A set of five rubbings made from 'Tang Dilianggong Bei' (Stele of Di Lianggong of the Tang dynasty)
The text of this famous stele was composed by Fan Zhongyan (989-1052), a respected politician, philosopher, and scholar of the Song dynasty. The 1907 characters recorded the great deeds of his role model Detective Di of the Tang dynasty (Di Renjie or Dilianggong, 607-700) with great admiration, and expressed Fan’s own ideal of devoting himself to the country and the people.
The calligraphy was written by Yuan dynasty master Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) in 1301. Since this piece is a very well-known small character script of Zhao, it was carved and recarved onto stones, and many rubbings were made from them. This set is from the 19th century.
Carving characters into hard substances can be traced back as early as the Neolithic era when Chinese characters were invented. These appear on pottery, oracle bones and bronzes. Rubbings using paper came much later - when Chinese had invented paper in the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). The paper-based rubbing itself was probably invented in the late 5th or early 6th century, but by the Tang dynasty in 7th century, it had became quite common.
The principal function of rubbings has been to reproduce intellectually, aesthetically or religiously valued calligraphies or images that were carved, incised or cast on hard surfaces.
Among artists and scholars in China, the primary reason for seeking important rubbing copies is the appreciation of the fine calligraphy and poetry or essays, commonly in combination. Works of important artists and scholars were copied by famous calligraphers, then carved onto stones from which rubbings were made. They were then bound and distributed among the educated elite. When the original stone was lost or broken, rubbings then served as models for new copies for fresh cuts from which fresh rubbings were made.
In modern times, rubbings while ubiquitous in China are highly sought after by collectors and connoisseurs. The study of rubbings, 'bei xue', is considered the most profound and recondite discipline in China.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, August 2012.