According to current scholarship, printing on paper was invented in China about 700 A.D., making China the country with the longest history of printing in the world. The capacity for multiple duplications and the affordable price of the printed image have long made it an effective medium for mass communication in various cultural contexts.
A vehicle for disseminating the Buddhist faith and shaping its evolving canon in China, pictorial prints assumed a major role in folk rituals and festivals as their subject matter expanded to include auspicious or protective imagery. Printing grew into a significant art form in the early seventeenth century, when an affluent urban populace became avid consumers of culturally sophisticated commodities, including elegant prints. Woodblock-printed images have remained a vibrant medium for articulating nationalistic sentiments and sociopolitical commentary through post-dynastic China's periods of revolution and reform. They also reflect the intelligentsia's ambivalence toward Western-dominated modernization in art and society.
Encompassing more than a millennium of imagery and featuring some 130 pictorial prints from the British Museum's outstanding collection, the exhibition illuminates the production techniques, aesthetic principles, and thematic complexities of this distinctive art form.
Buddhism, which became a state religion in China during the Sui dynasty (589–618), teaches that commissioning and reproducing sacred texts and images is a way to receive blessings and accumulate merits. Consequently, the faith was a driving force in the early development of Chinese printing. As the inaccurate transcription of sacred texts and images might reduce their efficacy, printing assured a safer way of reproduction than hand copying. It helped not only to spread Buddhism but also to standardize the canon.
All the prints in this section of the exhibition were discovered in a Buddhist cave temple near the oasis town of Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Datable to the late seventh through the tenth century, they document the technical progress that occurred during the first stage of woodblock printing. While the earliest works—multiple impressions of the same Buddha image—appear crude and stiff, later figural representations and texts closely resemble the fluidity of actual paintings and calligraphies, also on view in this section of the exhibition.
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes linking China and West Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Merchants, Buddhist pilgrims, and other travelers would have stopped at Dunhuang to rest, trade goods, give thanks for survival, and pray for their journey ahead.
During the long Ming period (1368–1644), political stability and economic prosperity contributed to an increase in wealth, literacy, and social mobility among China's burgeoning urban population. Cities such as Nanjing and Suzhou became centers for the educated elite and wealthy merchants who fostered an avid consumption of culturally sophisticated goods, including finely printed material.
Most notable was the early seventeenth-century perfection of high-quality printing in graded colors. Although color printing had existed for centuries, the use of multiple blocks to create layered tonalities, often without the use of ink outlines, enabled printers to create images that closely resembled paintings executed with a brush. Not only were classical painting compositions translated into the print medium, but contemporary artists also contributed painterly designs that served as both inspiring models and actual painting manuals. This quest for technical refinement had a significant impact on the development of color printing in Japan.
During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), exquisitely crafted prints and printed books were distributed by the ruling Manchus to members of the imperial clan, state guests, and envoys from tributary countries as part of an endeavor to legitimatize their reign and to propagate dynastic glory.
Most impressive is the series of historical battle scenes commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–96) to commemorate his victorious campaign in East Turkestan between 1755 and 1759. These prints, based on pictorial designs by Jesuit missionaries, were produced with Western engraving and etching techniques introduced by the Italian priest Matteo Ripa (1682–1746). The emperor also commissioned engravings of his Western baroque-style palaces in the Garden of Perfect Brightness, a project that reveals his taste for the exotic and his desire to be a universal ruler.
The term "popular print" refers to mass-produced single-sheet color prints on auspicious or protective subjects that range from seasonal celebrations to figures from folk religion and popular literature. Due to their extraordinary popularity, prints made for the New Year's Festival constitute a special category: nianhua (New Year's pictures). Most common are images of door guardians thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the family in the coming year.
Although successful designs were quickly copied, some workshops became known for their distinctive styles or technical refinement. Prints from Taohuawu, in Suzhou, for instance, are admired for their subtle coloration, those from Yangliuqing, near Tianjin, for their painterly execution, and those from Mianzhu, in Sichuan, for their bold, bright designs. In the early seventeenth century individual workshops in Yangliuqing produced more than a million sheets per year. The twentieth century witnessed the rise of Shanghai as a production center, where a vibrant poster industry developed.
