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Woodblock printing

Part of the series on the
History of printing
Woodblock printing 200
Movable type 1040
Intaglio 1430
Printing press 1454
Lithography 1796
Chromolithography 1837
Rotary press 1843
Flexography 1873
Mimeograph 1876
Hot metal typesetting 1886
Offset press 1903
Screen-printing 1907
Dye-sublimation 1957
Phototypesetting 1960s
Photocopier 1960s
Pad printing 1960s
Laser printer 1969
Dot matrix printer 1970
Thermal printer 1970s
Inkjet printer 1976
3D printing 1986
Stereolithography 1986
Digital press 1993
For the use of the technique in art, see Woodcut on the technique, and Old master print for the history in Europe and woodblock printing in Japan.

Woodblock printing is a technique for printing text, images or patterns used widely throughout East Asia and originating in China in antiquity as a method of printing on textiles and later paper. As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving examples from China date to before 220, and from Egypt to the 4th century.[1] Ukiyo-e is the best known type of Japanese woodblock art print. Most European uses of the technique on paper are covered by the art term woodcut, except for the block-books produced mainly in the fifteenth century.



The wood block is prepared as a relief matrix, which means the areas to show 'white' are cut away with a knife, chisel, or sandpaper leaving the characters or image to show in 'black' at the original surface level. The block was cut along the grain of the wood. It is only necessary to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print. The content would of course print "in reverse" or mirror-image, a further complication when text was involved. The art of carving the woodcut is technically known as xylography, though the term is rarely used in English.

For colour printing, multiple blocks are used, each for one colour, although overprinting two colours may produce further colours on the print. Multiple colours can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks.

There are three methods of printing to consider:

Used for many fabrics, and most early European woodcuts (1400-40) These were printed by putting the paper or fabric on a table or other flat surface with the block on top, and pressing or hammering the back of the block.
Young monks printing Buddhist scriptures using the rubbing technique, Sera Monastery, Tibet
Apparently the most common for Far Eastern printing on paper at all times. Used for European woodcuts and block-books later in the fifteenth century, and very widely for cloth. The block goes face up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back is rubbed with a "hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton".[2]
Printing in a press
Presses only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe, but firm evidence is lacking. Later, printing-presses were used (from about 1480). A deceased Abbess of Mechelen in Flanders in 1465 had "unum instrumentum ad imprintendum scripturas et ymagines … cum 14 aliis lapideis printis" ("an instrument for printing texts and pictures … with 14 stones for printing") which is probably too early to be a Gutenberg-type printing press in that location.[2]

In addition, jia xie is a method for dyeing textiles (usually silk) using wood blocks invented in the 5th-6th centuries in China. An upper and a lower block is made, with carved out compartments opening to the back, fitted with plugs. The cloth, usually folded a number of times, is inserted and clamped between the two blocks. By unplugging the different compartments and filling them with dyes of different colours, a multi-coloured pattern can be printed over quite a large area of folded cloth. The method is not strictly printing however, as the pattern is not caused by pressure against the block.[3]

Development of block printing

Yuan Dynasty woodblock edition of a Chinese play

The use of round "cylinder seals" for rolling an impress onto clay tablets goes back to early Mesopotamian civilization before 3,000 BC, where they are the commonest works of art to survive, and feature complex and beautiful images. In both China and Egypt, the use of small stamps for seals preceded the use of larger blocks. In Egypt, Europe, and India, the printing of cloth certainly preceded the printing of paper or papyrus; this was probably also the case in China. The process is essentially the same—in Europe special presentation impressions of prints were often printed on silk until at least the seventeenth century.

The earliest woodblock printed fragments to survive are from China and are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from the Han dynasty (before AD 220 ).[3] The earliest Egyptian printed cloth dates from the 4th century.[1] The dry conditions in Egypt are exceptionally good for preserving fabric compared to, for example, India.

It is clear that woodblock printing developed in Asia several centuries before Europe. The Chinese and Koreans were the first to use the process to print solid text, and equally that, much later, in Europe the printing of images on cloth developed into the printing of images on paper (woodcuts). It is also now established that the use in Europe of the same process to print substantial amounts of text together with images in block-books only came after the development of movable type in the 1450s.

It is not clear if the Egyptian printing of cloth was learned from China, or elsewhere, or developed separately. Block printing, called tarsh in Arabic was developed in Arabic Egypt during the 9th-10th centuries, mostly for prayers and amulets. There were different types of print blocks, including ones made from metal, wood and other materials.[4][5] This technique, however, appears to have had very little influence outside of the Muslim world. Though Europe adopted woodblock printing from the Muslim world, initially for fabric, the technique of metal block printing was also unknown in Europe. Block printing later went out of use in Islamic Central Asia after movable type printing was introduced from China.[4]

Coloured woodcut Buddha, 10th century, China

In China, an alternative to woodblock printing was a system of reprography since the Han Dynasty using carved stone steles to reproduce pages of text.[6]

In India the main importance of the technique has always been as a method of printing textiles, which has been a large industry for centuries. Large quantities of printed Indian silk and cotton were exported to Europe throughout the Modern Period.

