Woodblock Plates and Movable Types
East Asian woodblock plates and movable types at the Speical Collections at the Claremont Colleges
Introduction to the Art of Chinese Traditional Woodblock Printing (Excerpts from Hong Kong Heritage Museum website)
Throughout its long history in China, woodblock printing has occupied an important
position – as a handicraft manufacture, but also as a folk art that requires precision in
tracing, carving and alignment in printing. Woodblock printing has made tremendous
contributions to the spread of knowledge, insight and artistic inspiration.
The earliest woodblock printed illustration extant today was made in the year 868, at
the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Discovered by a scholar named Aurel Stein
in 1907 in Dunhuang, it is the title page of the Diamond Sutra.
Most of the woodblock prints of the Tang Dynasty depicted religious themes. In the
Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), woodblock printing was extended to producing books on
the classics, literature as well as illustrations. In terms of technique, process changed
from one-colour to two-colour printing, with vermilion ink used side by side with
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), block-printing techniques became so advanced that
full-colour effects could be achieved through the use of separate blocks for different
colours. With further developments in printing and engraving during the Ming and
Qing Dynasties, a large variety of woodblock prints appeared. The subject matter of
these prints included operatic stories, as well as descriptions of people and places.
The product of this time included Chinese New Year prints and paper offerings.
Lithography was introduced to China from the West in late 19th century. The
mechanical process made volume production possible, and the printing effects were
very appealing and of high quality. Lithographic printing became popular and became
the industry standard for publishing books, magazines, newspapers and publicity
materials. During the early 20th century, the civil wars destroyed many of the
traditional workshops that led to a decline in woodblock production.