Carved in Stone

Curated by Anna Chang, Library Intern

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In Chinese culture, rubbings are seen as more than mere copies; since each one is unique they are seen as works of art in their own right. There are several names for rubbings in Chinese, but they are commonly referred to as “Black Tigers” (hei laohu 黑老虎) by collectors and connoisseurs because of their color and because of the number of fraudulent rubbings on the market that can “bite” an unsuspecting buyer. The technique of making ink rubbings of stone and metal inscriptions is believed to have originated in China by the Liang Dynasty (502-556 C.E.) but perhaps as early as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.). The works shown in this exhibition are all rubbings taken from stelae, vertical stone monuments usually engraved with writings.

The first stelae were made to commemorate political events or to honor important individuals, but later ones also include engravings of poems and more personal writings. Before woodblock printing was invented, rubbings served as the main means of reproduction. While the earliest rubbings of stelae were most likely made to disseminate official and religious texts or for their historical significance, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 C.E.), Chinese literati gained an interest in stelae for their calligraphic value. Traditionally, calligraphy was learned by copying the works of masters for at least a few decades before developing one’s own style. Rubbings from stelae were useful because they served both as samples for practicing calligraphy and as a record of the development of Chinese writing. To some extent, the literati also made rubbings of monuments as souvenirs and evidence of their travels.

On Display

Locations of rubbings in the Reading Room
(1) NK3634 .L58 A63
Monument located at Mount Tai
Calligraphy by Liu Yong
Author of original text and monument carver unknown

Throughout the late imperial period (ca. 1500-1920 C.E.), Mount Tai attracted various groups of people, from peasants to emperors, from worshipers to sightseers. Located in Shandong Province in East China, it has been historically considered a sacred site for practitioners of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. It is also where two important state rituals were held to make offerings to heaven and earth (fengshan si 鳳山寺) in order to guarantee the success of a dynasty.

The lines of this poem conjure an image of an individual leisurely composing a melody under the moonlight while enjoying tea in a garden. Although the author of this poem is unknown, the signature and seal on the far left indicate that the calligraphy was written by Shi An. Shi An was the pseudonym (hao 號) of Liu Yong (1719-1804 C.E.), who was regarded as a righteous court official and one of the four great calligraphy masters of the Qing Dynasty. As with all the rubbings in this exhibition, the characters are read vertically from top to bottom and from right to left.

(2) NK3634 .Z6 C55
Poem by Du Fu
Carving by Kong Yanrui and Sun Xiang
Calligrapher unknown

“Gazing at the Mountain”

What is Mount Tai like?
The unending verdant of Qi and Lu.
A natural creation where all spirits flourish,
Northern and southern slopes divide dusk from dawn.
Its vast bosom brings forth layering clouds,
Breaking through, [my] eyes follow the returning birds.
Upon ascending its ultimate peak,
In a glance how small are all other mountains.

-- Translation by Brian R. Dott (p. 58, Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China)

The poem on this rubbing was composed by Du Fu (712-770 C.E.), one of the two most celebrated poets in Chinese literature. “Gazing at the Mountain” is one of his earliest surviving poems, thought to have been written in 736 or 737 C.E., around the time Du Fu failed the imperial exams (jinshi 進士) and left his home in northern China to spend the next eight years wandering. Various interpretations have been put forth due to the ambiguities of this the poem, but traditionally it has been praised as demonstrating the strength and confidence of an individual even after facing a great defeat.

(3) NK3634 .A4 L53
Calligrapher, author of original text, and carver of monument unknown

These rubbings come from a four-sided stele known as the Stele of Ritual Vessels (Liqi Bei 禮器碑), which was carved in 156 C.E. and is currently housed in the Confucian Temple on Mount Tai. The larger scroll is a rubbing of the front of the stele. The text states that it was carved in honor of Han Chi. According to the inscription, by the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.) the teachings and rituals of Confucianism had been largely forgotten. However, the devout Han Chi remembered and commissioned an array of ritual vessels, repaired the houses of the descendents of Confucius, and rebuilt the Confucius family shrine.

Mounted on the smaller scroll is a rubbing of the right side of the stele. As with the back and left side of the stele, the right side lists the titles and names of donors and the amount of money they contributed to the erection of the monument. This stele has been lauded as being the best surviving example of clerical script (li shu 隸書) from the Han Dynasty, and extensive rubbing of it has led to visible wearing.

