‘Black Tigers’ (hei laohu 黑老虎)

Duncan M. Campbell

A review of Kenneth Starr, Black Tigers: A Grammar of Chinese Rubbings, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2008, 280pp., with illustrations & photographs.

As a youth whenever I viewed an ink rubbing of Orchid Pavilion, depicting the marvellous steepness of the surrounding cliffs and peaks, the lofty height of the pavilion and the gazebo, the meander with its flowing wine cups, the bathing geese and the inkstones being washed, the very moment I began to unfurl the scroll I would find myself, irresistibly and immediately, transported in spirit to the very spot itself.

—Zhang Dai 張岱 (1597-?1684), ‘On the True Site of the Orchid Pavilion of Antiquity’ 古蘭亭辨.[1]
Fig.1 Qin dynasty, Mount Yi Stele: Li Si (?280-208 BCE), Mount Yi Stele 李斯書嶧山刻石. From Xian beishi shufa huicui 西安碑石書法薈萃 (Xian: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe, 1985), p.7.
Fig.1 Qin dynasty, Mount Yi Stele: Li Si (?280-208 BCE), Mount Yi Stele 李斯書嶧山刻石. From Xi’an beishi shufa huicui 西安碑石書法薈萃, Xi’an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe, 1985, p.7.

This extraordinary work is the product of a more than half a century of scholarly engagement with its topic, the ‘Black Tigers’ 黑老虎 of the title: the craft of ink rubbing that has played such a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of China’s literary, intellectual and artistic traditions.[2] As the former director of the Milwaukee Public Museum and, before that, curator of East Asian archaeology and ethnology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Starr is especially qualified for the task he sets himself here — a footnote on p.239, for instance, relies on notes made during a visit to a particular site in 1949, and many of the photographs that grace the book were taken by the author over the course of his many field trips to the numerous sites (identified in the map of China given on pages 4-5). The quality of Starr’s intimate and physical understanding of his subject recalls to mind the kind of engagement with the intellectual and physical world evident in Robert Han van Gulik’s Chinese Pictorial Art as Viewed by the Connoisseur (1958), a work that this present one serves to both extend and supplement.

As one of Starr’s main sources, Jiang Xuanyi 蔣玄彝 (1903-77), puts it in his 1939 ‘The Rubbing Technique’ 墨拓術: ‘A love of metal-and-stone [inscriptions] is like turning [one’s face] toward the ancients, like going back into the [cultural] memory’ (pp.57-58). As another of his authorities, Chen Jieqi 陳介倛 (1813-1884), argues, however, in the course of his discussion of the care needed when preparing bronzes for rubbing, ‘being cautious to the point of not daring to scape [an object], and of not being willing to rub it, also does not resault in good, for if one cannot transmit antiquity, how is it any different from not having the object [at all]?’ (p.70).

The transmission of China’s age-old traditions by this particular and unique means was a fraught process prone to various anxieties (as captured also by Zhang Dai in the epigraph to the present review) and one that in itself embodied in its very techniques the causes for the fragility and impermanence of the written word. The Chicago-based art historian Wu Hung 巫鴻, in a source, oddly, missing from Starr’s bibliography, has argued that: ‘Made of thin and fragile paper, a rubbing could easily be destroyed or ruined—torn, scratched, mildewed, burned, or eaten by insects. The materiality of a rubbing thus enables it to display most sensitively the vulnerability of a manufactured object to natural or human destruction: in a “ruined” rubbing, an eroded carving is damaged for a second time’.[3]

Fig.2 Jin dynasty, Guan Clan Tomb Stele 管氏墓碑. From Xian beishi shufa huicui, p.11.
Fig.2 Jin dynasty, Guan Clan Tomb Stele 管氏墓碑. From Xi’an beishi shufa huicui, p.11.

Ye Changchi 葉昌熾 (1849-1917), the great late-Qing bibliophile, as cited by Starr, for his part spells out the dangers inherent in the process:

[In cases of] steles that have been assualted and damaged [by continuous rubbing over long periods], none of the empty ground surrounding the characters is damaged, but each of the characters has become but a hole and is blurred beyond recognition. As one looks at them, they are like columns of white egrets or groups of white butterflies… Although one fixedly studies [the effaced inscription], one cannot see a single brushstroke, one cannot make out a single character. Although there is a stele, it is as if there is no stele [inscription] at all.(p.99)

Despite these perils, as Starr argues:

Inextricablly bound to the history of rubbings are their functions in Chinese culture. Broadly, their principal function has been to reproduce intellectually or aesthetically valued matter that was incised, cast, or molded on clay, metal, stone wood, and other firm substances. Rubbing was the only means the Chinese had of mechanically reproducing such materials until the invention of woodblock printing three and a half centuries later. The need for faithful copies has sustained the technique for a millennium and a half, despite the subsequent invention of more sophisticated forms of reproduction.(p.18)

