History of Chinese Woodblock Printing

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  • 0:04 Woodblock Printing
  • 0:40 Early History
  • 1:49 Later History
  • 2:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Where and when was printing invented? Did you know it involved woodblocks? In this lesson, explore the history of Chinese woodblock printing and see some examples of printed works.

Woodblock Printing

People have been printing words and images for hundreds of years. The process started thanks to inventions developed in China. A variety of items from calendars to religious texts were produced thanks to Chinese woodblock printing.

In woodblock printing, an image is carved in reverse on a piece of wood, leaving the image's outline on the wood, and the block is then inked and printed on a substance like paper or fabric. It's a time-consuming process, especially if you want to add more than one color during the printing process. Let's go back to the beginning and learn about woodblock printing's early history.

Early History

Chinese woodblocks were first used to print designs on silk cloth, beginning around the 4th or 5th century. Then technology found its way to another substance invented in China, paper. By 600 CE, carved woodblocks were being used to print Buddhist religious texts, calendars, and calligraphy, or beautiful written words revered as an art form in China. Almost all early woodblock prints were documents. Only in the later Song Dynasty were woodblocks first used to print images in elaborately decorated books.

Most early prints were one color, usually black against a light background. Then another color, a bright red color called vermillion was added to the process. Color printing with woodblocks is difficult because each color requires a separate carved block. When the image is printed, each block must be printed in the identical position. The Chinese developed careful methods of registration, or ways to lock in the precise positions of each colored block, so they match up correctly when each one was printed on the paper. With this technology perfected, full-color prints were produced.

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