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
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URL http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EAL/stone/rubbings.html, last updated  September 23, 2004