The Printed Word

Movable type used to be the printing method of all literature before the inventing of modern methods such as typewriters and computers today.

A man named Johannes Gutenberg made the process possible. Gutenberg was the first European to use movable type printing, in around 1439, and the global inventor of the printing press. He is most notable for printing the Gutenberg Bible, the first mass-produced publication in history.

However he wasn’t the first to use movable type. The Chinese had been using and perfecting their own technique of movable type for more than 400 years.

Bì Shēng (畢昇 990 – 1051 AD) invented Chinese movable type during the Song Dynasty (1041 – 1048 AD). His movable type was made from ceramics, a Chinese specialty. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095

When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone. For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.

Bì Shēng’s ceramic type has been criticized for a number of reasons but there is no doubt that without him, early advances of movable type might not of happen.

The next innovator of Movable type in China was Wáng Zhēn (王禎 1290 – 1333) an official of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD). His contribution really revolutionised the technique forever. While Bì Shēng disregarded wood as a suitable material for movable type, Wang Zhen improved the earlier experimented process by adding the methods of specific type cutting and finishing, making the type case and revolving table that made the process more efficient. In Joseph Needham’s book, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, he translated Wáng Zhēn’s summary of the process of making wooden movable type;

Now, however, there is another method that is both more exact and more convenient. A compositor’s form is made of wood, strips of bamboo are used to mark the lines and a block is engraved with characters. The block is then cut into squares with a small fine saw till each character forms a separate piece. These separate characters are finished off with a knife on all four sides, and compared and tested till they are exactly the same height and size. Then the types are placed in the columns [of the form] and bamboo strips which have been prepared are pressed in between them. After the types have all been set in the form, the spaces are filled in with wooden plugs, so that the type is perfectly firm and will not move. When the type is absolutely firm, the ink is smeared on and printing begins

In the early 11th Century bronze and metal type was introduced and remained the material used today in moveable type printing. The introduction of bronze also help to stop the counterfeit of bank notes in China, where they were invented in the 7th Century.

Movable type was popular throughout China during the 20th century but is now only practised in Ruì’ān City (瑞安) on the eastern coast of China, in the south of Zhejiang province. They have been using movable type there to record clan Genealogy for over 800 years and have passed the technique down generation to generation. Nowadays there are only two villages in Ruì’ān which still use movable type; Dongyang and Xiqian.

Apprentices had to learn calligraphy, engraving and ink making if they wanted to make a life with movable type. This takes many years to master and doesn’t hold much interest to the youth of China today, who are more interested in making money and modern technology. In the 1960’s more than 70% of Dongyang village were involved with movable type. Where as in the 80’s that was reduced to 12 people and today the numbers are less and all of whom still practice are over 50 years old. So the tradition so sacred to China is in danger.

However in 2004 the Ruì’ān Government realised that this was a Chinese heritage and invested 600,000 RMB to build museums in Dongyang and Xiqian. So the aptly names ‘Movable Type Printing Exhibition Halls’ were opened. A press has been established in the museums and masters of the technique demonstrate the skills to the public. There is also a great collection of ancient printed books on display there. The art of movable type is still being preserved in China and since 2008 has been on the list of China’s ‘National Intangible Culture Heritage’.


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3 thoughts on “The Printed Word

  1. Perfect. That’s an interesting starting point for a reflection. For example, the maritime hegemony of China in the beginning of the XV century, prior to the European maritime endeavor!

  2. Thanks for the comments.
    I Have read little about the maritime endeavours of China but I am a aware of it. Seems to be a generally brushed aside topic when it comes to Chinese history.
    During further research of Bi Sheng’s inventions, I found this nice 2 part documentary made by the CCTV on Movable Type.

  3. Pingback: Gutenberg, Johannes «

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