The seven chapters of Starr’s book deal in turn with the history and function of rubbings (Chapter 1), the various categories of rubbings (simple or composite) and the techniques and tools employed in producing them (chapters 2 and 5), the processes and procedures of rubbing and their preservation (chapters 3, 4 and 6), and, finally, aspects of the associated traditions of connoisseurship (Chapter 7). Throughout, Starr’s treatment is exhaustively researched, with extensive translated citations of the important Chinese discussions of the art of rubbing, clearly written, and wonderfully illustrated. His conclusions about the dating of the beginnings of the technique of rubbing are particularly judicious: ‘In summary, there is but a minuscule possibility that the rubbing technique originated in the Han. There is a strong likelihood that it was invented in the Northern and Southern dynasties, in the Northern Wei or, more narrowly, in the Liang, in the late fifth or early sixth century. There is virtual certainty that the practice was known in the Sui, in the late sixth or early seventh centuries, and it is a solid fact that rubbings were common by the beginnning of the Tang, early in the seventh century.'(p.18) I suspect that this will remain the definitive view.

Fig.3 Tang dynasty, Zhang Xu 張旭 (fl. 700), ‘Painful Stomach Letter’ 肚痛帖. From Xi’an beishi shufa huicui, p.52.

In 1986, Pierre Ryckmans in his remarkably evocative Forty-seventh George Ernest Morrison Lecture, The Chinese Attitude towards the Past[4] addressed what he believed to be the paradox to be found at the heart of Chinese civilisation, whereby: ‘… cultivation of the moral and spiritual values of the Ancients appears to have most often combined with a curious neglect or indifference towards the material heritage of the past’. ‘The Chinese past’, he goes on to say, ‘is both spiritually active and physically invisible’. He qualifies this statement when he turns to the severly limited object of Chinese antiquarianism, itself a relatively late development in China: ‘… in China, the taste for antiques has always remained closely if not exclusively related to the prestige of the written word’, and surely the importance lent the traditions of the taking and preservation of rubbings is something of exception to the general Chinese profligacy with the material remains of their civilisation. With Starr’s book, we now have an eminently readable, reliable scholarly guide to the grammar of these traditions.

Remarkably, Starr informs us, his richly suggestive final chapter represents only a small fraction of his consideration of its topic, with ‘cost considerations requiring elimination of connoisseurship and many illustrations’ (p.ix). One can only hope that he will soon be prevailed upon to prepare the material excluded from this present work for a further publication, thus contributing again to an aspect of Sinology much enhanced recently with the publication also of Robert E. Harrist’s The Landscape of Words[5] and Naomi Noble Richard, ed., Rethinking Recarving,[6] including essays by Cary Liu, Michael Loewe, and Michael Nylan, amongst others, along with the bracingly alternative view of Qianshen Bai 白謙慎.


[1] Yun Gao 雲告 ed., Paradise Collection 琅嬛文集, Changsha: Yuelu Shushe, 1985, p.119. Once Zhang Dai visits the site for the first time, in his seventeenth year (1613) and on the occasion of a sixty-year cyclical anniversary of the day in 353 on which Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (309-c.365) had written his immortal ‘Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems’, he finds of course that the reality that presented itself to his eyes bore little relationship to the scene depicted in the rubbings he had lingered so long and lovingly over. See my essay ‘Orchid Pavilion: An Anthology of Literary Representations’ in the New Scholarship section of China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17 (March 2009), at: http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/scholarship.php?searchterm=017_orchidpavillion.inc&issue=017

[2] In an earlier treatment of the subject, Starr had discussed the inappropriateness of the terms used in English (rubbing, ink-rubbing, squeeze, ink-squeeze) to refer to both the technique and its product, for which, see ‘Inception of the Rubbing Technique: A Review’, in Qingzhu Li Ji xiansheng qishisui lunwen ji 慶祝李濟先生七十歲論文集, Taipei: Qinghua xueshe yinxing, 1965, p.281. In the marvellously useful appendices to this present work, ‘Terms for Rubbings, the Rubbing Technique, and Related Processes’ and ‘Terms for Papers Used to Make Rubbings’, Starr brings definitive clarity to the terminological (Chinese and English) aspects of the topic.

[3] ‘On Rubbings: Their Materiality and Historicity’, in Judith T. Zeitlin, Lydia H. Liu, and Ellen Widmer, eds, Writing and Materiality in China: Essays in Honor of Patrick Hanan, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2003, p.62. Again oddly, the brief but useful bilingual introduction to the art of rubbing produced some years ago by the Hong Kong Museum of History—Lui Wing-fong 呂榮芳, Traditional Chinese Rubbing Techniques (1986)—is also missing from Starr’s bibliography.

[4] Subsequently published in Papers on Far Eastern History, 39 (1989): 1-16 and reproduced in China Heriatge Quarterly, Issue 14 (June 2008), at: http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/articles.php?searchterm=014_chineseAttitude.inc&issue=014.

[5] Robert E. Harrist, The Landscape of Words: Stone Inscriptions from Early and Medieval China, Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2008.

[6] Naomi Noble Richard, ed., Rethinking Recarving: Ideals, Practices, and Problems of the ‘Wu Family Shrines’ and Han China, Princeton University Art Musuem, 2008.