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Taiwan's last lead-character mold maker works to preserve the past
Publish Date: 2017/05/02
Update Date: 2017/05/02

By CNA reporter Chen Cheng-wei and staff writer Elizabeth Hsu

Chang Chieh-kuan, the owner of the last Chinese character letterpress and the last lead-character mold maker in Taiwan, has long dreamed about passing on his work so that the dying technique of which he is a master practitioner can be preserved for the younger generation.

However, just days before his humble shop, the Rixing Type Foundry squeezed into a small lane on Taipei's Taiyuan Road, celebrated its 48th anniversary on May 1, 65 year-old Chang came to believe those hopes are a pipe dream and that it is impossible to cultivate such talent.

"I'll just carve as long as I can," Chang says, as he strives to preserve the culture of Chinese letterpress printing against the passing of time and advent of new technology.

Rixing Type Foundry is home to the last remaining collection of traditional Chinese movable type character molds in the world. It possesses 120,000 molds of different characters in a wide range of sizes and three different typefaces -- kaiti or regular script, songti and heiti or sans-serif black -- and has more than 10 million lead character pieces for printing or sale.

The foundry also has several molding machines that allow it to fabricate three-dimensional lead type pieces, making it the last and only foundry in Taiwan of its kind.

However, the unique business threatens to fade into history because many of its bronze molds are either partly or wholly worn.

What makes the situation even more daunting, as Chang has long feared, is that there is no way to train anyone in the skills needed to repair bronze molds for lead type.

It was in 1979 when Chang, a trained steel mechanic, started working at the lead foundry his father opened in 1969.

Training in the crafting and mending of lead type bronze molds should really start at the age of 12-13, because it takes 10-15 years to master the skills, he said.

In addition, traditional masters remain at the peak of their abilities for about 10 years, at which point they have to rely more on experience as their eyesight deteriorates, according to Chang.

"These days it's impossible to have 12-13-year-old apprentices. If people come here after graduating from college or university, their eyesight is already not good enough to do the job," Chang sighed.

Joking that he was "forced" to enter the business, the lead type foundry master said he now often spends most of the day at his desk, mending the worn molds. But he never grows tired of the repetitive nature of the tasks, recrafting, scanning and correcting the character type, which can seem extremely monotonous to an outsider, Chang said.

"I don't know how long the bronze molds at Ri Xing will last as many of them are already badly worn."

"I'm now 65 years old. It will only take another 65 years to repair them all," Chang joked.

According to Chang, a skilled foundry master can mend a maximum of five character molds a day. To restore all 120,000 molds at Ri Xing Foundry would take 65 years, not to mention the money needed for such restoration work.

Despite the time consuming and labor intensive nature of the work, Chang told visitors to his shop that lead type imbues Chinese characters with a grandeur that digital printing cannot replicate.

It's like the difference between listening to music on vinyl or CD, he says, it is all about the warm sentiment lead type conveys.

Early this year Ri Xing launched a type bronze mold restoration project in the hope that an online fund-raising program will help raise the funds needed to preserve its endangered bronze molds so they can be passed on in their entirety.

"We want not only to preserve lead type but also an era," Chang said in a post on the project's website at http://www.rixing2017.com/.

"The ideal situation would be for people to express their support for the preservation of this culture through their everyday life choices," he said. 

Rixing Type Foundry owner Chang Chieh-kuan(Photo courtesy of CNA)
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