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June 8, 2011

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Wondrous works from blocks of wood

AN ancient form of meticulous woodblock printing produces pictures that appear to be original ink-wash paintings, with subtle brushstrokes, textures and hues.

This art - water-based woodblock printing on rice paper - is considered a part of China's intangible cultural heritage.

But the art is so demanding of perfection, patience and sometimes even years on one work, that there are few practitioners today. So far in China only two studios in Shanghai and Beijing still practice this ages-old craft.

In a Shanghai studio in an old building on Yan'an Road W., the art is being passed on to a younger generation of apprentices.

"It's difficult to explain the whole process and the techniques," says Zheng Mingchuan, director of the Woodblock Print Workshop. "Just take a look at a print.

"The stunning visual effects can't be achieved by any modern printing techniques and equipment," Zheng says. "Sometimes the magic created through pure hand labor is beyond one's expectation."

The birth of water woodblock print in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and it flourished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Today it's a "living fossil" of China's printing history.

The small studio workshop was established by Duo Yun Xuan, an art house dating back to 1900, to preserve the art that involves many steps and many separate pieces of carving that eventually all fit together.

"We have some old retired experts who are teaching young people to grasp the skills," says Zheng. "But due to the labor-intensive work, our output is very small."

According to Zheng, only around 100 pieces can be produced every month; each costs an average of several thousand yuan.

Very basically, there are three steps: outlining, carving and printing with water-based paint.

"Sounds simple?" asks Lin Yuqin, who has been working on woodblock printing for 40 years, since she was 18 years old. "But each step involves a lot of detailed and laborious work and a whole print requires different woodblocks."

Wood is carefully selected; soft wood is used for detailed carving that looks like brushstrokes and harder wood is used for strong and deep lines.

A single piece of rice paper is pressed successively on woodblocks bearing different colors.

"Each small step influences the final result, so one must be extremely careful," says Lin.

The proper humidity is extremely important to ensure consistency of paint and application on rice paper, so several humidifiers are installed beside each worker.

"When I was young, there were no humidifiers; the room was always filled with mist from big pots of boiling water," says Lin.

"You have to use your brains at every small step," she says, calling the process akin to "deciphering a puzzle."

The moment of completion is one of deep satisfaction for all involved.

The most precious and spectacular production is a 720cm-by-206cm scroll based on the painting "Saints Celebrating Their Birth," a masterpiece by Ren Bonian (Ren Yi, 1840-1896)

The scroll required more than 2,000 woodblocks covering 12 sections and was showcased at the World Expo in Shanghai last year.

"Guess, how long it took? Eight years!" says Lin. "That's hand craftsmanship."

Duo Yun Xuan

Address: Rm 207, Bldg 3, 593 Yan'an Rd W.

Tel: 6122-9008 ext 7131 (in Chinese only)


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