Before the invention of paper, people in ancient China engraved, cast, or carved onto a variety of writing surfaces including turtle plastron, ox scapula, stone, brick, bronze, tile, and silk. The invention of paper in China, probably during the first century C.E. provided a way to make copies of the scripts that were carved or engraved in any number of hard surfaces. The process of making a rubbing requires placing a sheet of paper onto the carved surface, to which ink is applied with a padded mallet, leaving the carved or recessed areas white. Important for their artistic merit, rubbings were often considered as valuable as original works of art by serious collectors. They are also significant didactic tools, useful for the study of social history.

The National Library of China has some 35,000 rubbings made from "oracle bones," inscriptions on turtle shell and animal bone that represent China's earliest form of writing. The Library's collection also includes 260,000 rubbings made from metal and stone surfaces.