Long before copying machines were invented, ancient Chinese had come up with a way to retrieve patterns, calligraphy, or characters engraved on oracle bones, bronze ware, and stone tablets. What they used were pretty simple items: a piece of rice paper, ink, and a cloth ball. They first covered the inscriptions with a piece of rice paper, and then tamped down on the paper into the inscriptions with a cloth filled with light ink. When the paper was peeled off, rubbings would come out.
Seemingly simple, the craft that makes those rubbings, called chuanta (meaning to inherit with rubbings in Chinese), dates back thousands of years and is still in use today. Thanks to the wisdom of ancient Chinese, today we are able to connect with this ancient culture and follow in the footprints of the ancient Chinese civilization.
While to most people chuanta may seem quite far removed from daily life, it is not dissimilar to the childhood memories of covering a coin with a piece of paper and then using a pencil to rub across the paper and transfering the coin patterns to the paper.
As a document duplication technique, chuanta played a big role in preserving ancient culture and facilitating cultural exchanges. When a bronze ware or a stone tablet deteriorates or no longer exists, their rubbings have become the only permanent record of their existence. For later generations, studying rubbings in one specific area could teach them what was going on in an area during a specific time in history.
Wei Sa, now 21 years old, is a rubbing artist. He began to learn ancient brick rubbing techniques in 2019. In his hands, the characteristics or patterns on the bricks, which are thousands of years old, are clearly copied onto rice paper before finally made into exhibits.
The Chuanta Technique
When making rubbings, a skilled artisan rubs the ink-soaked cloth gently across the rice paper over an oracle bone, bronze ware or a stone tablet’s engraved surface, focusing on lines and features they want to capture, and continue until satisfied with the rubbing.
The technique development dates back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589). The earliest record of it is in the Book of the Sui Dynasty. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the technique had become widely used, and people mainly used hemp paper for rubbings. Later in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), people preferred thick paper and heavy ink. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), as the study of ancient inscriptions reached its peak, the technique was further developed, and craftsmen were able to make three-dimensional rubbings of bronze ware. In the Republic of China period (1912-1949), the technique reached its zenith.
The basic tools used include cloth balls and various kinds of soft and hard brushes. In the selection of materials, rice paper, which absorbs water evenly and has good tension, is preferred. There are a set of strict procedures: washing the tablet, covering it with rice paper, tamping the paper, stippling ink on the paper, and removing the paper. During the whole process, in order to make the rubbings clear, artists need to be very skillful, for example, in selecting pliable rice paper, controlling the amount of pigments or ink, and knowing when and where to apply even pressure.
There are also taboos. First of all, chuanta is used to preserve original cultural relics and to retain their original flavor, so any extra creation by the artist is redundant. Second, the ink or pigments applied could not appear as a mass; instead, it needs to be evenly spread. An exquisite rubbing product is a combination of fine materials, suitable tools, and skillfulness.
In China, the wide application of chuanta technique helps preserve many cultural relics. The abundant rubbings of various kinds, especially calligraphy rubbings, now collected in China’s museums, are priceless and studying them can offer more information about China’s history.
The art of chuanta is known as the natural combination of bronze ware, stone, paper, and ink. Since the beginning of its invention, ink was the main material. With each tamping process, the light ink on the cloth ball appeared slowly on the rice paper. The fine works passed down through the ages reveal the spirit and style of ancient literati. Rubbings are the perfect combination of artificial beauty and natural beauty, which embraces the Chinese philosophy of following the course of nature.
For thousands of years, chuanta has preserved many precious documents, extensive Chinese calligraphy artworks, magnificent paintings, and works of exquisite engraving art. Today, although many ancient techniques have been more or less replaced by advanced technology, chuanta is still playing an irreplaceable role in the protection of cultural relics and ancient books, and is still used today.
The rubbings are divided into many forms, including relief rubbings, deep relief rubbings, and three-dimensional rubbings. They come in all shapes and sizes, reveal every detail of the cultural relic, and have the texture not found in photographs.
In all the rubbings, bronze ware ones are particularly precious, as bronze ware is usually presented in a three-dimensional way on paper, which is their most impressive form of transfer. Many unearthed bronze wares, as national treasures, are presented to people through their rubbings, which are of high historical, cultural and artistic value.
Wang Zexu (right), a master of the rubbing techniques, with one of his apprentices.
The Middle School Attached to the Central Academy of Art and Design is located in Dongcheng District, Beijing. The school is the education base of chuanta art, the intangible cultural heritage of the district. Its principal, Wang Zexu, is the third generation representative inheritor of this art.
Wang has become a master of this craft with his rigorous artistic attitude and respect for traditional Chinese culture. In his career, he has not only inherited the techniques from the past, but also strives to make innovations. On the one hand, he retains the authentic flavor of the cultural relics as much as possible, and on the other, he incorporates techniques from Western paintings into the chuanta art.
In Wang’s opinion, to pass on the intangible cultural heritage to younger generations not only requires teaching them skills, but also involves cultivating their integrity. For years, he has made it his mission to promote the chuanta art. He has set up workshops and built corridors of stone tablets for students to learn how to make exquisite rubbings. In addition, he has organized related lectures for both students and their parents, as well as exchange students from other countries, which have proved very popular.
“China’s fine traditional culture is an inexhaustible treasure house. As inheritors, we must always be in awe of it. To me, the best way to promote traditional art is to unveil its mystery to more people,” said Wang. In his eyes, to arouse interest in the young is very important. The chuanta art, though it still exists, is faced with the same inheritance problem as many other traditional crafts, namely the lack of successors. With the progress of science and technology, many cultural relics are preserved through more convenient means. However, the charm of paper and ink contained in this technique can never be replaced in Wang’s eyes.
In recent years, Wang and his colleagues have made great efforts to introduce the art to more people from home and abroad. They’ve participated in many cultural exchange activities to show this ancient “photocopying” art to people in a bid to inject new blood into their beloved craft.