Water colour block printing, a type of block printing, is employed to reproduce famous works of painting and calligraphy.
The art has a long history in China. In 1900, the world's oldest known book printed by engraved blocks came to light from the Dunhuang Grottoes in the form of the 1,100-year-old version of the Prajnaparamita (or Diamond) Sutra produced in A.D. 868 under the Tang Dynasty, now kept in the British Museum in London. During the reign of Tianqi (1621-1627) of the Ming Dynasty, a colour printing process called douhan was perfected for the first time to produce coloured pictures by means of separate blocks, each printing a different colour.
The art of water colour block printing currently employed is developed on the basis of the Ming Dynasty donhan and consists of four major operations: tracing on separate blocks, carving, printing and mounting. The method excels modern printing in two major respects: 1) the materials used, including paper or silk, ink and colours, are the same as those of the original works, so much so that the reproduction look almost authentic; 2) the reproductions, made of materials
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that are fast in colour and decay-resistant, are highly durable.
Leading in the field of water colour block printing is Rongbaozhai, a famous art shop in Beijing, with rich experience and superb craftsmanship. It has reproduced works of many noted artists. A prominent example produced by the shop in recent years is the celebrated horizontal scroll "Han Xizai's Evening Party" by the 10th-century artist Gu Hongzhong. The original, measuring over 4 metres long, is noted for its refined portrayal of characters and intricate combination of tones. But, owing to age, the colours on this 1,000-year-old work have become dim and vague. If copied by hand, the imitation would be too brilliant to look genuine. When reproduced by the veteran workers of Rongbaozhai, the original picture was broken down into component parts for which 1,667 tracings were drawn and as many blocks were carved. It took eight years to produce some three dozen copies, which look hardly distinguishable from the original. Reproductions of this calibre are highly valued by artists and collectors, almost as much as their ancient model.