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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Discovering yet Another Chinese Invention

One of the museums I’ve been meaning to go to for quite some time specialises in printing technology. It is actually the largest printing museum in the world, with a total exhibition area of 4,600 square metres; and for that reason alone I thought it should definitely be on my list of must-see places to visit.
The China Printing Museum (中国印刷博物馆) is located in Daxing District – an area in the southern most reaches of Beijing. With the advent of various subway line extensions at the end of 2012, it is now very simple to get there and I could no longer put off my foray with the excuse that it would take me forever to get there.
The blurb tells you that it is located within striking distance of Qingyuan Lu subway station on the Daxing line (that’s the line that is a continuation of line 4). And sure enough, when I get there I find a helpful map on the station wall showing just how close it is.
Unfortunately, your favourite blogger is a trusting sort of chap; and when some web site helpfully puts up a picture of what the museum actually looks like, it is not that surprising that I go in search of it, notwithstanding the fact that I get this certain feeling that I am going in the wrong direction.
Too true! And it is not long before I stop to take stock of where the hell I am. I retrace my steps towards the station, reading through the printouts of the web sites that I had had the foresight to prepare before I left.
As the largest museum specializing in China’s printing technology, the museum is located in the Beijing Printing institute,” I read. Well, I have already passed an Institute of Graphic Communication, so I head back for that, wondering if the two are connected.
Bowuguan ma?” I ask the surly looking guard, pointing through the railings while showing him a picture displayed on the web print out. He looks confused. OK, I know my Chinese is pretty atrocious, so this does not surprise me in the slightest. He waves his hand dismissively at the piece of paper and launches into a five minute tirade that is total gobbledegook to me; but that magic word “bowuguan” – museum – keeps appearing together with “hongludeng” – traffic lights – as he waves in the direction of the street corner. The genius of a brain that keeps me company catches on pretty fast and very soon I am on my way back to the subway entrance where about 10 metres away on the other side is a building I hadn’t even noticed before with 中国印刷博物馆 clearly marked in bold golden type.
The various web sites that have all copied-and-pasted one another’s texts, unblushingly tell the reader that entrance is 20 RMB. I reach into my wallet, blowing away the dust and cobwebs, and pull out a 20 kwai note – but a well-fed woman in what passes for a uniform with an official red-and-gold arm band refuses any payment and explains in more detailed gobbledegook that no photography is allowed and that I should make my way to the top floor and work my way downwards – a system that is very common in Chinese museums; so explaining “bu han yu” (no Chinese) at her while offering her my sincere and heart felt thanks I make my way up the stairs, hiding my camera from her until I am out of sight.
The China Printing Museum was opened in June 1996, reflecting the fact that like most things in this world, printing technology was “one of the great inventions of ancient China. The Printing Museum of China is to carry on the great Chinese tradition in printing and give Chinese youth classes of patriotic education,” one is told.
There are four exhibition halls in all, distributed over three floors, with a statue of Bi Sheng on the ground floor… he’s the guy who invented movable-type printing some 400 years before Johannes Gutenberg’s parents got together for a bit of squelchy squelchy.
As I walk up the staircase my eyes make out what is called the Modern Technology Hall which explains the integration of Chinese and western printing technologies, and the development of printing methods in new China as well as some old printing machines which are still in working order.
But as instructed, I go to the top floor – the Source and Origin Hall which offers a brief history of the printing methods of ancient China as well as the development of printing techniques explained through pictures, texts, artefacts and models.
The story of the source of printing techniques began in 4000 B.C. until 6th century,” I read on a large notice stuck onto one of the columns supporting the museum’s floors, “while the creation of printing methods, development and expand of the technique is stated from early 7th century until 1911,” it continues in somewhat prosaic mode.
Along one wall is a cabinet full of metal type, though one is stopped from approaching it too closely, possibly because they are afraid of “souvenir hunters”!
As well as exhibits of woodblock and movable-type printing, there’s a rotary composing plate invented by Wang Zhen in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
There are also models of happy workers carving printing blocks …
as well as a picture of the Printing Plant in the Department of Protocol in the Ming dynasty.
And lest you think that everything here is a reproduction or model, there are some genuine books from yesteryear on display to give you a feel for the very high quality of books that could be produced, even in those far off days. Here are samples of ancient engraved wood block printing, extracts from a rare movable-type printed book, as well as examples of contemporary books and albums, and the print used for trade marks and negotiable securities.
Next up one comes across a display of the evolution of four types of printing technology – relief, planographic, intaglio and stencil printing – as well as the achievements of printing after 1949. This hall also includes three specialised exhibition areas: printings in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, stamps printing, and paper currency printing…
The bank notes on display look too clean and well pressed to be genuine – some are even wrapped up in plastic bags, and one is left wondering if this is done specifically to hide any tell-tale signs that these are just photocopies. Or am I too cynical I wonder…
But what does look genuine is a large-plate camera apparatus for making high resolution plates from original pictures and drawings…
On the ground floor surrounding the bronze sculpture of Bi Sheng is the General Hall, where printing companies and printing research centres have set up their own displays, to the detriment of the museum as a whole, I fear.
There’s a miniscule display for the Gutenberg Museum, which exhibits a perfect example of the problem with moveable typefaces – they’ve spelt it Guteuberg , albeit that this sign was certainly not generated by metal type! A model of the wooden hand press invented by Gutenberg and the earliest font presswork of a European bible is on show.
Just to the left is a subsection called The Hall Of Digital Technology which focuses on migration from letterpress to offset printing. Now I’m really starting to feel my age (my real age, that is, not my official age of 39!). Here’s a laser typesetter, for instance…
… while I remember this particular type of beastie all too well from my earlier days…
Down in the underground area is a veritable collection of pre-printing, printing and post-printing machinery dating back to the middle of the 19th century. Hands up those of you who remember mucking around with manually operated iron presses, hot-metal typesetting machines, and phototypesetters.
There’s also a lithographic printing press made in Austria in 1892 and a unique offset press made in America in 1962 which weighs 45 tons and is the only one of its kind left in the world.
I make my way back to the entrance hall where my new-found-friend – the well-fed museum keeper, directs me to take a different route to the station that must add on at least five paces from the direct path I had worked out before. I would like to stop and take pictures of the cute lions guarding the entrance, but she is busy shooing me away with a benevolent look on her face and I decide not to risk any awkward questions regarding the status of my camera.