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Review of Killing Green: An Account of Hand Papermaking in China

Winter 2010
Winter 2010
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Nancy Norton Tomasko has recently retired from her position as editor of the East Asian Library Journal, a scholarly journal at Princeton University. She has an interest in the old and continuing traditions used in the production of Chinese handmade papers for woodblock-printed books, printmaking, calligraphy, painting, and book conservation. She hopes to get back to teaching workshops on Chinese traditional bookbinding and to traveling in China to further understand how Chinese handmade paper is produced and utilized by printers, printmakers, artists, and bookbinders.  For more than three decades Elaine Koretsky has been expanding our knowledge of world papermaking techniques. Her numerous books, several elegantly printed in fine-press editions, her generous reports from "along the paper road" that appear regularly in Hand Papermaking's publications, her many papers presented at national and international conferences, the papermaking workshops she has conducted, and exhibits organized and mounted at her Carriage House paper museums—in Brookline, Massachusetts, and now in Brooklyn, New York—have richly informed us about traditions of hand papermaking. Elaine Koretsky's latest work, Killing Green: An Account of Hand Papermaking in China, is first-hand, in-person documentation of travels in pursuit of the papermaking craft in selected regions of China (and on its periphery) from 1982 through the early twenty-first century, written by a persistent, undaunted papermaker and paper historian with a strong understanding of plant materials—and equipped with rolls and rolls of film.

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The author states clearly that she is quite unlike "the esteemed Dard Hunter" who "barely set foot in China." Rather, the model to which she aspires is the methodical work of the botanist Floyd Alonzo McClure, whose research on bamboo in China in the 1920s and '30s naturally led to his pursuit of how paper was made in southern China in his day. Visual proof of the author's presence in China lies in Killing Green's opening gallery of 54 color plates, nearly 30 black-and-white illustrations in the text, and the frontispiece and jacket-cover figures, the photographic work of her husband and traveling partner, Sidney Koretsky. Elaine Koretsky's accumulation of information about visiting hand-papermaking sites in China is an incomparable accomplishment, the hardwon results of punishing travel under complicated conditions that sometimes was confounded by the very guides she hired. Surely few would—as the Koretskys have done repeatedly—risk arrest for traveling in areas not Killing Green: An Account of Hand Papermaking in China reviewed by nancy norton tomasko killing green: an account of hand papermaking in china Elaine Koretsky. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2009. 217 pages. 9 ¼ x 6 x ¾ inches (hardcover, jacketed cloth). Includes gallery of color photographs, black-andwhite photographs in text, two line maps, bibliography, and index. $35.00. The author examines bundles of bamboo stacked to dry after being retted for many months. Guang Rong village, Guangzhou City, Guandong Province, China, 1999. All photos by Sidney Koretsky and courtesy of The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan unless otherwise noted. 40 - hand papermaking yet open to tourists, camp for days on rocky Tibetan terrain, wait for hours for roads to be cleared of landslides, and rise very early for consecutive days on the road to follow up on an elusive tip about the existence of a papermaking village. The author organizes her chapters by geographical region (with some reprises). Her narrative about papermaking in a particular area, often where minority cultures are dominant, builds through successive visits. An appendix presenting a simple chronology of the author's trips to China, listing the destinations, would have helped readers place her travel adventures in perspective. Careful record of where and when and how long a particular trip took can lend drama and authenticity to a travel account. But unless readers have a similarly fine-tuned map on which to plot the movements, the details become wearying. Two maps at the opening of Killing Green proved inadequate in locating tiny villages the author visited in Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Anhui, Shaanxi, and Guizhou. Even referencing detailed maps in Chinese left this reviewer with only a vague sense of the whereabouts of many of the papermaking operations described. The level of detail that the author provides about her expeditions suggests that she is a consummate keeper of travel diaries. In some ways this detail is the strength of the narrative. However, too often the string of accounts quickly melts into dizzying overlays of events filled with a whirlwind of movement and observations and a surfeit of information of marginal relevance to papermaking in China. Judicious editing would have increased the readability of the accounts. For instance, it would have been helpful if each chapter ended with a summary of what the author learned about papermaking in a particular place and not with a jumble of the painful expeditionary steps taken. The author is fascinated by the process of hand papermaking. Her narrative is peppered with phrases such as, "I marvelled at," "I was thrilled," and "I was astonished and ecstatic." These words convey the author's heightened sense of delight and anticipation of discovery. Hers is an unrelenting passion. Why not let this come through without direct statement? Too frequent an expression of fascination and amazement eventually diminishes the sense of genuine delight. Indeed, in general, an excessive use of the first-person voice—"I spotted," "I noticed," "I wanted to see it all"—overwhelms the narrative in Killing Green. Occasionally, small errors of fact and phrasing creep into the text. On page 2 "Chinese Emperor Yuan Hsing" should read "Emperor He of the Eastern Han dynasty." On page 139 the Chinese term for "bast-fiber paper" is incorrectly translated as "leather paper." Inconsistent use of standard spellings (pinyin) of Chinese-language names is a persistent and distracting problem throughout. We can be grateful that Elaine Koretsky has added a valuable chapter to the history of hand papermaking in China. Few