The early years of the twentieth century were marked by a powerful revival of black-and-white woodcuts in China, with similar developments in Europe, Japan, and America. Most prints in this section of the exhibition date from the period of political and cultural turmoil that began with the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and continued through the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45).
In the late 1920s, the artist Li Shutong (1880–1942) and the writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) founded the Modern Woodcut Movement, championing pictorial prints as an ideal populist medium for advocating sociopolitical reforms. Breaking with traditional woodcut practices, artists assumed the heretofore separate roles of designer, carver, and printer while creating a new rustically expressive style. Early centers included Shanghai and Guangzhou. After the outbreak of war, left-leaning artists in Yan'an, the Communist base in the northwest, integrated folk-art elements to present idealized images of party heroes, while right-wing artists in Chongqing, the wartime capital in the southwest, called for resistance with compelling imagery marked by dramatic visual contrasts.
After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, artistic activity was institutionalized and print departments were established at the major art academies, particularly in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Chongqing. The quest for a national style in the politically more liberal years of the early 1950s and after the break with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s brought a revival of traditional multicolored woodcuts created with water-soluble ink. High-quality reprints of famous seventeenth-century decorated stationery in 1952 manifested the government's promotion of traditional arts and crafts.
During the Cultural Revolution (1967–76), poster-size prints featuring heroic laborers set against a red backdrop predominated. Their distinct Socialist Realist style and explicit propagandist message reflected the overheated political atmosphere of the period.
In December 1979, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) announced a new era of modernization and economic reform. Artists explored new techniques, styles, and themes as China reopened itself to the global community in the 1980s and 1990s. The arts entered a renewed period of pluralistic development.
The prints in this section of the exhibition are refreshingly apolitical in terms of subject and style. Trained mostly in Hangzhou and Beijing, these artists adapted both traditional and Western techniques to their own personal approaches to achieve radically different graphic effects. Some convey their nostalgia for a rural lifestyle and ancient culture, while others depict a modern industrialized society with a vague sense of unease, or even crisis, highlighting the confrontation between nature and rapidly advancing technology.
The works in this section of the exhibition, extraordinary in their stylistic diversity and technical ingenuity, exemplify the latest achievements of Chinese print artists, including lithographic and digital prints. Even in more traditional woodcuts, carving techniques often attain a level of refinement comparable to engraving or etching. Contrary to earlier times when human figures and narrative themes dominated printed pictures, highly individualistic landscapes have become more prevalent since the 1980s. Some Hangzhou artists, for instance, have used natural wood grain to give linear structure to landscape elements, while Sichuan printers have created a strong monochromatic style with bold designs that recall the aesthetic of photographic art.
Semiabstract compositions that are fundamentally Western in conception have also become an important genre of Chinese prints. When combined with words or text passages, however, these modern images still evoke the traditional Chinese ideal of integrating painting, calligraphy, and poetry. In the most subversive experiment, traditionally formatted books are printed with indecipherable characters.
Woodblock Printing in Monochrome
Woodblock printing continues to be used in China, marking a more than one-thousand-year history. To produce a single-color woodblock print, an illustrator or scribe first draws or writes a picture or text on a piece of paper using a brush and carbon ink. The paper with the ink drawing is then dampened and placed face down on a wooden block. The carver (who can see the drawing in reverse through the paper) cuts away the blank areas, leaving the linear design in relief. The carved woodblock is then brushed with ink, and a sheet of paper is spread over it and brushed lightly with a soft pad before being removed to dry.
Woodblock Printing in Multiple Colors
Printing in two colors and in fine lines dates back at least to the twelfth century in China. Impressions in multiple colors, produced by using a set of blocks, each carved for a different color, reached a level of perfection about 1630. Printers created finely nuanced gradations of color by brushing diluted or concentrated inks on the same block. The technique required the precise positioning (known as registration) of one or more blocks on the paper, achieved by means of an ingenious printing table slit vertically down the middle. A stack of paper was fixed on the right. The firmly positioned woodblock on the left was then inked and the sheets of paper pulled across the slit onto the inked block. To apply another color, the block was replaced and the process repeated using the same stack of paper until all colors had been applied. The leaves were usually bound into a volume by folding the print along the middle and gluing the back of the fold to the spine in so-called butterfly binding.
The exhibition was organized by the British Museum with the support of the American Friends of the British Museum.