The three necessary components for woodblock printing are the wood block, which carries the design cut in relief; dye or ink, which had been widely used in the ancient world; and either cloth or paper, which was first developed in China, around the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Woodblock printing on papyrus seems never to have been practised, although it would be possible.

Because Chinese has a character set running into the thousands, woodblock printing suits it better than movable type to the extent that characters only need to be created as they occur in the text. Although the Chinese had invented a form of movable type with baked clay in the 11th century, and metal movable type was introduced in Korea in the 13th century, woodblocks continued to be preferred owing to the formidable challenges of typesetting Chinese text with its 40,000 or more characters. Also, the objective of printing in the East may have been more focused on standardization of ritual text (such as the Buddhist canon Tripitaka, requiring 130,000 woodblocks), and the purity of validated woodblocks could be maintained for centuries.[7] When there was a need for the reproduction of a text, the original block could simply be brought out again, while moveable type necessitated error-prone composition of distinct "editions".

In China, Korea, and Japan, the state involved itself in printing at a relatively early stage; initially only the government had the resources to finance the carving of the blocks for long works.

The difference between East Asian woodblock printing and the Western printing press had major implications for the development of book culture and book markets in East Asia and Europe.

Early books

The intricate frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra from Tang Dynasty China, the world's earliest dated printed book, AD 868 (British Museum)

Woodblock printing in China is strongly associated with Buddhism, which encouraged the spread of charms and sutras. In the Tang Dynasty, a Chinese writer named Fenzhi first mentioned in his book "Yuan Xian San Ji" that the woodblock was used to print Buddhist scriptures during the Zhenguan years (AD 627~649). The oldest known Chinese surviving printed work is a woodblock-printed Buddhist scripture of Wu Zetian period (AD 684~705); discovered in Turfan, Xinjiang province, China in 1906, it is now stored in a calligraphy museum in Tokyo, Japan.

A woodblock print of the Dharani sutra dated between AD 704 and 751 was found at Bulguksa, South Korea in 1966. [1] [2] [3] [4] Its Buddhist text was printed on a mulberry paper scroll 8 cm wide and 630 cm long in the early Korean Kingdom of Unified Silla. Another version of the Dharani sutra, printed in Japan around AD 770, is also frequently cited as an example of early printing. One million copies of the sutra, along with other prayers, were ordered to be produced by Empress Shōtoku. As each copy was then stored in a tiny wooden pagoda, the copies are together known as the Hyakumantō Darani (百万塔陀羅尼, "1,000,000 towers/pagodas Darani").

The world's earliest dated (AD 868) printed book is a Chinese scroll about sixteen feet long and containing the text of the Diamond Sutra. It was found in 1907 by the archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, and is now in the British Museum. The book displays a great maturity of design and layout and speaks of a considerable ancestry for woodblock printing. The colophon, at the inner end, reads: Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e. 11 May, AD 868 ].

Finely crafted books—like the Bencao (materia medica) shown here—were produced in China as early as the ninth century.[8]

In late 10th century China the complete Buddhist canon Tripitaka of 130,000 pages was printed with blocks, which took between 1080 and 1102, and many other very long works were printed. Early books were on scrolls, but other book formats were developed. First came the Jingzhe zhuang or "sutra binding", a scroll folded concertina-wise, which avoided the need to unroll half a scroll to see a passage in the middle. About AD 1000 "butterfly binding" was developed; two pages were printed on a sheet, which was then folded inwards. The sheets were then pasted together at the fold to make a codex with alternate openings of printed and blank pairs of pages. In the fourteenth century the folding was reversed outwards to give continuous printed pages, each backed by a blank hidden page. Later the bindings were sewn rather than pasted. Only relatively small volumes (juan) were bound up, and several of these would be enclosed in a cover called a tao, with wooden boards at front and back, and loops and pegs to close up the book when not in use. For example one complete Tripitaka had over 6,400 juan in 595 tao.[5]

Woodblock printing in Eurasia

The technique is found through East and Central Asia, and in the Byzantine world for cloth, and by AD 1000 examples of woodblock printing on paper appear in Islamic Egypt. Printing onto cloth had spread much earlier, and was common in Europe by 1300. Woodblock printing on paper of images only began in Europe around 1400, almost as soon as paper became available, and the print in woodcut, later joined by engraving, quickly became an important cultural tradition for popular religious works, as well as playing cards and other uses.[2]

Many early Chinese examples, such as the Diamond Sutra (above) contain images, mostly Buddhist, that are often elaborate. Later, some notable artists designed woodblock images for books, but the separate artistic print did not develop in China as it did in Europe and Japan. Apart from devotional images, mainly Buddhist, few "single-leaf" Chinese prints were made until the nineteenth century.

