Marta Dos Santos

LCC / School of Oriental and African Studies, UK


Printing for salvation: the production of the morality book Yuli Chao Chuan Jingshi as a hell-avoiding strategy in late imperial China


As an activity, Chinese printing cannot be separated from its religious roots – having originated as a way of reproducing religious charms to earn merit, religion played a major part in the printing history of China from the beginning. 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 misdirected 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 warned 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 shows 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 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 leads 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 afterlife.


Marta Dos Santos is a letterpress practitioner who currently runs the letterpress workshop at London College of Communication. Previously, she worked with Alan Kitching and earned a BA in Graphic and Media Design. Alongside her letterpress work, she’s currently in the last months of an MA in Chinese Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies. Her academic work has been split between printing history in China and Modern Chinese literature. She has researched printing and the persecution of female shamans in the Song dynasty, morality books in the Qing, the literary work of Shen Congwen and Can Xue, and her thesis explores the archival of knowledge in post-apocalyptic Modern Chinese literary science fiction.

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