For more than 1,500 years rubbings have been a vital medium for preserving China's art, culture, and history. These beautiful works are made by pressing thin sheets of wet paper into carvings or inscriptions cut in stone or other hard materials and carefully inking the surface to create a copy of the original. The resulting rubbing has white impressions where the paper was pressed into the carving surrounded by a typically black ink field. Because they are easily transported, rubbings quickly became the primary means to faithfully reproduce and share historical data, poetry, scholastic texts, calligraphy, and art throughout China. Due to the loss and deterioration of many original stones through the centuries, rubbings frequently are the sole remaining evidence of a significant portion of China's artistic and cultural heritage.
Although there are no precise records regarding the origins of rubbings, rubbings were being made of stone inscriptions of classic Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist texts for scholarly and religious use soon after the invention of paper by around 100 A.D. (attributed to an official of the imperial court named Cai Lun, although recent archaeological discoveries indicate this probably took place a century earlier). The earliest known Chinese rubbings date to between 627 and 649 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty, and the collection of rubbings as an important cultural practice was recorded as early as the Five Dynasties period (907–960 A.D.).
In the Song Dynasty (960–1279 A.D.), jin shi xue ("the study of metal and stone") became popular, propelling the production of ever more refined rubbings of bronze and stone artifacts such as monuments or engraved stelae. In fact, the earliest extant rubbings catalogue is attributed to Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072 A.D.), a prominent Song Dynasty scholar and poet as well as an important collector and cataloger of stelae inscriptions, who collected some 1,000 rolls of ink rubbings. An even more extensive early collection was acquired by Zhao Mingcheng (1081–1129 A.D.), whose Jin Shi Lu (Record of Bronze and Stone Inscriptions), contains rubbings of 1,900 stone inscriptions. Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 A.D.) writers also often mention rubbings as important commercial items that were sold by traveling merchants at high prices.
By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), antiquarian studies were a major tenet of the Chinese scholastic tradition, resulting in the widespread production and collection of rubbings. These rubbings were highly valued as faithful reproductions of ancient engravings of characters, images, and decorative motifs that carried important historical and art-historical information. Currently, many of the rubbings in Western collections were made during the Qing Dynasty and Republic of China period (1911–1949).
Image above: Nineteenth to twentieth century rubbing of a Han Dynasty era stone coffin depicting the Azure Dragon Qing Long (Ch'ing Lung), c.205 BC – 220 AD. Haikang (Hai-K'ang) area. Catalog Number 2608.233583. © The Field Museum, A96234.