others are writing in English about this expansive topic. This story should be continued. The next step is systematic research and presentation of the history and methods of papermaking in China, perhaps along the lines of Jesper Trier's ethno-technological study Ancient Paper of Nepal (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1972) and Tim Barrett's detailed and well-illustrated Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques (New York: Weatherhill, 1983). Jacob Eyfurth is taking such an approach in his recent publication Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). Eyfurth, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago, devotes considerable space in his book to the process of papermaking and includes several instructive photographs. Some important topics have been given little space in Killing Green. With her vast and wide-ranging knowledge of papermaking in China, it would have been interesting, for instance, if the author had compared regional variations in the tools of the papermaking craft, such as differences in the size, materials, and construction of paper moulds; the types of brushes used to spread damp sheets of paper onto drying walls; the hand-forged shears and knives used to trim papers; and more. Also compelling would have been an examination of how the factors in the production process—water chemistry, the kind of fibers, treatment of the fibers, sheet-formation techniques, temperature of the drying walls, et cetera—affect the quality of and the qualities of the paper produced; or a discussion of what makes a particular paper suitable to a specific end use and why it is valued within the culture. For example, how is paper made from retted, but uncooked bamboo fiber (reported by the author) different from paper made from retted and cooked bamboo? How do the qualities of the various papers made with mulberry fiber or paper-mulberry fiber vary from region to region? And similarly, what are the regional differences in the qualities of the many kinds of xuan or xuan-type papers produced for calligraphy, painting, and woodblock printing? China has a rich tradition of turning its waterleaf papers into a remarkable range of processed and decorative papers whose production techniques are barely mentioned in Western literature on papermaking. A first step here could be a sample book with descriptions of the treatment processes. And there are questions of why Chinese paper is little known or used outside China in contrast with the way Japanese paper is not only known widely, but also sought out for use in conservation, book arts, printmaking, and printing. These are some of the inquires that could be taken up by researchers who can build on the clues and the enthusiasm that Elaine Koretsky has presented in Killing Green. The unsettling question arises as to whether anyone has comparable energy, determination, time, desire, or resources to take up the challenge. And perhaps even more unnerving is whether hand papermaking and the decorative-paper techniques will survive in China long enough for anyone to pursue the leads that exist. A word on the title Killing Green Elaine Koretsky took the provocative title for her book directly from an English translation for a chapter on papermaking found in a seventeenth-century work on Chinese technology written by Song Yingxing (1587–ca. 1666; also spelled Sung Ying-hsing). Koretsky has quoted the authors of this English translation correctly and the translators are faithful to the text of Song's 1637 work.1 However, commentators in Chinese editions of Song Yingxing's work have pointed out that his seventeenth-century use and definition of the Chinese term shaqing, which he took to stand for papermaking in general, probably reflects his lack of practical understanding of the technology and terminology of papermaking. The term comes from the era before paper was commonly used in Papermakers in Longzhu village in Heqing County, Yunnan Province employ a frame that is designed to form sheets with a vigorous back-and-forth action, similar to the Japanese papermaking technique, 1994. China—prior to the first and second centuries CE—when strips of bamboo were used as the primary medium on which texts were written. Strips of green bamboo served for writing drafts; the ink easily wiped off the slick, green surface to make corrections or to reuse the bamboo. Bamboo strips for final versions were processed by applying heat to dry the bamboo and to make its outer green covering easily abraded or pared off. This heat tempering made the bamboo less susceptible to insect damage and exposed a more porous, light-brown subsurface that took ink permanently. The process of heating and removing the outermost layer of bamboo was known as saiqing or shaiqing (same Chinese characters as for shaqing, but with a variation in pronunciation and tone for its variant meaning).2 So, in fact, in relation to papermaking, the term saiqing or shaiqing means something closer to "tempering the bamboo with heat or through retting in order to remove the green skin." Perhaps "tempering the green" or "degrading the green" would be a truer, though certainly less startling, translation for the term that by the seventeenth century Song Yingxing mistakenly identified as meaning "chopping down the bamboo plants."3 ___________ notes 1. See Sung Ying-Hsing, T'ien-kung k'ai-wu: Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century, trans. by E-tu Zen Sun and Shiou-chuan Sun (University Park, PA and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), 224. Tiangong kaiwu (in standard spelling, pinyin) covers a very broad range of technologies from growing grains to processing salt and sugar, from ceramics to boat and cart building, and from forging to paper and ink making. Song was a technical omnivore who may not have had all of his facts completely correct on all of the topics he covered. 2. Chinese commentators cite references to this meaning for saiqing or shaiqing found in biography of Wu You in chapter 54 of the fifth-century history Hou Han found in biography of Wu You in chapter 54 of the fifth-century history Hou Han shu (History of the Later Han [25–220 CE]) compiled by Fan Ye (398–445); and shu (History of the Later Han \[25–220 CE\]) compiled by Fan Ye (398–445); and also in various Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) texts. also in various Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) texts. 3. See the citation in note 1. 3. See the citation in note 1.