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Inscription from Nestorian Stele: B11298 A
Inscription from Nestorian Stele: B11298 A A copy of writing from Nestorian Stele. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

'Stone rubbing’ is a common and, perhaps, an old-fashion term. It indicates a method of reproducing an image or text from a stone’s surface on to paper. This process could be used with a combination of other materials, for example timber and textile. The method is, undoubtedly very ancient, and it was used in China where, it is believed, inspired the invention of printing.

From the second millennium BC the stories of important events were inscribed by carving on a variety of materials such as bone, wood, ceramics and bricks; however the most common and durable material was stone. Many historical events, as well as philosophical and social ideas, administrative rules and regulations were recorded on stone.

There are various reasons the ‘stone rubbing’ technique was needed and used. One of them could be a development of Chinese scholarship. About two thousand years ago China had introduced a selection of public servants – mandarins - through a process of extensive imperial examination. About this time also paper-making methods had become well established and this new versatile material allowed scholars to copy and assemble their own repository of texts.

The paper that has been commonly used by Chinese scholars to copy the text from stone is rice paper xuan zhi. To make a rubbing, a dry sheet of paper is placed on a stone’s surface and brushed with a liquid containing orchid juice Bletilla striata. Paper is tamped into every engraved depression of ‘written characters’ with a brush. Such preparation creates a uniform, smooth surface. However the characters carved into stone are filled with soft material – paper.

The rubbing actually involves careful tapping of the soft pad with the right amount of ink over the entire sheet of paper. When the soft pad touches the hard stone under the paper, it gives out some ink that is quickly absorbed by the paper. Soft areas, where the carved characters are, do not receive any ink, or only an insignificant smudge.

Stone rubbing reproduction is distinct – a paper is inked around the characters which stand out as white – unstained. This is practically a negative image of writing with a brush where dark-inked characters are on the white paper.

Although plans for abolition of the imperial examination were made earlier, it was finally abandoned - by default - with the demise of the last Qing Dynasty in 1911. And by this time photography was becoming affordable and more commonly used.

However a reproduction of writing from Nestorian Stele, in the Museum collection, was done in about the 1900s, by the ages-old stone rubbing method, which itself is a part of China’s cultural heritage.

Prepared by Libai Li and Stan Florek