By the beginning of the seventh century, or perhaps much earlier, the Chinese had found a method of making multiple copies of old inscribed records. using paper and ink. Rubbings (also known as inked squeezes) in effect "printed" the inscription, making precise copies that could be carried away and distributed in relatively large numbers. This technique can be used to copy inscriptions on any kind of hard surface but is especially useful when dealing with writing carved on large stone slabs (or stales) and rock faces.
To make a rubbing, a sheet of moistened paper is laid on the inscribed surface and tamped into every depression with a fiber brush. When the paper is almost dry, its surface is lightly tapped with an inked pad. The paper is then peeled from the stone. Since the black ink does not touch the parts of the paper that are pressed into the inscription, the process produces white characters on a black background. This technique appeared simultaneously with, if not earlier than, the development of printing in China. Many scholars contend that block printing derived from the technique of making impressions with carved seals: in printing, a mirror image of the text is carved in relief on a wood block; the surface that stands in relief is then inked, and the paper is pressed onto it -- the reverse of the method used for making rubbings.
A rubbing, by accurately reproducing every line of the inscription in a white impression on black ground, provides a sharper and more readable image than the original inscription or a photograph of the original. Rubbings made a century ago preserve a far better record of the inscription than the stone itself which might since have suffered from natural erosion, not to mention damage caused by having been tamped in the process of taking thousands of rubbings. Early rubbings, therefore, are invaluable. Some preserve impressions of inscriptions that have been defaced or completely destroyed. Paradoxically, it is paper, usually thought of as a fragile medium, that preserves unique copies of inscriptions that were conceived of and executed as permanent records in stone.
For at least a thousand years, scholars and connoisseurs have collected rubbings, pressing seals of ownership on them as they do on paintings, calligraphy, and other prized objects in their collections. The East Asian Library's collection includes rubbings with collectors' seals from as early as the sixteenth century, authenticating not only the age of the rubbings, but also the inscriptions from which they were taken.
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Last update April 14, 1998.