Salt and a woodblock

31 December 2021

During the course of my work at the Bodleian, I was occasionally asked to give talks on how traditional Chinese books were produced. That is, how they were printed and bound. To demonstrate this I used a Japanese block that had been given to me by Christer von der Burg – I didn’t have a Chinese one – together with a disbound duplicate copy of one of the modern impressions from old blocks that are issued by Chinese publishers from time to time.

We acquired a Chinese woodblock in October 2013, and in the following January I wrote a blog entry about it. As a printing block it is typical, but its content is distinctly odd, so I’ve always been on the lookout for another. They turn up on eBay from time to time, often wrongly described as Chinese when they are obviously Japanese, and usually unrealistically priced. However, at the beginning of October last year I struck lucky, and managed to get a rather fine example very cheaply; I was the only bidder.

The block is from an edition of Changlu yanfa zhi 長蘆鹽法志, “A treatise on the salt law of Changlu”, an official publication in 20 juan 卷 compiled by Huang Zhanglun 黃掌綸 and others in 1805 on the basis of an earlier Yongzheng 雍正 edition in 16 juan. The subject is interesting, as salt production was a very important industry in traditional China. It was strictly controlled by the government, and was one of the principal sources of tax revenue. The Changlu Saltfield 长芦盐场 is situated on the Gulf of Bohai 渤海湾 near the cities of Tianjin 天津 and Cangzhou 滄州 and still supplies one quarter of China’s salt. During the Qing dynasty it was managed from these two cities, which are both on the Grand Canal 京杭大运河.

The edition was published by the Changlu salt commissioner at the time of its compilation; there are several copies in Peking University Library where it is described as 「清嘉慶十年[1805]長蘆鹽運使刻本」. It is reproduced in the collectaneum Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書, from the electronic version of which I have obtained the images reproduced below.

The block measures 215 x 283mm, and is engraved on both sides with the leaves 20:43 and 20:44. These two leaves, when bound presenting four sides to the reader, contain the name, illustrations, and text describing the building known as Jintuo cheyanting 津坨掣鹽廳.

     

I had no idea what this building might be, so asked Zheng Cheng, who promptly sent me copious amounts of information, for which I’m very grateful.

Firstly, the name.

Jin 津 refers to Tianjin 天津, and tuo 坨 is the term used for blocks of salt. Cheyanting 掣鹽廳 refers to the office where the blocks were literally “drawn in” (che 掣) for examination and checking. I suppose we would call it “quality control”. There is a parallel section describing the Cangzhou office 滄坨掣鹽廳.

The Tianjin office is depicted in a famous 6.8-metre long picture scroll of the Qianlong 乾隆 period kept in the National Museum of China 中国国家博物馆. The scroll has no title, and as a result of an earlier misidentification of what it depicts, it is now named Luhe duyun tu 《潞河督運圖》. Actually, it is a depiction of the installations relating to the salt industry along the Haihe 海河 river which flows from Tianjin to the Gulf of Bohai 渤海湾, and in the opinion of authorities on this matter it would be better named Haihe xunyan tu《海河巡鹽圖》[1].  Here is the relevant section of the scroll, which also shows the nearby pontoon bridge, fuqiao 浮橋:

In the woodblock illustration, prominence is understandably given to the frame that supported the steelyard (chengjia 秤架) for weighing the blocks of salt; it is depicted clearly in the scroll:

The reproduction of Changlu yanfa zhi in Xuxiu siku quanshu is unfortunately not very good. But it is sufficiently clear to confirm that the impression is not taken from my block, which must therefore have been recut. There is nothing unusual about this – missing or damaged blocks were routinely replaced – but so far I have not been able to locate a copy which is described as a repaired edition, which is troubling.


1. Zheng Cheng has drawn my attention to two works on this scroll. (1) 王永谦: 潞河督运图卷. In 吕章申主编: 中国国家博物馆馆藏文物研究丛书, 绘画卷, 风俗画 (上海: 上海古籍出版社, 2007), 226-237; and (2) 高伟: 海河巡盐: 国博藏所谓《潞河督运图》天津风物考 (天津: 天津社会科学院出版社, 2018). I haven’t seen the second one yet.

 

2 Responses to “Salt and a woodblock”

  1. John Cayley Says:

    Another brilliant post, David. HYN!


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