Block-books in fifteenth century Europe

Main article: Block book

Three episodes from a block-book Biblia Pauperum illustrating typological correspondences between the Old and New Testaments: Eve and the serpent, the Annunciation, Gideon's miracle

Block-books, where both text and images are cut on a single block for a whole page, appeared in Europe in the 1460s as a cheaper alternative to books printed by movable type.[9] These are different from woodcuts illustrated books using images, perhaps with a title, cut in a single block and used as a book illustration with the adjacent text printed using movable type. The only example of the blockbook form that contains no images is the school textbook Latin grammar of Donatus.

The most famous block-books are the Speculum Humanae Salvationis and the Ars moriendi, though in this the images and text are on different pages, but all block-cut. The Biblia pauperum, a Biblical picture-book, was the next most common title, and the great majority of block-books were popular devotional works. All block-books are fairly short at less than fifty pages. While in Europe movable metal type soon became cheap enough to replace woodblock printing for the reproduction of text, woodcuts remained a major way to reproduce images in illustrated works of early modern European printing. See old master print.

Most block-books before about 1480 were printed on only one side of the paper — if they were printed by rubbing it would be difficult to print on both sides without damaging the first one to be printed. Many were printed with two pages per sheet, producing a book with opening of two printed pages, followed by openings with two blank pages (as earlier in China). The blank pages were then glued together to produce a book looking like a type-printed one. Where both sides of a sheet have been printed, it is presumed a printing-press was used.


Large Waterfall by Hiroshige, a ukiyo-e artist

The earliest woodblock printing known is in colour—Chinese silk from the Han Dynasty printed in three colours.[3]

On paper, European woodcut prints with coloured blocks were invented in Germany in 1508 and are known as chiaroscuro woodcuts.

Colour is very common in Asian woodblock printing on paper; in China the first known example is a Diamond sutra of 1341, printed in black and red at the Zifu Temple in modern day Hubei province. The earliest dated book printed in more than 2 colours is Chengshi moyuan, a book on ink-cakes printed in 1606 and the technique reached its height in books on art published in the first half of the seventeenth century. Notable examples are the Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio of 1633, and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual published in 1679 and 1701.[10]

In Japan, a multi-colour technique, called nishiki-e ("brocade pictures"), spread more widely, and was used for prints, from the 1760s on. Japanese woodcut became a major artistic form, although at the time it was accorded a much lower status than painting.

In both Europe and Japan, book illustrations were normally printed in black ink only, and colour reserved for individual artistic prints. In China, the reverse was true, and colour printing was used mainly in books on art and erotica.


The earliest known woodblock printing dates from 764-770, when an Empress commissioned one million small wooden pagodas containing short printed scrolls (typically 6 x 45 cm) to be distributed to temples.[6] Apart from the production of Buddhist texts, which became widespread from the eleventh century in Japan, the process was only adopted in Japan for secular books surprisingly late, and a Chinese-Japanese dictionary of 1590 is the earliest known example.

Though the Jesuits operated a movable type printing-press in Nagasaki, printing equipment[11] brought back by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's army from Korea in 1593 had far greater influence on the development of the medium. Four years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, even before becoming shogun, effected the creation of the first native movable type,[11] using wooden type-pieces rather than metal. He oversaw the creation of 100,000 type-pieces, which were used to print a number of political and historical texts.

An edition of the Confucian Analects was printed in 1598, using a Korean moveable type printing press, at the order of Emperor Go-Yōzei. This document is the oldest work of Japanese moveable type printing extant today. Despite the appeal of moveable type, however, it was soon decided that the running script style of Japanese writings would be better reproduced using woodblocks, and so woodblocks were once more adopted; by 1640 they were once again being used for nearly all purposes.[12]

It quickly gained popularity among artists of ukiyo-e, and was used to produce small, cheap, art prints as well as books. Japan began to see something of literary mass production. The content of these books varied widely, including travel guides, advice manuals, kibyōshi (satirical novels), sharebon (books on urban culture), art books, and play scripts for the jōruri (puppet) theatre. Often, within a certain genre, such as the jōruri theatre scripts, a particular style of writing would come to be the standard for that genre; in other words, one person's personal calligraphic style was adopted as the standard style for printing plays.


