Chinese Paper Stamps

A few weeks ago, I gave a brief talk at the workshop “Asian Papers” at Dartmouth College, organized in part by my colleague and co-Mellon Fellow in Critical Bibliography, Holly Shaffer. The workshop was a welcome opportunity to start organizing some of my thoughts on the difficulty of applying Western descriptive bibliographic standards to the bibliography of the East Asian book. In line with the workshop topic, my presentation focused on the sorts of bibliographic information available from a close examination of paper.

One of the major bibliographic differences between European and East Asian paper in the early modern period is the presence of watermarks in the former. Watermarks are present in most pre-modern western paper. The earliest recorded reference to watermarks comes from the Perugia based jurist Bartolo da Sassoferrato (1314-57). He wrote:

Here there are many paper mills, and some of them produce better paper, although even here the skill of the worker is of considerable importance. And here each sheet of paper has its own watermark by which one can recognize the paper mill. Therefore, in this case the watermark should belong to the one to whom the mills itself belongs, no matter whether it remains in his possession by right of ownership or lease, or by any other title, wholly or in part, or even in bad faith. During the entire time in which he has possession of the mill, he cannot be prohibited from using the watermark…(source)

According to Sassoferrato, these watermarks allowed mills to trademark their products.

The production of watermarks is a simple process. Essentially, every piece of hand-made paper is marked with an impression of the screen which removed its wet pulp from water. Early European watermarks came from wire designs woven into mesh or wire screens. When the screen, with the deckle on top, was dipped into a vat of pulp, the resulting paper would have the impression of both the screen wires and the design. I had a chance to see this process last year, when visiting the last wind-powered paper mill in the Netherlands, De Schoolmeester in Westzaan. (The field-trip was part of a great conference organized by Megan Williams at the University of Groningen)

While watermarks can be appreciated for their aesthetic appeal alone, they have also proven to be indispensable tools for bibliographers. Since each mill had its own watermarks, and since wires break and need to be repaired, careful analysis of watermarks has allowed bibliographers to narrow down the dates of editions, decide where something was printed, and observe other sorts of oddities that occur as paper moves through the printing press.

Scholars of the East Asian book don’t have anything quite like watermarks. In our field of bibliography, paper is rarely considered at all. When it is considered, people usually say something like printed on “rice paper.” This is wrong for all sorts of reasons, and I’ll write about it at some later date.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when reading a wonderful blog post from the BL by Annabel Gallop, entitled “Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper,” that I even realized Chinese paper-makers stamped their paper.

(Seals of a Chinese supplier of paper, in a Javanese manuscript of Panji Angreni.  British Library, MSS Jav 17, f.10v.)

Last year, while examining books in Japan, I found this:

After looking through many more books printed between 1550 and 1720, I noticed that longer books, those usually over two hundred pages, almost always have similar slivers of stamps. Who can even guess how many of these I’ve failed to ‘see’? The digitized books at the Harvard-Yenching Library have proved to be great sources for partial stamps. After seeing these stamps in so many places, I’ve belatedly started to collect them. I’ve also written to friends to let them know I’m on the prowl. One of them,  Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel, Ph.D. candidate, UCLA, sent me several photos he took of materials in the Philippines.

Here is one nice example:

(1798. NAP, 6208 Aduana, f. 384v, photo graciously shared by Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel, Ph.D. candidate, UCLA)

The top stamp on the page shows that Chinese paper stamps were, like their European counterparts, part of paper firm’s attempts to control their brand. It reads:

“Recently there have been shameless sorts who have faked our branding of the “Double Children Seal.” All our patrons must remember that Changfa studios are the official distributors.”

In any case, between fragments and occasionally complete stamps, it seems that Chinese books actually do have something analogous to watermarks. They’re far rarer, they’re almost never complete, but they do exist. That means that we have to 1) collect examples from books that have stamps to see if they tell us anything (I’m certain they will), and 2) work them into bibliography.

So, if you see these, save them. Better yet, send them to me. I’ll work on raising money to get these things into some sort of database.


A few minutes after sharing this post, the wonderful Emily Mokros, University of Kentucky, wrote me about the research of Chang Pao-san 張寶三  from National Taiwan University. He seems to have done quite a bit of work on these stamps.

One thoughtful comment

  1. This one is probably already on your list but, just in case, there is a blue (sometimes blue and red) mark running through the Manchu copy of the Jin Ping Mei stored at the Documentation and Information Center for Chinese Studies, Kyoto University.

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