Though the technique of woodblock printing in China has its origins in the T’ang dynasty, its foundations were actually laid later in the Five Dynasties period. However, not until the Sung dynasty, with improvements in the manufacture of paper and ink along with printing technology, did the publishing industry begin to take off and flourish. Not only did the central and local governments spend considerable effort in the editing and printing of books, bookshops also lined up to enter in competition in the market.
With losses from natural and manmade causes over the ages, books printed in the Sung dynasty became increasingly scattered and rare over time. By the middle and late Ming dynasty, when the cultural scene inspired a burst of interest in archaism, many scholarly gentlemen and book collectors suddenly looked back to discover that old Sung books had become quite rare. They also noticed that these surviving rare books were quite different from those printed in their day. Starting from this time, the value of Sung editions skyrocketed due to their preciousness. The allure of Sung books grew with each passing day, as book collectors used such terms as “Ning Sung (Fawning over Sung)” and “Pao Sung (Treasuring Sung)” to describe their obsession in sparing no amount of money or effort in searching for and acquiring these rare books.
As well known, the original function of books is to serve as a tool for recording and passing on thoughts and knowledge. With their early date, Sung editions were not that far from their primary sources. Based on the fact that master imprints are inherently closer to the contents of the original books, and considering that the attitude towards printing books in the Sung dynasty was quite exacting and proofreading fastidious, Sung editions consequently include comparatively fewer errors. Furthermore, from a purely artistic point of view, the font styles for printed characters in Sung editions derive from the regular script calligraphy of T’ang dynasty masters. Beautifully upright and classically elegant, when compared to the often formulaic “Sung script characters” of later generations, the unparalleled aesthetic beauty of Sung editions naturally goes without saying.
In terms of the format of the printed page, Sung editions also served as paragons for later engraving and printing in many ways, including the design of the layout, arrangement of the lines and size of the characters, practical and decorative configuration of the “fish tail” and framed columns in the woodblock, method of calculating payment for the signed engraver, and trademark of the bookshop to indicate rights to the book. In terms of the binding of Buddhist scriptures, the format went from that of handscrolls to sutra folds, which are still in use today. Despite the rarity of surviving Sung editions, the National Palace Museum collection includes as many as two hundred. For this special exhibition, more than twenty of the most precious and sole surviving copies have been selected for display into four subtopics, presenting the glory of the publishing and printing in the Sung dynasty to viewers.
Nowadays, books have also entered the electronic age and become digitized, so that information is literally at the click of a button. Looking back at the painstaking effort that Chinese craftsmen devoted to carving every dot and stroke a thousand years ago, rare imprints of the Sung dynasty truly stand out for their beauty and craftsmanship for even greater admiration.