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Taiwan type maker preserves tradition

08-30-2010 09:07 BJT

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Digital publishing and the decline in traditional printing have sounded the death knell for type-cast production.

Now Taiwan's last type maker is hoping to preserve a unique set of traditional Chinese characters, together with the necessary casting equipment and technology.

Hunched over a metal casting machine, 58-year-old Chang Chieh-kuan carefully guides a tiny copper mould toward a hydraulic press, making sure that just the right amount of force is applied.

Within seconds he extracts a single lead type of the Chinese character for "treasure," and as the casting machine clinks and clanks amid the summer heat and the cloying darkness of his tiny workshop, he inspects it for imperfections.

In the nearly extinct world of the movable type printing industry, Chang is the last link to the making of traditional Chinese characters, a craft that dates back almost 1,000 years.

Chang Chieh Kuan, owner of Ri Xing Type Foundry, said, "In Taiwan, I might be the last type maker. If I only preserved the basics of this business for my own descendents it would be a big loss for Taiwan. As for humanity, the Chinese-character movable letterpress is a huge cultural asset and could very well disappear. So at that time, several friends and I started to set up an online project to help Ri Xing preserve a complete moveable type collection."

Founded in 1969, his Ri Xing Type Foundry prospered throughout the 1970s, when some 35 employees churned out millions of characters on seven type casting machines to satisfy his customers' needs.

Then, there were 5,000 printing shop clients in Taipei. Now however, there are no more than 30 printing shops throughout Taiwan, and the foundry industry has been whittled down to one.

Chang Chieh Kuan said, "The preservation of these copper moulds is important, not only because of its historical significance, but also because its origin. The fonts are derived from the writings of calligraphy masters, later carved to make moulds. The fonts have been around for more than 100 years and that helped to preserve the ascetics of the characters written by the calligraphy masters."

Chang's determination has attracted a dozen young volunteers, many of whom had never seen lead type before they entered his shop.

One is Kuei Ching-hsuan, 25, who says, it is important to preserve the craft of Chinese movable type making for future generations.

Kuei Ching Hsuan, volunteer, said, "I'm not sure if there will be a day where we will use these letters again, but at least future generations will know that there was a time where this was the process to make a book or a newspaper or other things."

But bursting with optimism, Chang insists he will persevere.

His current project is to make new moulds for 150,000 pieces of a font known as Kaishu, which dates from the latter stages of the Qing dynasty in the first decade of the 20th century.

Now Chang operates a single machine among the seven in his shop for only an hour a day, mostly to fill occasional orders for old clients.

But every now and then, new customers call on him, nostalgic for the lead type that is fast vanishing from the Chinese speaking world.

Editor:Liu Fang |Source: CNTV.CN

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