What is a rubbing?
Content of Inscriptions
There is no civilization that has relied as much as the Chinese on carving inscriptions
into stone as a way of preserving the memory of its history and culture. Records
of important events were inscribed on bone and bronze as early as the second
millennium B.C., and brick, tile, ceramics, wood, and jade were also engraved
to preserve writings and pictorial representations; but the medium most used
for long inscriptions was stone.
The most extensive of several large projects
to preserve authoritative texts was the carving of the Buddhist canon on 7,137
stone tablets or steles—over 4 million characters—in an undertaking that continued
from 605 to 1096. Earlier, from 175 to 183, the seven Confucian Classics in
over 200 thousand characters were carved on 46 steles, front and back, to establish
and preserve standard versions of the texts for students, scholars, and scholar-officials
of the Eastern Han dynasty. The Confucian Classics were also inscribed by six
successive dynasties, the last engraving, by the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty, at the
end of the eighteenth century. At sacred sites, cliffs and rock faces were also
used for large religious inscriptions.
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 “print” the
inscription, making precise copies that can be carried away and distributed
in considerable numbers.
To make a rubbing, a sheet of moistened paper is laid on the inscribed surface
and tamped into every depression with a rabbit’s-hair brush. (By another method,
the paper is laid on dry, then brushed with a rice or wheat-based paste before
being tamped.) When the paper is almost dry, its surface is 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. (If the inscription is cut in relief,
rather than intaglio, black and white are reversed.)
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 is carved in relief
on a wood block; the surface that stands in relief is then inked, and paper
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. The advantage of this
technique is that it may be applied to any hard surface, including rock faces
or cliffsides, pictorial reliefs, or even bronze vessels and figurines. As long
as the object inscribed is in good condition, a rubbing of it can be made, regardless
of its age or location. And by providing an accurate replica of the surface
of a given inscription or relief, a rubbing gives the scholar, and especially
the student of calligraphy, insights that simple transcriptions or freehand
copies, subject to scribal errors and the copyist’s skill, cannot.
Rubbings made a century ago preserve a far better record of the inscription than the
stone itself, which might 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 sources, preserving impressions of
countless inscriptions now defaced or completely lost. Paradoxically, it is
paper, usually thought of as a fragile medium, that preserves unique copies
of inscriptions that were conceived of as permanent records in stone.
For at least a thousand years, scholars and connoisseurs have colleted 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 seventeenth century,
authenticating not only the age of the rubbings, but also the inscriptions from
which they were taken.
Content of Inscriptions:
The scope of the content of inscriptions is encyclopedic, ranging from canonical
texts sanctioned by the emperor to personal epitaphs and eulogies. Inscriptions,
characteristically those on large upright stone slabs or steles, often provide
historical information unavailable elsewhere, paying tribute to local personages
by setting down their careers and deeds, or recording local events, military
campaigns and victories, the establishment or reconstruction of temples, charitable
subscriptions to religious institutions, hospitals, and orphanages, and meetings
of guilds. They are often unique sources of information about local matters
and persons, since the official histories and dynastic compilations heavily
favor imperial affairs and the practice of statecraft.
As sources for research in textual criticism, rubbings provide incontrovertible
evidence that can be accurately dated. They provide variant readings and, in
some cases, whole passages that have been dropped in the transmission of a published
text or manuscript. These variants are especially important since the whole
process of textual editing, collation, publishing, and transmission was governed
by the dictates of orthodox Confucianism or other systems of thought and religion.
Early inscriptions are usually more reliable than documents preserved in printed
or manuscript form. Texts inscribed in stone or metal are not easily altered
to reflect change in official policy or thought; this is especially true of
inscribed texts only recently uncovered by archaeologists.
For the study of the history of writing and calligraphy, from the earliest
script on shell and bone down to the running and cursive styles of later masters,
inscriptions are irreplaceable sources. They trace the evolution of writing,
century after century. Since the early dynasties, too, inscriptions have been
carved in stone to preserve examples of the styles of great calligraphers. Rubbings
of engraved models of calligraphy, known as fa-t’ieh 法帖
are the most widely reproduced and consulted genre of rubbings in China, Japan,
and Korea today.
UC Berkeley East Asian Library, Phone: 510 642-2556, Address: 208 Durant Hall, Berkeley CA 94720-6000
Copyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved
URL http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EAL/stone/rubbings.html, last updated September 23, 2004