Woodblock printing on wallpaper became famous in France at the end of the 18th century. Manufactures like Joseph Dufour et Cie (1797 - ca. 1830) or Zuber et Cie (founded 1797) used the woodblock printing for wall paper production. In 1806, in collaboration with the artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet, Dufour et Cie produced a twenty-panel set of scenic wallpaper entitled Sauvages de la Mer du Pacifique (Savages of the Pacific), which became very famous. It was the largest panoramic wallpaper of its time, and marked the burgeoning of a French industry in panoramic wallpapers. Dufour realized almost immediate success from the sale of these papers and enjoyed a lively trade with America. The Neoclassic spirit currently in favor was accented handsomely in houses of the Federal period by the exaggerated elegance of Charvet's scenes. Like most of eighteenth century wallpapers, the panorama was designed to be hung above a dado.

While Joseph Dufour et Cie was shut down in the 1830ies Zuber et Cie is still existing and claims to be the last factory in the world to produce woodblock printed wallpapers and furnishing fabrics.

For its production Zuber uses woodblocks out of an archiv of more more than 100,000 engraved from the XVII and XIX century which are classified as a "Historical Monument". It offers panoramic szeneries such as “du Vue de l'Amérique Nord”, “Eldorado Hindoustan” or “Isola Bella” and also wallpapers, friezes and ceilings as well as hand printed furnishing fabrics.

Further development of woodblock printing in East Asia

Woodblock printing, Sera Monastery, Tibet. The distinctive shape of the pages goes back to Palm leaf manuscripts in ancient Buddhist India

In East Asia, woodblock printing proved to be more enduring than in Europe, continuing well into the 19th century as the major form of printing texts, especially in China, even after the introduction of the European printing press.

Jesuits stationed in China in the 16th and 17th centuries indeed preferred to use woodblocks for their own publishing projects, noting how inexpensive and convenient it was. Only with the introduction of more mechanized printing methods from the West in the 19th century did printing in East Asia move towards metal moveable type and the printing press

In countries using Arabic, Turkish and similar scripts, works, especially the Qu'ran were sometimes printed by lithography in the nineteenth century, as the links between the characters require compromises when movable type is used which were considered inappropriate for sacred texts.[13]

On materials other than paper

Block printing has also been extensively used for decorative purposes such as fabrics and wallpaper. This is easiest with repetitive patterns composed of one or a small number of motifs that are small to medium in size (due to the difficulty of carving and handling larger blocks). For a multi-colour pattern, each colour element is carved as a separate block and individually inked and applied. Block printing was the standard method of producing wallpaper until the early twentieth century, and is still used by a few traditionalist firms. It also remains in use for making cloth, mostly in small artisanal settings, for example in India.

See also woodblock printing on textiles.

See also

  • Woodcut
  • Woodblock printing on textiles
  • Wood engraving
  • Banhua
  • old master print
  • New Year picture
  • ukiyo-e
  • scroll


  1. ^ a b Ancient Coptic Christian Fabrics from Egypt
  2. ^ a b c An Introduction to a History of Woodcut, Arthur M. Hind,p64-94, Houghton Mifflin Co. 1935 (in USA), reprinted Dover Publications, 1963 ISBN 0-486-20952-0
  3. ^ a b c Shelagh Vainker in Anne Farrer (ed), "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" , 1990, British Museum publications, ISBN 0-7141-1447-2
  4. ^ a b Richard W. Bulliet (1987), "Medieval Arabic Tarsh: A Forgotten Chapter in the History of Printing", Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (3), p. 427-438.
  5. ^ Geoffrey Roper, Muslim Heritage
  6. ^ Berner, R. Thomas. "The Ancient Chinese Process of Reprography," Technology and Culture (Volume 38, Number 2, 1997): 424–431.
  7. ^ Thomas Christensen (2007). "Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?". Arts of Asia Magazine (to appear). http://www.rightreading.com/printing/gutenberg.asia/gutenberg-asia-1-introduction.htm. Retrieved 2006-10-18. 
  8. ^ Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 24) ISBN 0-471-291-98-6
  9. ^ Master E.S., Alan Shestack, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967
  10. ^ L Sickman & A Soper, "The Art and Architecture of China", Pelican History of Art, 3rd ed 1971, Penguin, LOC 70-125675
  11. ^ a b Lane, Richard (1978). "Images of the Floating World." Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky. p33.
  12. ^ Sansom, George (1961). "A History of Japan: 1334-1615." Stanford, California: Stanford University Press
  13. ^ Qu'ran translations

External sources

  • Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Tsuen-Hsuin, Tsien. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 1: Paper and Printing. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Imma Socias Batet, Les Beceroles tabel·làries de la Biblioteca de Catalunya. Barcelona: Biblioteca de Catalunya, 1992.

External links