Museum of Chinese Art and Ethnography Xaverian Missionaries - V.le S. Martino, 8 - Parma, Italy 0521-257.337

The arts of Rubbings

Prof. Nicoletta Celli

 

View of the Temple of Wo Long Gang, The hill of the sleepy dragon, 1920
Temple of Wo Long Gang
The hill of the sleepy dragon (1920)

Rubbings have been made in China for around 1500 years. The origins of the technique are not known, but it is likely that the practice of making ink on paper reproductions of the classic Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist texts inscribed on stone slabs began in the first centuries AD. The earliest known specimen dates from the early seventh century, while the fashion for collecting rubbings began some two centuries later.

The technique entails laying a sheet of moistened paper over the surface to be reproduced so that it adheres perfectly to every crevice. The paper is then carefully tamped with a pad soaked in ink, after which the sheet can be removed. The inscription or drawing is in this way reproduced in white on a black ground (or vice versa, if the inscription or drawing is in relief).

Shouxing - God of long life longevity 1920
Shouxing
God of long life (1920)
The complete faithfulness to the original which this technique ensured meant the rubbings were as admired as works of art in their own right, especially if they reproduced famous examples of calligraphy, pictures or extremely important documents. Models of calligraphy (fa tie 法帖) were precious instruments of study for aspiring calligraphers, while the canonical texts were studied by scholars, who could rely on accurate reproductions free of any errors made by an absentminded copier. Almost like the forerunners of a modern photocopier, stone engravings enjoyed the clear advantage of providing a potentially unlimited series of rubbings, as well as the unforeseen benefit of transmitting famous calligraphies or paintings, whose originals on silk and stone reproductions have been lost, to future generations. Although stone was the preferred medium, inscriptions could also be made on other materials, such as wood, ceramics, bronze and jade, which of course could also yield rubbings.

The examples displayed here include a specimen with directional animals, a common decoration in a funerary context, and other rubbings of various subjects (Taoist and Buddhist figures, pictures of famous monasteries or sacred places and favorite subjects for paintings) taken from stone slabs.