Cultural Treasures from Shandong Province: Ancient Chinese Pictorial Stone Rubbings

Cultural Treasures from Shandong Province: Ancient Chinese Pictorial Stone Rubbings

Organized in coordination with THE SHANDONG PROVINCIAL CULTURAL HERITAGE BUREAU and THE SHANDONG STONECARVING ARTS MUSEUM

ON VIEW MAY 19 – MAY 31

乙瑛碑 The Stele of Yi Ying, 永兴元年 (153) 1st year of Yongxing Reign, Eastern Han Dynasty (153AD), 198×92, 山东曲阜 Qufu City, Shandong Province, Courtesy of the Shandong Carved-stone Art Museum

乙瑛碑 The Stele of Yi Ying, 永兴元年 (153) 1st year of Yongxing Reign, Eastern Han Dynasty (153AD), 198×92, 山东曲阜 Qufu City, Shandong Province, Courtesy of the Shandong Carved-stone Art Museum

This special addition to our late spring exhibition schedule contains more than 60 stone inscriptions of the Qin and Han Dynasties in the Shandong province of eastern China. During the 7th century, the Chinese began to use a method of stone rubbing with paper and ink in order to make multiple copies of these inscriptions. The rubbings (also known as inked squeezes) preserved the inscriptions better than the stone itself. You may not have the opportunity to see these stone rubbings again unless you travel to China (not a bad idea)!

No other civilization has relied on the practice of carving inscriptions into stone as a manner of preserving history and culture as much as the Chinese. These stones serve as not only important art historical artifacts but signs of cultural heritage ranging in style and across the Shandong area.

The Mount Tai Inscriptions and Langya Incriptions, which are still well preserved after natural disasters, are rare treasures. The Wu’s ancestral temple in Jiaxiang and the stone ancestral temple on Xiaotang Mountain in Changqing are already well known both at home and abroad. The tombs found in Beizhai of Yinan and Dongjia Village of Anqiu in 1950s contained stunning imagery on the stones. The cliff inscriptions of sutra of the Northern Dynasties are grand and majestic.

How were the stone rubbings made specifically? According to the East Asian Library at the University of California, Berkley:

  • Rubbings in effect “print” the inscription, making precise copies that can be carried away and distributed in considerable numbers.
  • It is interesting to think about the dissemination of prints throughout Shandong and China during the 7th century! The mass production of prints later becomes popular again and again as through the work of Albrecht Durer, famous French Revolution images like Honore Daumier’s, and that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
  • To make a rubbing, a sheet of moistened paper is laid on the inscribed surface and tamped into every depression with a rabbit’s-hair brush. (By another method, the paper is laid on dry, then brushed with a rice or wheat-based paste before being tamped.)
  • When the paper is almost dry, its surface is tapped with an inked pad. The paper is then peeled from the stone. Since the black ink does not touch the parts of the paper that are pressed into the inscription, the process produces white characters on a black background. (If the inscription is cut in relief, rather than intaglio, black and white are reversed.)
  • This technique appeared simultaneously with, if not earlier than, the development of printing in China. Many scholars contend that block printing derived from the technique of making impressions with carved seals: in printing, a mirror image is carved in relief on a wood block; the surface that stands in relief is then inked, and paper pressed onto it—the reverse of the method used for making rubbings.