Mokoku (模刻) is a calligraphic term meaning to create a 'hojo' (copybook printed from the works of old masters of calligraphy) by reproducing and engraving handwriting on a piece of stone or wood, for the purpose of preservation, appreciation, and learning. The word mokoku is also written as '摹刻' ('摹' is a Chinese character '募' of which '力' is replaced by '手').
The mokoku is a way to preserve handwriting written on paper by making exact copy of original characters on a piece of stone or wood and then engraving the copied characters with gads and chisels. Characters are to be copied not in mirror writing but in the same direction as the original. In short, it is a way to change a writing medium, from paper to stone and wood, for the purpose of preservation and appreciation. An engraved piece of stone or wood itself, however, is not used, since a rubbing is made as needed. This is why rubbings of calligraphy handwriting that was not originally the inscription are sometimes found.
The handwriting thus converted to a suitable form for preservation, appreciation and learning by usually copying and reproducing is referred to as 'hojo,' of which those made by mokoku are called 'kokujo,' while those made by writing/copying directly on paper are called 'bokujo.'
The mokoku is a calligraphy preservation and enjoyment method unique to China, and is rarely seen in Japan and other countries having the same calligraphy culture as China. This is because in China records were thought to be best preserved when inscribed on metal or stone. Stone and wood pieces were recognized as just the media in other countries, while they were considered differently to have superior keeping qualities in China.
Building a monument was originally so common in China that the Chinese government put a ban on it. Chinese people thus are thought to have known by experience that stone and wood, unlike paper, could remain intact almost permanently as long as a sufficient preservative system is provided.
Background and prehistory
Paper, which was invented in China, became widespread among the general public to be used as a writing medium in the comparatively early Wei-Jin-Nanbeichao periods. So calligraphers of those periods are thought to have almost always written on paper.
Calligraphers, who were to significantly change calligraphic works later, appeared in the world of calligraphy, weaving through their ways through the political chaos in the period. They are Wang Xi-zhi and Wang Xianzhi, a father and son from the Eastern Jin. They perfected the artistic aspects of gyosho (cursive style of writing Chinese characters) which had been nothing but scrawled clerical script and kaisho, or just a neat version of gyosho, which brought about the impact and revolution in the world of Chinese calligraphy.
They came to be called 'calligraphy saints,' and many calligraphers wanted to learn from works of them and successors of their styles, which led to a strong need for creating the hojo, a copy or reproduction of the works. Because in those days before photography and photocopy the only way to copy out characters written on paper is through looking at the original characters, and calligraphy, unlike documents, values 'shape of a character,' not everyone could possibly copy calligraphy with enough skills needed.
To clear this problem, a new method named 'tomo' was invented. Tomo was based on the 'soko tenboku,' a kind of character tracing method where a piece of paper was put on a work to be copied, only outlines of characters were traced with thin lines, and then areas enclosed by the lines were colored in black. The development of this technique allowed even people with poor skills to copy calligraphy once they knew how to do it, and made it possible for those who mastered the skill to make a copy just like the original handwriting.
A copy, however, still needed to be made by hand even with this method, so a more efficient method was sought later on. Then the mokoku, a method for changing the writing medium from paper to stone or wood, came out.
Emergence and prevalence
The mokoku was developed in the late Tang Dynasty, and Southern Tang which was known as a cultured dynasty in the Wudai Shiguo period is said to have used this method to compile shujo (anthology of hojo) named "Shujo Shogen-jo" and "Shujo Choseido-jo." The method was passed down to the next dynasty, Northern Sung, and came to be widely used.
In the Northern Sung period, people took an academic approach to calligraphy, and studying, collecting and appraising of old works were more popular than creating calligraphy works. Zhao Kuang-yin and Song Taizong, emperors of the dynasty, also liked to study and collect calligraphy works themselves, and ordered Wang Zhu, who was a court calligrapher in the Hanlin Academy and on the list of Chinese calligraphers, to compile a 10-volume calligraphy book named "Chunhua ge Tie" featuring new and old calligraphy works, especially those by Wang Xi-zhi, in 992. The method used for this was the mokoku.
