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Across China: China's ancient printing center turns a new page

By Xinhua writer Wu Yilong

FUZHOU, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- Ma Li brushes a layer of ink on a woodblock engraved with 324 Chinese characters, spreads a sheet of paper on it, and rubs over it with a dry brush.

Ma is working on a reproduction of the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion, a piece of Chinese calligraphy by Wang Xizhi, an ancient master who lived nearly 2,000 years ago.

"I'm trying to use traditional printing techniques and materials to reproduce the charm of Chinese calligraphy," said Ma. "I've sold more than 5,000 copies this year."

Ma, 32, is one of two woodblock engravers recognized by the provincial government in Sibao, a remote mountainous town in Liancheng County of east China's Fujian Province. The town was renowned as one of China's four major woodblock printing centers during the late Ming and Qing dynasties.

"Sibao boasts a woodblock printing history of more than 300 years," said Qiu Qingsheng, Party chief of the town. "More importantly, it's the only surviving site of China's ancient printing centers, with 34 old printing houses still well preserved."

Printing technology is acknowledged to be one of the four great inventions of ancient China. According to local chronicles, 1,200 people, or about 60 percent of Sibao's population, used to work in more than 100 printing houses.

Sibao published over 1,000 books, which were sold in 13 southern provinces and even exported to Southeast Asia through the maritime Silk Road.

The Sibao Woodblock Printing Exhibition Hall reflects the past glory of the town's book printing industry.

The 400 time-worn volumes include a book combining the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh, and a pocket edition of the Analects by Confucius used for cheating during the imperial examinations.

Also on display are traditional costumes worn by local women who worked in the printing industry. The clothing features sleeves that could be removed while printing and then reattached during leisure time.

Starting in the mid-19th century, Sibao's woodblock printing began to dwindle under competition from more advanced and efficient Western technology. In 1942, the last printing house closed in Sibao.

"Tradition dies hard," said Qiu. "The smell of ink has never left Sibao. As time goes by, more and more people have begun to appreciate the value of its precious cultural heritage."

The 34 existing old printing houses, which once housed their owners' families and served as workshops, have been listed as key cultural relics under state-level protection. In recent years, the government has started maintenance of these dilapidated buildings.

Covering an area of 5,600 square meters, the 156-year-old Linlan House has been renovated to its original magnificent appearance. However, there has been no return to the past hustle and bustle.

"We've been trying to conserve these national treasures," said Qiu. "After renovation is finished, two of the houses will be used to demonstrate the complete woodblock printing process."

The key step in the process is to carve characters onto woodblocks. For hundreds of years, these engraved woodblocks were the main assets handed down from generation to generation among Sibao's big families.

Unfortunately, with the decline of Sibao's printing business, the remaining woodblocks have become rarer and rarer. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), they were even burned to ashes or sawed into toy pistols in large numbers.

"Twenty or thirty years ago, you could buy woodblocks like these for only one yuan (15 U.S. cents)," said Ma, holding a small woodblock. "A few days ago, I had to persuade a friend to sell this to me, and the price was 4,000 yuan."

However, Ma considers it a good bargain.

"You see how finely these characters are cut," said Ma. "We've got a lot to learn from our forefathers."

Born in Sibao, Ma fell in love with woodblocks and their stories as a child. After graduating from junior high school, he learned wood carving in Xianyou County of Fujian and Dongyan City in Zhejiang.

"For years, I had to do wood and root carving to sustain my research in woodblock printing," said Ma. "But now I'm sure I can turn a profit by producing special works of art through manual woodblock printing."

In addition to printing the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion, Ma and his team plan to produce a 6,000-plus character book of ancient epigrams, the Zeng Guan Xian Wen, by the end of the year.

"We've been carving the book's woodblocks for half a year, and we need another three months to finish," said Ma. "This will be my first book printed by woodblocks I have made myself."

The book will be the first printed from a new woodblock in Sibao in 75 years.

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