Chinese calligraphy / rubbings

stone tablet Rubbing is a process for making copies of texts carved in stone. This was the reason for the creation of steles (stone tablets): not only do they preserve the text or work, they also permit an infinite number of exact copies to be made. This tablet is in the Forest of Steles in the city of Xi'an, a veritable museum of Chinese calligraphy, and a library in stone of ancient philosophical texts and calligraphies from many of the great masters. There are some 1,300 steles presenting texts and works that cover the period from the end of the Han dynasty (3rd century A.D.) up to the beginning of the 20th century.

ink container at the Forest of Steles,

In the Forest of Steles, a single room is reserved for making rubbings, and it attracts many visitors. The characteristic mineral odour of ink is in the air.

applying paper on the engraved stone

The artisan takes the engraved stone and first applies a very thin and fairly porous piece of rice paper, the same kind used in calligraphy. When it is slightly dampened, it adheres well to the stone. He then passes a small sisal broom again and again over each character, which embosses it, making an imprint into the paper.


Next, the artisan spreads ink on a wooden palette, which he uses to moisten a roll of cloth which he repeatedly strikes against the surface of the paper only, which yields white characters against a black background. Everything is done very gradually, and results in a rubbing of an engraved calligraphy. After drying, the ink leaves a very black and somewhat shiny patina, with a fragrance that lingers for a long time.

applying ink

The calligraphy seen here is of exceptional beauty, executed by a very great artist from the Song dynasty, Huang Ting Jian (1045-1105), a specialist in semi-cursive script. The calligrapher does not do the engraving directly on the stone. This operation is performed by extremely skilled craftsmen who make an exact copy of the character drawn with the brush directly on the stone, or the character executed on paper is glued to the stone for engraving.

engraved work on stele

Close examination of the engraving work on this stele reveals that even the finest details of the brushwork have been faithfully reproduced.


The rubbing from a stele remains a valuable document. That is why it is always amazing to see how the paper is folded and folded again to the standard size for sale. However, once it is mounted, the folds will disappear. Rubbings can also be cut out and mounted in the form of sewn albums, although the look of the original work is lost.

photos © Françoise Cloutier


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