This made mokoku a mainstream copying method to replace the tomo. Since an engraved piece is durable and can create many duplicates by rubbing, mokoku was the best method for those who studied calligraphy as well as researchers and collectors.
Since then, mokoku had become so popular that old works were always copied with this method when creating hojo.
Defects exposure and the end
As the mokoku became widespread, however, its defects were gradually revealed, resulting in decreased reliability.
Mokoku is surely superior in terms of preservation and replication. In the process of making the piece of stone or wood itself, however, original characters once need to be copied and the copied characters need to be engraved. This means that how well the mokoku is conducted directly depends on skills of those who copy and engrave characters. Thus outputs made by mokoku vary in quality even if they are based on the same calligraphy. The fact that multiple people are involved in copying records also leads to errors during the process.
Stone and wood have greater durability than paper, but they do not last forever. In addition, one mokoku is far from enough for popular handwriting. Thus, too many mokoku were made and hojo was overproduced by carrying out mokoku based on a rubbing made by mokoku, on the output of which mokoku is done again, through different periods of history. As a result, mistakes accumulated in manuscripts.
Furthermore, widespread fraudulent works decreased reliability of mokoku. Many fraudulent works were already seen even for "the Chunhua ge Tie" with which mokoku began to be used in earnest. This shows how widely calligraphy works were forged. The method of 'mokoku' itself is not to blame for this; nevertheless, it cannot escape being criticized for allowing fraudulent works to circulate because excessive use of the method led to the situation where calligraphy works were copied routinely without criticism.
It was the study of old documents which appeared in Qing Dynasty that strongly pointed out these defects. The study of old documents was based on the 'empirical analysis approach,' and seen from this perspective, past approaches to mokoku were too irresponsible to avoid criticism.
The criticism against mokoku then raised doubts about the hojo which had been handed down using the method and promoted respect for monuments. In other words, hojo, made through repetition of mokoku, was considered unreliable, while monuments were deemed more authentic because they, despite being weathered, remained as they had originally been to some extent.
Juan Yuan, among others, determined in his book 'Northern stelae and Southern copybooks,' based on the above theory, that northern stelae, or monuments engraved in Northern Dynasty in the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (China), compared favorably to nanjo, or hojo made in Southern Dynasty in the same period, which gained support from Bao shu-cheng and many other scholars.
In addition, due partly to an increase in research on the calligraphy of the period when only seal scripts, bronze inscriptions, and other monuments were available, the calligraphy world of the Qing Dynasty was completely dominated by 'epigraphy.'
Against this background, mokoku was eventually deemed as a war criminal that diminished the value of the hojo to keep it out of the mainstream of the calligraphy world. Moreover, the method of mokoku itself also became technologically outdated by the development of the printing technology, and had no choice but to disappear on its own.
As discussed above, mokoku is a problematic copying method with various defects which eventually even destroyed the hojo's credibility at one point, but it should also be remembered that thanks to the mokoku, scattered and lost calligraphy works can be seen today.
For example, original works of Wang Xi-zhi and Wang Xianzhi, a father and son who were known as 'two kings,' do not remain. This was because the works had been scattered and lost spontaneously. The original of 'Lan Ting Xu,' the best known work of Wang Xi-zhi, alone had managed to survive, but faced the unfortunate situation where over-possessive Tang Taizong of the Tang Dynasty had it buried in his mausoleum, losing a chance to remain. It was nothing more or less than the mokoku that allowed handwriting of 'the two kings' to be copied repeatedly and passed down to subsequent generations so that we can appreciate the works. A number of works, as well as those of said father and son, could not be passed down to today without mokoku.
From that standpoint, mokoku has made enormous contributions to the world of calligraphy and so much so that the calligraphy world owes much to the existence of mokoku.
For this reason, to face books made by mokoku is absolutely necessary for the study of calligraphy, and the books need to be used after understanding and considering characteristics and risks of the act of 'mokoku.'