The History and Art of Chinese Paper Making (Journey in Time) Documentary Video + Info, 2010

Update: Unfortunately, the original video was blocked by YouTube. As a substitute we can offer you these 7-episode series by CCTV:

Ancient Chinese Paper Making Process
Ancient Chinese Paper Making Process

Even today many printers use only paper hand made in selective province’s in China, this special paper is made using an age old technology. The paper is called jade paper, it begins with bamboo and hemp being ground into pulp. After this, workers lie a very fine bamboo sieve vertically into the solution and let the sieve sit in this manner to collect the fibers.

The fibers are then carefully smoothed out on a wooden board until they take shape, dehydrate and become a thin piece of paper. After it is completely dried, it becomes a sheet of paper. The water used in every step from grinding the hemp and the bamboo to sieving the fabric comes from nearby mountain springs. Tap water is never used. As a result, this paper, perfectly absorbing the ink is ideal for block printing.

The paper has three wonderful properties: nice ink absorption, smooth surface, and strength to last for a long time.

Chinese people have a long history of paper use, in 1990 parts of an ancient paper sheet with characters that date back over 2000 years during the late western Han dynasty was discovered. It’s discovery, proved with certainty, that Chinese people were using paper even then. But at that time it’s use was limited only to members of high society simply because of the cost. In later years the paper making technique was improved to use inexpensive materials such as tree bark and bamboo and thus paper became affordable for the general public. Lowering the cost made it a popular material for writing and book printing.

Another thing required by printing and no less important is the ink. No printed matter can be made without ink, even today. Without it, printing is impossible. It is a necessary condition just like paper.

Ink is first brushed onto the plate, and then a piece of paper is placed on top of it. With the right pressure, the ink will be transferred onto the protruding characters. Thus ink is as important as anything else in the printing process.

Back in the neolithic age, Chinese people had already begun to use ink which was found on the inscriptions found on the tortoise shells, animal bones and strips of bamboo and even on some pottery items for decorative purposes. A unique ink called, pine soot, appeared around the 3rd century AD. It became indispensable to the block printing of later era’s. The Tiangong Kai Wu or “exploration of the works of nature”, a Ming dynasty publication, authored by a man named Song Yingxing, documented the process of making this ink in great detail. A reference on this document reads “pine wood is cut into small pieces before being burnt in a kiln for several days for its soot“.

The ink used at many traditional printers, comes from the soot collected from the chimneys at porcelain making factories in nearby provinces. But the soot has to go through a complicated series of steps before it is suitable for use in printing.

Tobacco leaves, alcohol, perfume and mint leaves are added to many special inks in China to help make the inks last longer on printed books and to stop pests like insects or worms from destroying the books.

4 Steps are involved when making block printing: Copying, carving, printing and binding.

In ancient China, copying was a trade that involved more prestige than many others. Anybody who wanted to print a book had to hire people with good handwriting to copy the original. Even today, in many printers in China, copying is done by hand with writing brushes – a method that is over 1000 years old.

Due to the varying softness of each brush tip the resulting output differs slightly from copier to copier.

A piece of classic calligraphy produced before the Sung dynasty might have been good to look at but it was difficult to read. Later in the Sung dynasty a standardized style for block printing was developed. The style features thin horizontal strokes and thick vertical strokes.

With this prescribed style, no matter who wrote it, the handwriting would always be the same. Because the style first appeared in the Song period it is commonly referred to as the Song Style Characters. The most common style used before it was developed was called Kai.

The birth of the Song Style boosted the popularity of block printing.

Diamond Sutra
Diamond Sutra

After the discovery of the ‘Diamond Sutra‘ (author Aurel Stein), a large piece of paper almost perfectly written Buddhist text, many scholars believe the the origins of Chinese block printing could be pushed back from the earlier estimates by at least 200 years to around AD 868. It is known as the world’s earliest dated printed book

Long before the appearance of printing during China’s bronze age and over 1000 years before the Christian era, craftsmen already had a way to transfer written characters and decorative patterns onto a piece of bronze.

Impressions were first made in positive on a piece of pottery to be hardened by firing, this was then offset printed onto a cast as a negative. This negative would then become a printed positive on the final moulded bronze. This process was in fact very similar to present day block printing.

In 1973 a large amount of silk artefacts were unearthed from Mawangdui Han Tomb No.1 in Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province (more info here). The tomb dated back to the Han Dynasty over 2000 years ago. All the images on these works of silk were imprinted by a pre-made plate, showing at the time that carving and printing skills were fairly mature. Another form of imprinting appeared at the same time and was equally mature, it was called seal carving.

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Personal seals are an age old practice, common even in the present day and seen in almost all aspects of life. Most of the personal seals we see today have three or four characters, but in ancient times some might have more than 200. Seals are, actually, a miniature form of the block printing technique. They function similarly, one plate, one impression at a time.

The knives used for plate carving are made from hardened steel. Contemporary people prefer to make their own knives from sword blades. Whether ancient or contemporary, carvers tend to hold their knifes in their fists, because of this they are commonly referred to as ‘Fist Knives’.

The original inking on paper is pasted onto a wooden board in reverse to show up the characters. Carvers then hollow out the white part and keep the brush strokes and ink, this is known as reverse carving.

Carved Woodblock and Printed Paper
Carved Woodblock and Printed Paper

But how can the carvers ensure that the characters stay faithful to the original? The answer is with great skill. Workers first cut off the empty space to the left of the character, this is known as first delivery. After first delivery, workers turn the board upside down and use the tip of the knife to remove the bank part on the left neatly. This process is called removal.

If the board has scars on it or damage caused by worms or a carving mistake occurs, workers have to repair the board by filling in the hole or covering the dent with wood of the same size before re-carving. A skilled worker can carve only around 100 characters per day.

When the plates are done, printing begins with a small broom made of palm fibre to brush ink onto the plate. However, ink applied in this way was often uneven, leaving gaps in the strokes, this happens often when brushes are old.

Ancient workers changed the shape of their brushes by rolling up the brush hair and applying ink by dabbing as opposed to stroking; this change bought for a very satisfactory result. No more gaps were seen and the ink was much fuller than it had been previously.

Brushing ink onto the plates requires just the right strength applied by hand. If the pressure is too light the ink will be uneven, if it is too heavy the plate will suffer unseen damage, rendering a smaller print run that what would have otherwise been possible.

After the ink is applied, a sheet of paper is laid on the plate. A worker will brush it repeatedly with a palm brush. The hand pressure at this point is heavier than what was required for the ink. This is to ensure that the paper absorbs as much ink as possible and make the impression distinct on the paper. Brushing and imprinting are thus combined to give birth to a new term: printing.