Once upon a time the son of a printer grew up crawling on the floor in the printing shop. Almost half a century later, the son is now the owner of 150,000 copper molds which are likely to be the last existing collection of the traditional Chinese character matrix in the world. Fifty-eight year old Chang Chieh-kuan started Ri Xing Type Foundry(日星鑄字行)with his father in 1969. He was a young apprentice who had begun learning all about printing at a relative’s shop. Those were the golden years before movable type printing was marginalized by the invention of typewriters and the development of offset lithography, and then later by the explosive rush to computerized typesetting.
According to a ten-page introduction on Ri Xing written by Victor Thibout, an enthusiast as well as one of Ri Xing’s corps of committed volunteers, there were once as many as 30 employees working in the foundry during its peak years. In the past ten years or so, however, Chang and his wife have run the quickly-fading business all by themselves.
"When we heard that other foundries were closing down one by one, I promised our clients we would operate as long as there’s one person requiring our service,” said Chang in an interview on November 23.
"And when I learned that we were the last remaining foundry, I realized that it was my social responsibility to keep it alive, and to preserve it for Taiwan as a whole. It was around 2007” he added.
People in the publishing circle have discovered Ri Xing one after another. They include Chang Chia-hsing from Mogu, or Booday, which publishes an independent publication on art and design; Chou I-cheng from publishing house Flâneur, and Yang Chung-ming, owner of 324 Print Studio which is located just opposite Ri Xing in the alley on Taiyuan Road, Taipei.
With help from Chang Chieh-kuan, the Ri Xing Letterpress Rehabilitation Project was initiated. A blog was set up online to attract anyone who is interested in movable type printing and the Project. Last March, Chang began holding training sessions every Saturday morning to show participants different aspects of how a foundry works, such as the casting of type, maintenance of typecasting machines and copper matrixes, typesetting and other specialized skills and duties.
Major steps in the Project include the preservation of what Ri Xing has on hand, especially the calligraphic font ‘Kaishu’(楷書), a well-developed style of calligraphy that goes back to around 2000 years ago. On the one hand Chang wants to preserve them as they are for historical significance, while on the other, considerable effort is going into modifying the font digitally, with the aim of producing new molds in the future, since the ones at Ri Xing have a history of four decades and are understandably blemished.
"Molds are the most valuable asset of a foundry,” said Chang, who initially wanted to keep a small part of Ri Xing for his descendants to know what their ancestors did, but later determined to focus on preservation and rehabilitation because he realized it is actually a valuable social and cultural asset for Taiwan.
"The development of printing has a thousand years of history. Old-fashioned printing has been replaced by newer techniques, but does that mean there’s no valuable application for it? ” he pondered even as he answered his own question.
"This is why I want to make Ri Xing a living museum of movable-type printing,” he said. Chang made a trip to China in September. While there, he made exchanges with several old type founders and visited a printing museum.
"The museum in China is rich in documentation, but I wanted something more than just static displays. I want visitors to experience printing on their own, to see the uniqueness and esthetics of Chinese characters,” he explained.
For him, the beauty of characters lies in how every stroke breathes, and in the way they are in harmony with each other. The main difference is that lead type came from molds made on the basis of calligraphy and were produced one by one, whereas modern computerized fonts are assembled mechanically from a combination of pre-drawn strokes.
For example, many characters share the same radical. For lead types, the radical is slightly different in each and every character, while in computerized fonts there are maybe two or three choices of the radical for all of the characters.
Comparing Kaishu-style lead type and computerized fonts, Chang said it is not about which one is more beautiful than the other. “We are just wondering if there is a better way to present characters”.
Last month, the Taiwan Association for the Preservation of Typographic Letterpress was registered legally to run the Project in a more organized fashion. The association exists as an independent entity, which makes it easier for the Project to receive funding or help.
"We are just maintaining a social asset for Taiwan. We are trying to find ways to preserve it well. The association will be able to sustain even when Ri Xing no longer can,” said Chang.
"Chinese characters are something, once you fall in love with them you can hardly stray,” he declared.
As for turning Ri Xing into a museum, Chang confessed that it is not a mission that he can carry out completely on his own.
"I think that when someone has delved into safeguarding things that belong to the island, the government ought to reach out a helping hand. But in my experiences in getting in touch with them, I sensed a certain level of myopia, which leads them to care more about what can be done during their term of office,” Chang explained.
One Ri Xing volunteer’s story
Victor Thibout is from France. He first read about Ri Xing in an issue of Booday magazine a friend lent him in 2008. About half year later he read another story about Ri Xing in Taiwan Aujourd’hui, a monthly published by the Government Information Office; thus he knew that letterpress is alive, if not as well as might be hoped, in Taiwan.
During a job-seeking visit to Taiwan Thibout visited Ri Xing based on the information provided in the Taiwan Auhjourd’hui— “in an alley on Taiyuan Road”. Not the clearest message, to be sure, but he was lucky. He walked for an hour or so and found the type foundry when Chang was just about to call it a day. Chang remembers well that it was a rainy evening.
"I had a conversation with Mr. Chang, whom I found to be very friendly. At the time I had decided to move from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and the encounter with Mr. Chang stimulated me even more,” Thibout said.
Thibout was interested in the physical process of book making, from the beginning to the end. He moved to Taiwan in September 2009 and was among the first volunteers to join the Saturday morning sessions which began in March 2010.
"We learn various simple things, such as how to grab type from the type shelves, for instance. There’s a special way to grab them if you don’t want to see them fall all over the floor,” he explained.
As a committed volunteer, he got to know where things are in the type foundry. He understands how the shelves are arranged. For example, to find a lead type from the shelves, the first thing one has to know is whether it is a commonly or rarely used character.
Meetings are held Saturday afternoon once a month for participants to get together and talk about what has been achieved and what problems have occurred. Volunteers who usually work in front of their computers on visually amending the shape of characters meet up with those who help out in the type foundry, such as Thibout, who prefers to use his own hands rather than a computer mouse.
Although he hasn’t seen the whole process of making a book in Ri Xing, Thibout enjoys the time he spends there. In addition to the Saturday morning sessions, he also stops by Ri Xing whenever he feels like and hangs out for an hour or two.
"There’s always something new to learn. Things I can sometimes understand intuitively by myself when I manipulate the type,” he said.
For him to make such commitment isn’t difficult at all because it is based on his interests. If you talk to him, you soon realize how far the interest has taken him.
He explains that he started out of curiosity about Chinese characters a long time ago. But studying Chinese also led him to explore the spoken language, Chinese civilization, history and aspects of Chinese philosophy.
"It has broadened the scope of my original interest, and that’s fine,” he noted.
The Ri Xing Letterpress Rehabilitation Project faces a long journey, and the passion and patience of the people behind it are what sustains its vitality.
Ri Xing Type Foundry
Address: 13, Lane 97, Taiyuan Road, Taipei
http://rixingtypography.blogspot.com/ (Introduction in Mandarin, English and French)