Paper presented at ‘Script, print, and letterforms in global contexts: the visual and the material’ conference organised by Centre for Printing History and Culture
Printing as an activity can’t be separated from its religious roots. Having originated as a way of reproducing religious charms to earn merit, religious printing played a major part in the printing history of China from its conception up to today. This paper looks at the printing of the morality book Yuli Chao Chuan Jingshi in Late Imperial China. This cheaply produced book was freely distributed in temples as a way of accumulating karmic favour, and it illustrates the Chinese conception of hell. Its function is not only to educate about the torments and dangers of a misled life, but more crucially, it was believed that it will aid in saving the book’s sponsors, printers, carvers and distributors from the dangers it warns of.
By comparing two surviving examples from the nineteenth century, this paper looks at the production of the Yuli Chao Chuan Jingshi as an attempt to avoid hell. Comparison of the two editions will evidence that the later edition was produced from forged woodblocks, which raises the still relevant question of printing as a creative practice versus an automated action. While from here it would be easy to conclude that artistic originality had no bearing in the earning of religious merit, the purposeful erasure of a hell scene associated with punishing those who engage in poor book practices from the forged edition will lead to the conclusion that although the copying of editions was standard practice, the carvers or publishers had an awareness that this poorly produced edition might have consequences in the after-life.