I studied printmaking in school and I’ve always loved the rich lines and beautiful bleeding you can get with a block print. When our religion professor, Joe, showed me several small sheets of brightly colored paper with black ink block prints of what we thought were local gods, I got very excited. A few days later, we found a basket of dusty wood blocks at an indigo workshop and the local women told us stories of what each represents. I bought a round block that had Taoist symbols and vowed to learn more.
I found a shop a few days before that sold block prints and naturally dyed fabrics, and our assistant director Alex agreed to come with and see if the shopkeeper knew anything. We quickly realized that the woman minding the shop wasn’t the artist. She had no idea what the different prints meant or how they were made, but she said that the artist worked at the guest house near the Linden Center. Alex was as excited as I was and we decided to check it out. We were on a mission to find Zhang Qing Sheng, the block print artist.
We walked through the maze of alleyways that I’ve just started to understand after three weeks in Xizhou, and cut across the rice paddy to get to the guest house. The guest house is a beautiful building, with lush vines growing over the entrance and a shaded courtyard full of art and potted plants. There are displays of the block print postcards, so we knew we were on the right track. We explored the coffee shop and art exhibit of local artifacts and then asked the woman working at the front desk whether she knew where the artists who make block prints were. She told Alex that his studio was down the street, in the next alley. We thanked her and headed off to the next stop on our journey to find the source of these beautiful prints. The next shop had even more block prints; the entire space was devoted to displaying local arts. There were full books of prints, tote bags with designs printed onto them and many framed prints dotting the shop. Alex asked the woman behind the counter if the artist worked there. She said no, he works in Zhoucheng, the town where we tie-dyed and bought our first block prints. We couldn’t stop at this point, so Alex booked us a car to Zhoucheng.
Once in Zhoucheng, the directions to his workshop were vague; head north past the big tree. Women followed us, asking if we wanted to tie-dye and Alex told them all that we were just heading to the market. I practiced saying “no thank you,” the latest phrase I’ve added to my currently limited Chinese vocabulary. We wandered into a shop to ask directions and found a man sewing traditional Bai clothing. He said he’s friends with the artist we were looking for, and pointed us in the right direction.
With the help of another woman on the street, we finally found the block print artist. His shop is right on the main square, looking out on two three-hundred-year-old trees that shade the shop with their large leafy branches. Once a year they host a large festival in the courtyard and opera singers from another town come to perform. They used to carry a statue of the main benzhu deity down to sit between the trees, but they don’t anymore since they put in a new entrance gate.
Zhang’s shop is clearly designed for locals. There are no expensive tote bags or postcard sets like in the Xizhou shops. His shop is filled with all the materials for worshiping at the temple; incense for making offerings, candles and the small scraps of printed paper that Joe found a few weeks before blowing down the street. He says he doesn’t mind that Bai culture is used for tourism because the people who manage to track him down are always very interested in local culture. He enjoys sharing stories and he seemed genuinely happy to share with us.
The small scraps of paper are prints of benzhus, and they are burned at temples as offerings. According to Zhang, there are 500 different images, and they have stayed consistent for hundreds of years. This is consistent with the information in our reading Remaking social boundaries: the construction of benzhu worship in Southwest China by Yuzhong Zhao. Yuzhong says that there are 500 king deities in the Dali lake basin. Each one has a corresponding image that’s carved into a block of wood. Zhang, and his father before him, carve the images into blocks of pear tree wood backward and then cover them with ink. They press the paper onto the blocks and rub the ink into the paper by brushing a rounded tool across the paper. Zhang told us that they used to use the charcoal residue from the bottom of pots, but now they just use ink from the store. This is one way that people are less connected with the environment as the towns develop more globalized economies. Zhang showed us books he’d printed with many different designs and pointed one out as the protector spirit of Lake Erhai. He didn’t have any printed, so he took us upstairs with him and printed a few more. We got to watch him ink the block and press on the paper. He even let me try, and I printed my own Lake Erhai protector spirit.
Zhang told us that the tradition began in the Han dynasty, about 2000 years ago. It’s unclear if this is accurate as the reading suggests that Bai traditions are not that old. Many designs are standardized widely across China, but many are local and specific to this area. You burn a different benzhu depending on what you need. You might burn a print of the wealth god if you need wealth, or burn an image of the local fertility deity if you are trying to get pregnant. Usually, each village enshrines one benzhu, although some villages may enshrine the same one. In Zhoucheng, they worship a man from a neighboring village who challenged an evil horse spirit that was terrorizing the village. The man won and has since been deified in the town. Zhang showed us a print of this benzhu, as well as many others like the god who had a good heart and sacrificed himself to save the whole Dali region.
The block print I bought at the indigo tie dying place is traditionally printed onto fabric and hung on the wall near the entrance to a house. You also hang two smaller prints, chopsticks and two bags of five grains of rice. You hang it when a newlywed couple moves in, and then pay respects three times every time you enter. This brings good fortune to the household.
To create this postcard, I painted the Cangshan mountains and some clouds onto watercolor paper. Then I painted indigo dye from Zhoucheng onto the jia ma block I'd purchased at the indigo workshop, and pressed the postcard onto the block. Residual ink from the last time the block was used added the pink and black tones to the print.