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Wednesday, April 24, 2019, 11:13
Woodblock printing writes a new chapter
By Li Yingxue
Wednesday, April 24, 2019, 11:13 By Li Yingxue

The Yangmeizhu branch of the Mofan Bookstore, the group's first bookshop founded in 2014. (WANG ZI / CHINA DAILY)

Students and teachers from the United States took a course steeped in culture and history at a Beijing bookstore last month. The 22 students and four teachers from Sidwell Friends School in Washington learned the intricate art of how to make a thread-bound notebook from scratch.

"The process is not hard for anyone, and the tutor guides you in every step. All you need is to put your heart into it and get to know traditional culture from the perspective of a bookbinding artisan."

Lin Xi, 26, an entertainment company staff member

Sun Ju, 49, one of the tutors and a bookbinding craftsman at the Mofan Bookstore in Beijing, taught the students and teachers the 10-step process. This involves folding the paper sheets, inserting a blank sheet between each one, trimming the piles of folded sheets, fixing, pasting, cutting, packaging, punching holes, stitching with needle and thread, and sticking the book name on the cover.

"They knew nothing about traditional Chinese thread-bound bookbinding before, but some of them managed to complete their own notebook," Sun says, with no small amount of admiration.

"It's actually a skill that everyone can learn and experience in the course. All you need is patience," she says.

To Lin Xi, a participant who came to learn bookbinding skills at the bookstore at a training session held last month, concentration and a peaceful state of mind were essential attributes to mastering the technique.

Lin, 26, works in the business sector with a variety entertainment company in Beijing but wanted to feel the culture that imbues the craft.

"I appreciated the concentration, calmness and serenity," Lin says, "especially considering the hectic lives we lead."

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Lin underwent a couple hours of intense training to make the thread-bound journal and found the work simple but beautiful.

"It's simply a fun experience," Lin says. "The process is not hard for anyone, and the tutor guides you in every step. All you need is to put your heart into it and get to know traditional culture from the perspective of a bookbinding artisan."

The course was developed by the Mofan Bookstore and Zhuyu Shanfang, a woodblock printing workshop. It aims to allow more people to understand and appreciate the traditional craft skills of engraving and bookbinding.

Woodblock treasure trove

Book designer and entrepreneur Jiang Xun, together with his wife Xing Na, co-founded the Mofan Bookstore in 2014. It specializes in books on literature, history and art, and also publishes thread-bound books made using woodblock printing methods.

Engraved woodblock printing is a technique perfected in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At its core, it involves engraving characters on a piece of wood, and then inking the woodblock before placing paper on it. The technique was listed as a UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

The process of woodblock printing can be divided into several key steps-material preparation, the actual carving, inking, printing, binding and layout. The final products, the thread-bound books printed on rice paper, exude elegance, and are scented with the fragrance of ink.

Jiang, 49, used to design book covers for publishing houses full time before opening his bookstore. He is also a woodblock collector, so he decided to publish woodblock-printed books after opening the bookstore.

"He is a bibliophile and simply adores books, and cherishes the woodblocks especially," says Xing, 37.

Jiang now has a collection of more than 30,000 woodblocks, some originating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Students of the Sidwell Friends School from the United States experience the stitched bookbinding process in Beijing on March 19. (REN CHAO / XINHUA)

In 2009, Jiang cooperated with the National Library of China to open a woodblock museum located in a former canteen of the library's branch near Beihai Park.

Jiang exhibited more than 10,000 pieces from his woodblock collection for the public to see for free.

The woodblocks were traditionally abandoned once printing finished. They ended up as chopping boards or window frames, and Jiang hired a group of craftsmen to repair them.

Freedom in a bound world

Jiang's workshop, Zhuyu Shanfang (literally "boiling-rain study") was founded in 2001, and three bookbinding craftsmen and a woodblock carving artisan now work there.

Zhao Yishen, 33, does the engraving on the woodblocks, and the papers are bound into books with thread after printing, by three other craftsmen.

Stitched bookbinding is a traditional Chinese method originating in the Song Dynasty. It involves punching holes on the spine and stitching the book using a silk cord. The knot is tied and concealed in the spine.

Ancient books employed complex binding skills and procedures, and the different forms of binding include butterfly, spider's web or double-leaf patterns, according to Sun, who joined the workshop in 2015.

"All four of us quit our previous jobs to learn how to make these traditional books. My other three colleagues were a doctor, an engineer, and a law-major graduate," says Sun, who had worked in a securities company. "We all made 'handsome salaries', but shared a passion for woodblock printing and ancient books, so we quit to work as artisans."

Sun quit her job in 2013 and took an adult-learning college-level course on ancient book repairs held by the National Library of China. In her studies that lasted two and a half years, she went to school each night from Monday to Thursday and all day on Saturday to learn the skills.

According to her, there are a large number of ancient books that need to be repaired, but very few job positions.

Besides binding books made with woodblock printing, Sun and her colleagues also make notebooks and journals to sell at the bookstore. These exquisite handmade products have won over many young buyers.

"I feel happy and relaxed working as a craftsman, especially as I don't have to deal with figures and sit in front of a computer all day long any more, and I don't even need a laptop," says Sun. "Now I'm just dealing with rice paper."

A stitched bookbinding craftsman guides a learner to cut the sheets to make a thread-bound book. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Course with a mission

A trip by Jiang in March to a village in Ninghua county, Fujian province proved a revelation and made them determined to help revive the craft.

"I took a five-hour flight and a two-hour drive up a mountain road to reach a town that used to have more than 100 factories making quality paper for thread-bound books in the 1970s. But now, there is only one factory left," says Jiang.

Ninghua was once the center for making handmade yukou paper. The craft and technology behind the production of the paper was invented by Cai Lun of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). The yukou paper (which literally means "jade button"), made of tender bamboo pulp, is pliable and tough and can remain intact for hundreds of years.

Jiang is sad about the decline of the papermaking industry in the town and blames the migration of the young workers to urban areas as the key reason.

"There has to be a sustainable way to support the factory to keep running, besides a drive to sell bigger volumes of the paper they make," says Jiang.

READ MORE: Tradition around the block

The course in stitched bookbinding started in March, and the Sidwell students are the first group to take it. A two-hour session costs 360 yuan (US$54) for each student and is held at weekends at the bookstore in Tianqiao, Beijing.

All three craftsmen in the workshop prepare the materials and tools, and take turns to teach. The group plans to introduce more complex and challenging courses in the future.

Contact the writer at liyingxue@chinadaily.com.cn

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