"Printing from engravings has gone from an unknown craft to one that has received public recognition. During this process, I have been moved by the spirit of persistence from the old generation of craftsmen, and also witnessed the exploration and creative power of the new generation of inheritors," said Deng Qingzhi, one of the seventh generation of inheritors at the Jinling Scripture Engraving Center, adding that she intends to popularize woodblock art and encourage more people to learn about the intangible cultural heritage.
Persistent learning pays off
In the eyes of most local residents, the quiet Jinling Scripture Engraving Center doesn't fit the vibe of the busy downtown area of Nanjing, capital city of east China's Jiangsu province and the capital of China for six dynasties in ancient times.
Built in 1866, the center is now a treasure of Buddhist cultural heritage and the only place in China where scriptures of Chinese Buddhism are printed by carved woodblocks.
Deng has become immersed in the art of wood engraving for 30 years since she knocked on the center's door when she was 17.
After graduating with a major in arts and crafts in 1991, Deng pursued practical training at the center - disregarding those who thought her future looked grim due to her "weak foundation" in carving techniques.
She started from scratch and spent all her time practicing carving and trying to learn the techniques used by master engravers. She spared no effort in studying the wood engraving and eventually learned it well enough to pass on to the next generation of craftspeople.
Engraving is a complicated task and involves a variety of skills - including the art of calligraphy.
Usually it takes about 15 days to carve a finished 400-word block. Deng tried her best to carve 100 Chinese characters a day while developing her skills as an apprentice. Over the years, her right arm has become noticeably thicker than her left and the knuckles on her right hand have become slightly deformed. Despite the physical repercussions, her persistence paid off, and she has inherited all of her master's skills.
Breaking tradition to be first female inheritor
Within the rigid structure of traditional Chinese mentorships, it is difficult for women to attain the level of "master" and pass on their skills. However, Deng broke with more than 100 years of tradition and became the first female inheritor of the craft. She has now committed herself to the cultivation of the eighth generation inheritors of woodblock art.
Deng is a firm believer in the idea of doing one thing in life and doing it well. At present, she has carved more than 200 blocks with more than 40,000 characters, and completed over 30 Buddha statue paintings using the block-printing technique.
In the center's sutra collection building, there are 18 printed paintings of large Buddha statues, all of which are museum-quality pieces. Deng hopes to continue working on these paintings in the future.
Passing on superb skills
Whenever Deng is in the sutra collection building, she finds herself deeply impressed by the superb woodblock printing skills of past craftspeople, which further amplifies her sense of responsibility to pass on the craft.
Deng is among the last group of people to learn woodblock printing in the traditional way. In the national plan for revitalizing traditional arts and crafts, many colleges and universities offer courses and even majors on "inheriting China's intangible cultural heritage."
The eighth generation of woodblock printers were all professionally trained on campus and majored in ancient book restoration and other related cultural heritage courses.
"Some of my apprentices learned the skills, history and culture behind the Buddhist carving at school. I just help them correct possible mistakes and improve their techniques, " said Deng, who has given lectures on engraving skills at colleges.
Deng has applied for a national project so that she can fully record her engraving skills via
dynamic images. She has also collected a range of materials on woodblock printing techniques, and plans to publish a monograph to further carry forward the craft.
"Young people are very creative and are adept at combining traditional skills and culture with modern elements; they apply engraving to graduation designs, which is more conducive to the inheritance and development of this skill," Deng concluded.