Ancient China and the First Copiers

China is given credit for four major contributions to the world—paper, printing, gunpowder, and the mariner's compass. Additionally, the Chinese get credit for silk, tea, porcelain, various plants, herbal medicines, lacquer, playing cards, dominoes, wallpaper, the folding umbrella, the kite, zinc in coins, goldfish, and the discovery of coal. Overlooked are rubbings. I want to propose that rubbings represent the first successful copying process and therefore deserve more recognition in the technological scheme.

Everyone knows about rubbings. They are what tourists make when they go to Europe and visit the cathedrals and cemeteries. That, of course, is a Eurocentric look at rubbings. My view is Sinocentric. My wife and I spent the spring of 1994 in China. I was teaching at the China School of Journalism. We noticed that the foreign expert had hanging in his apartment a nice piece of calligraphy which was black with white letters. "It's a rubbing," we were told.

A couple of months later in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China and home to the terra cotta warriors, we visited the Museum of Steles, which had been established in the Yuan-yu reign (1086-1093) of the Song dynasty. Eight hundred years before, the Chinese suffered through a book-burning imposed by the emperor Qin Shihuang. When he died, the Chinese began engraving books in stone to preserve them. Rubbings were encouraged as a way of popularizing literature. Today, the museum contains more than 2,300 stone records "hand written by well-known scholars from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). Some are rare treasures. There are also paintings carved on stone, and historical documents and classic books carved on tablets, making it praised as a library of stone inscriptions unique in the world," according to Lanxing Hong (Beijing Review, Aug. 1-8, 1994).

I did not fully appreciate what I was looking at and photographing until I returned to Beijing and began reading an English translation of The Story of Chinese Books. The Chinese were not the first to make rubbings, I discovered. Yet the Chinese recognized that they could make many copies or single copies time and again, and for that they deserve recognition for their fifth great contribution to the world—reprography.

What some call rubbings, others call ink-imprints or ink-squeezes. The Chinese call the process "copy by tapping"—you can hear it before you see it. Here is one explanation: "The engraved surface which is to be duplicated is first covered with a thin, moistened paper. Using a stiff brush, the paper is pressed into all the crevices and indentions constituting the inscription. A silk or cotton pad dipped in ink is then dabbed, or squeezed, which gives the technique its name, over all the raised areas. When the paper is peeled off, it retains, in white characters on a black background, a clear exact impression of the engraved text" (from Technical and Cultural Prerequisites for the Invention of Printing in China and the West ). So, first a picture or calligraphy was painted on stone. Then it was carved. After that, it could be rubbed. (A modern example of this is the Vietnam War Memorial where people copy names through a simple rubbing process.) The Story of Chinese Books suggested that the rubbing process was really a proto-printing process. Other sources suggest the same thing. What I want to argue—while acknowledging the evolutionary nature of technology—is that the rubbing process represents the beginning of reprography and that it deserves to be signified as more than proto-printing. "The need for a means of accurately disseminating the written word before the advent of the printing press was met through rubbing," writes John J. Bodor in Rubbings and Textures, A Graphic Technique. "Calligraphy was carved on stone tablets and displayed in metropolitan centers for all to see and copy. Pilgrims would interrupt their journeys long enough to take rubbings of the various stones. In this way much of the literature as well as edicts of the emperor were spread to the outermost frontiers of the empire."

Stone carvings and stone pictures exist all over China. In preparation for a dam on the Yangtze River, the Chinese saved from destruction various cultural relics that included stone inscriptions. As the newspaper story puts it: "Most of the stone inscriptions depict the great achievements by the local people in hydrology, geology and navigation." At another site unrelated to the dam project, two journalists reported: "Of all the carvings documented so far, about 40 depict the universe and the planets, indicating that astronomy was alive and well during the Han Dynasty." The inscriptions have double value to the Chinese, for they represent historical and artistic source material. Keep in mind that calligraphy is a cultivated art form in China.

That source material includes the Seven Confucian Classics, ordered engraved in stone under the Han Emperor Ling. This engraving was proposed by one of the emperor's ministers who wanted to correct mistakes that had occurred during hand copying. Also carved in stone are the sixteen texts of the Sacred Edicts of Guang Xu, which one Chinese scholar likens to the Ten Commandments. They can be found in Xi'an.

Recently the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm, in sending an announcement over the Internet, said that it had on display "the history of telecommunications—from beacon fires to today's global digital telecommunications network." I like the attitude that phrase conveys, for it recognizes the depth of communications technology's roots.

Aviezer Tucker sees any technological process as a set of evolving principles. "According to technological evolutionism, each technology is based on a certain set of principles. One set of principles is evolving into another similar but different one through what is called in lay language 'invention' (in History and Technology Vol. 7, no. 2). Or, as Basalla puts it, ". . . we should cultivate an appreciation for the diversity of the made world, for the fertility of the technological imagination, and for the grandeur and antiquity of the network of related artifacts" (from The Evolution of Technology).

Rubbings are but part of a series of related artifacts. Recall it was painting-carving-rubbing. And everything was part of a transforming process. "In the case of some of the Han reliefs," Capek writes, in Chinese Stone-Pictures, A Distinctive Form of Chinese Art, "we know that the pictures were first painted on the stone and then carved. But in the transposition of the picture to stone, in the carving, in its new life in a new medium, the picture acquired a new quality, its stone quality, its sculptural character. In its transposition to stone it somehow experienced a transmutation and became a 'stone-picture' which is something different from the painted picture."

The transformation continues. The ancient rubbing process of China represents an enduring technology, one that allows the modern world to study past cultures and understand the evolving technology of communications.

R. Thomas Berner is professor of journalism in the College of Communications, 215 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-7993.

Last Updated September 01, 1996