accident. 

The basic layout of a book page

carved wood block printing page layout

Books printed with carved wood blocks all have beautiful styles. 

The above illustration is one of the basic layouts. It has a thick line and a thin line as border lines. Other borders could be only one thick line, or just one thin line. Patterns were used as alternative borders, such as bamboo patterns, flowers or others.

All layouts included thin vertical lines. 

For me, the border lines and the vertical lines are pure and simple elements to enhance the look of books. Their long presence in Chinese books was a good evidence of people’s admiration for them. These lines made the layout elaborate and beautiful. 

Compare to these layouts, today’s books are really clean, usually just black characters on white.

Tools for carving wood

Carved wood block printing required sophisticated tools to carve the wood, like these:

tools to carve wood blocks

Technicians used these tools to carve out each Chinese character and also the borders.

They usually followed a set sequence. For example, carved all the (héng, horizontal stroke) in one wood block, then carved all the (shù, vertical stroke), and so on.  

I imagine this was a difficult job that required tons of practice to gain dexterity.

The basic printing process

The basic carved wood block printing process went like this:

  1. 写样 (xiě yàng). Someone who was good at brush calligraphy wrote the texts on a thin piece of paper with grids, such as the basic layout above. 
  2. 校正 (jiào zhèng). These texts were proofread. If there was a wrong character, it would be carved out, and the correct character was written to patch up the hole. 
  3. 上板 (shàng bǎn). Turned over the piece of paper and stuck it to a block of wood. Thus the Chinese characters were reversed. 
  4. 雕刻 (diāo kè). Used appropriate tools to carve out characters, borders and vertical lines.
  5. 印刷 (yìn shuā). Used carved wood blocks to print texts on papers and assembled papers into books.

After one print, the used wood blocks would be stored properly and be used again for next print when necessary. 

This printing process required huge space to store the wood blocks, as each book needed a huge pile of wood blocks to finish. 

Things are so easy nowadays. We only need a computer to keep all the files. But, Chinese people back then needed big warehouses. 

Someone saw the need to address this storage problem. That person was 毕昇 (bì shēng, 990-1051). About a thousand years ago, he invented a printing process using movable type, 活字印刷 (huó zì yìn shuā). 

That was really smart, reducing the need for huge storage space for carved wood blocks. However, history shows that, comparing to books printed with carved wood blocks, books printed with movable type remained as a minority. 

Source of information

The illustration of the layout, the carving tools and information about the printing process, all are from this book:《中国古代印刷图志》by 徐忆农.

This book gives great details of the printing history in China, how it started, how Chinese people added colours to prints, how to tell the differences between carved wood block printing and movable type, and a lot more.

For people who are learning Chinese, I hope this simple introduction of ancient carved wood block printing presents an interesting read and offers a different perspective to learning Chinese.