(4) NK3634 .C46 A63
Calligraphy by Zhou Siji
Carver unknown

This rubbing was taken from a stele on Mount Tai in Shandong Province. The three large characters in the middle, “Soaring Phoenix Ridge” (feng xiang gang 鳳翔岡), most likely comprise the name of one of the ridges near the summit of the mountain. Together with the dragon, unicorn, and tortoise, the phoenix is one of the four supernatural creatures in Chinese mythology. It represents the direction of the South and is believed to only appear during the reign of a virtuous ruler and during times of peace and prosperity. The text on the right hand side gives the date as the second month of the sixth year of the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1578 C.E.). To the left is the title and name of the calligrapher: “Shandong Provincial Government, Minister of the Left, Zhou Siji.”

(5) NK3634 .C45 A63
Calligraphy and poem by Qing Gaozong
Carver unknown

The calligraphy and poem on this scroll was written by Qianlong (r. 1735-1796 C.E.), who is known as one of the greatest patrons of the fine arts in Chinese history. The emperors of the Qing Dynasty were of Manchu descent and ruled over present day Mongolia, China, Tibet, and Turkestan. Qianlong, the fifth emperor, saw himself as a universal ruler and sought to legitimize his reign by appropriating the language, culture, and traditions of his subjects, but at the same time he conscientiously protected his Manchu identity. Although he was not Han Chinese, he studied Chinese painting and calligraphy diligently from an early age and was dedicated to cultivating a self image of a traditional Han scholar, crafting over 40,000 poems and 13,000 prose texts and publishing 40 volumes of writings during his lifetime. This poem describes guests drawing near a pavilion surrounded by greenery as the narrator ponders who these guests are. The first seal on the left states “Imperial Writing by Qianlong” (Qianlong yubi 乾隆御筆) and is read horizontally from right to left.

(6) NK3634 .C45 A64
Calligraphy and poem by Qianlong
Carver unknown

This is one of three verses that Qianlong wrote on a visit to Dai Temple, the largest temple on Mount Tai. Qianlong writes that he composed this poem after drawing an image of pines and cypresses, trees that symbolize perseverance. In the second line, the speaker wonders, “Would it not be strange for one side of the stele to be left blank, waiting to be carved in the future?” which may suggest that he intends to carve the rest of the stele.

The first seal on this rubbing is the “Seal of the Eighty-Year-Old Who Concerns Himself with the Eight Tasks of Government” (Bazheng maonian zhi bao 八徵耄念之寶), which was carved to commemorate Qianlong’s eightieth birthday in 1790. The Eight Tasks of Government were part of the Great Plan that is described in the Book of Documents (Shujing 書經), a record of ancient historical events and one of the Five Classics associated with Confucianism. According to the Book of Documents, the legendary Yu the Great received the Great Plan from heaven, which allowed him to govern righteously and prosperously. After his birthday, Qianlong reserved this seal for only the most important pieces in the Palace collection.

About Chinese Ink Rubbings

Taking a Rubbing of a Stele

There are a few ways to make a rubbing, but regardless of which method one chooses, the stele must first be carefully cleaned and the rubbing paper prepared to fit the carved stone. The type of rubbing paper selected will vary depending on the object, but generally a white, thin but strong sheet of paper with a consistent texture is most desirable.

Before the ink rubbing process can begin, the paper must first be wetted so it will mold to the carved surface of the stone. The paper can be wetted before or after it is applied to the stone, or both before and after. Wetting before application ensures that the paper is evenly saturated, but it increases the risk of tearing during the application process. Clear water, rice water, or other glutinous solutions are used for the wetting process.

Once the wet, pliable paper is applied and molded to the stele, smoothing brushes, mallets, and pads are used to work out air bubbles and wrinkles and to press the paper tightly against the stone surface. Ink is then applied to the paper using a cloth dabber with a fine weave, ideally with the outside layer made of silk. For rubbings taken when the paper is still wet, water-based inks produce the most favorable results; for dry rubbings, wax-based inks are usually used.

Sources of Additional Information on Ink Rubbings

Chinese Stone Rubbings at the Field Museum

Chinese Stone Rubbings Collection at UC Berkeley

Starr, Kenneth. Black Tigers : A Grammar of Chinese Rubbings. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.

The Rubel Rubbings Collection at Harvard

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