Letterpress printing is a traditional form of relief printing that makes copies by using movable type, which are individually interchangeable components with punctuation marks or letters protruding from a three-dimensional block. In the past, movable types have been created using various materials like wood or ceramics, but metal became the norm as the process evolved. In parts of Asia, the use of metallic type for printing has been traced back to as early as the 13th and 14th century.
Unfortunately, as new printing techniques became available, letterpresses and the need for movable types went on the decline. In Western countries, letterpresses have been given a second life. But in the East, letterpresses are being rendered obsolete, with many viewing them as inefficient and dated. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, the only places in the world that still uses traditional Chinese characters, letterpresses are nearly extinct. As a result, movable type created with traditional Chinese characters are no longer needed and the foundries that made them began closing down one by one. Today, the only foundry left in the world that still makes traditional Chinese movable types is Rixing Type Foundry.
Located in Taipei’s Datong District, Rixing is inconspicuously tucked away in an unremarkable alleyway that looks like any other one of the countless alleys in the city. Row after row of wooden shelves fill the room, with every shelf filled to the brim with lead cast movable types. The traditional Chinese characters are all faced outwards, allowing visitors to easily browse through the impressive collection. At the back of the display area is a small room filled with casting machines, various tools, and bars of lead; the narrow space is the typecasting room where all of Rixing’s movable types are created.
Rixing Type Foundry was established in 1969 and most of their business today comes from loyal customers that have been going to them for decades. Their newer clienteles tend to be individuals looking to make specialty prints or small local print shops. Rixing was founded by Zhang Yilin and the current owner is his son, Zhang Jieguan, who is not only preserving traditional Chinese movable type but also his father’s legacy. Originally, Jieguan had aspirations of becoming a mechanic. A sense of familial obligation to carry on his father’s work resulted in him abandoning that route. Instead, he began working alongside his father at the foundry. Jieguan fondly says, “When I look at these rows and rows of lead type now, it feels like my father is still here with me.”
During the 1990s, many letterpresses and foundries were already beginning to disappear due to diminishing demand and technological advancements. In the face of adversity, Zhang Jieguan remained persistent, refusing to close down the foundry. He made a promise, saying: “As long as there’s even one letterpress around that needs lead type, Rixing will be around. I’m going to see this through to the end.” By 2006, Jieguan realized that Rixing was the only foundry left in Taiwan and shifted his focus towards figuring out how to keep this craft alive.
Rixing’s end goal isn’t to naively keep this craft going as merely a business; their vision is for movable lead type to ultimately become a cultural symbol. In 2012, Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs began working together with Rixing to help organize and promote different activities and workshops in the space. As part of the preservation efforts, many of the typefaces are also in the process of being digitized. There are also plans to transform the space into an interactive museum, so that this slice of culture and history can be shared with future generations.
No. 13, Lane 97, Taiyuan Rd
Datong District, Taipei
Monday~Friday, 9am~noon, 1:30~6pm
Saturday, 9:30am~noon, 1:30~5pm
+886 2 2556 4626
Contributor & Photographer: David Yen