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The History of Engraving in China
article selected from Travel China weekly

Engraving occupies an important position in Chinese fine arts and has a unique charm. With a history of 1,000 odd years, this ancient art has formed a classical yet modern artistic style.


Engraving makes up an important part of Chinese fine arts. Ancient engraving mainly involved woodcuts together with copperplates and colored bites. These unique methods give it an independent artistic value and position in China's cultural and artistic history.

China's earliest extant engraving was made in the year 868. The works of engraving created in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the Five Dynasties (907-960) have been discovered in the northwest and southeast. Focusing on religion, they are of primitive simplicity.

The Buddhist engravings during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Yuan dynasties (1206-1368) achieved further progress and the works were perfected. Landscape pictures started to emerge. Scientific, technological and literary books and picture albums contained a large amount of works of discharge printing. Due to practical requirements, copperplate printing appeared in the Song Dynasty to print paper currency and advertisements.

The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties were peak times for the development of engraving in China. With the joint efforts of many scholars, book merchants and engraving flourished. Not only religious engraving reached its climax in the Ming Dynasty but picturesque engraving did, too. The number of best picture copybooks, novels, dramas, biographies and poems cannot be counted. With different editions, the engraving plates of well-known literary works became numerous and influential.

Different schools of engraving prospered in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The works of the Jian'an School of Jianyang in Fujian, mostly created by folk craftsmen, were simple and unsophisticated. The works of the Jinling School of Nanjing concentrated on dramas and novels. The works of Wuling School of Hangzhou had unlimited subjects and fine carvings and the Hui School of Huizhou in Anhui had a lasting effect on and a vital position in China's cultural history.

To picturesque engraving the following artistic characteristics should be paid attention to:

1. Utilizing the natural color of the object as much as possible.
2. Applying shade effect so as to achieve the unique artistic effect of engraving.
3. Giving full play to the characteristic of watercolor block printing to produce a strong artistic effect.
4. Expressing the theme through the ingenious composition of pictures.

Ancient Chinese engraving has its own history of development and formed a unique artistic style.




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