The Development of Block Printing in China

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The Development of Block Printing in China


Many centuries before the invention of the printing press in Europe, the Chinese developed a form of printing using carved wooden blocks. Two earlier Chinese inventions, paper and ink, paved the way for block printing; so too did the practice of using carved seals, which dates to early Mesopotamian civilizations. As for block printing, it too had appeared outside China, where textile-makers used it for making patterns on cloth; but in China during the seventh century a.d., the technique of printing large quantities of text with blocks first came to fruition. In time this would spawn an innovation that, when adapted in the West, would literally transform society: movable-type printing.


Long before paper and printing was the invention of writing itself, which seems to have come about independently in Sumer, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China about 6,000 years ago. This was one of the signal developments toward the beginnings of civilization itself, since the transmission of ideas is essential to the propagation of learning. The Egyptians carved their hieroglyphs into stone, but the Sumerians, lacking an abundance of stone in their homeland, instead used clay blocks. Not only did they write on clay using a stylus, but in time the scribes of the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations began to use carved seals to repeat certain images—in particular, the "signature" of a ruler.

In China, the written word first appeared on bones or shells, and as technology developed, stone and later bronzeware became the preferred medium. The seal made its first appearance in the Chou Dynasty (1027-246 b.c.), when rulers and nobles commissioned artisans to carve them from precious jade or even rhinoceros horn, as well as copper. Using a rudimentary form of ink, the seal would then be impressed on a variety of materials. As for ink itself, it may have originally come from various animal and vegetable substances, but in time the Chinese discovered a more stable material. The latter came from the black excretions, such as creosote, left by burning wood and oil in lamps; later, when this innovation passed to the West, it would be incorrectly called "India ink."

Thus were born the four elements of written communication: the text itself (writing); the material on which the words or symbols were impressed (that is, clay and all the other forerunners of paper); the medium for making the text or symbols visible (ink); and the technology of transmitting ink to tablet: the seal. During the Chou Dynasty, the second of these elements evolved into more usable forms, including silk and flat strips of bamboo or wood, which when sewn together made a type of scroll.

The earliest Chinese scrolls or "books" tended to be unwieldy: it was said that when a learned man of the Han Dynasty (207 b.c.-a.d. 220) presented a series of written suggestions to the emperor, he did so on some 3,000 bamboo strips that required two strong men to carry them. Thus the invention of paper by Ts'ai Lun or Tsai-lung (c. 48-118) in c. a.d. 105 represented a significant innovation. This early paper was made of hemp, bark fibers, cloth, and even fishing nets, and over time Chinese paper-makers perfected the process. Eventually paper made its way to Southeast Asia and Korea, and by the mid-eighth century a.d. it appeared among the Arab civilizations of the Near East.

Meanwhile, the technology of making seals had continued to develop as well. There were two types of seals: relief or intaglio. The former involved carving an impression by removing all material aside from that which formed a negative or reverse image of the symbol one wished to imprint, whereas the latter entailed the opposite process—that is, carving the negative image into the material. The former could be used for making black impressions on a white background, whereas with the latter, all the area around the character was covered in ink while the character itself remained white.


Improvements in seal-making technology, combined with the development of paper, had paved the way for the creation of block printing. Then in the seventh century came the last crucial element: the need to mass-produce texts. This arose among Buddhist monks, who required numerous copies of their sutras, or sacred writings. So great was their need to spread information, in fact, that demand exceeded their own ability to produce copies by hand.

The solution proved to be block-printing, which involved a process that improved upon the earlier seal imprints. To create texts with block print, a monk wrote the material to be copied in ink on a sheet of fine paper. Then he coated a block of wood with rice paste, and carefully attached the written side of the sheet to the wood block. The consistency of the paste was such that, when used properly, the paper did not stick to the block—but the inked characters did. This left a negative image on the wood, enabling an engraver to cut away the areas without ink so that the text itself stood out in relief.

Next the printer used a paintbrush to ink the carved wooden block, and while the ink was still wet, spread a sheet of paper over it. He then rubbed the back of the sheet with a brush, causing the ink to imprint on the paper. Due to the need for a strong impression on the paper, it was necessary to print on only one side; otherwise the text would have been impossible to read. Despite this drawback, as well as the fact that carving the wood block required painstaking work, the new method represented a vast improvement over earlier forms of transmitting text. Instead of requiring the work of numerous monks over months or years, the production of a single text could take place over a matter of weeks, and the resulting work could be distributed to hundreds or thousands of monks. Thus by 1000, the Buddhists had printed all their scriptures, an effort that required 130,000 wood blocks and took 12 years to complete.

Thanks to the new technology, the printed word spread rapidly throughout the Buddhist world, a fact illustrated by the geographical locations of three texts variously cited as the world's first printed documents. The first of these, though most likely printed in China between 704 and 751, was a scroll discovered in Korea. Another oft-cited candidate is a Japanese text, dated to c. 764-770, commissioned by Empress Koken or Shotoku (718-770). Then there is the oldest full "book," the Diamond Sutra, later discovered in China's Gansu Province. Apparently made in 868, the Diamond Sutra consists of seven sheets of paper, which together form a scroll 16 inches (41 cm) long and 12 inches (30 cm) wide.

During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), printing in China expanded greatly. In addition to the project of printing all Buddhist texts was an undertaking by the Imperial Academy, which commissioned the creation of some 100,000 engraved blocks for printing both sutras and Chinese histories. Then in c. 1045, a blacksmith and alchemist named Pi Sheng (fl. 1030s-1040s) developed a process even better than block-printing: movable type.

Thanks to Pi Sheng, printers did not have to carve out a new block of wood every time they wanted to print something; instead, the printer had at his disposal precast pieces of type. Using baked clay, Pi Sheng created type that he placed in an iron frame lined with warm wax. He pressed down on this with a board until the surface was perfectly flat, and after the wax cooled, he used the tray of letters to print pages. Three centuries later, on orders from the ruler Tsai-Tung (fl. c. 1390), Korean engravers developed type from bronze, which represented a vast improvement over clay because it was more durable and less brittle.

During these centuries of progress in the East, Western Europe lagged far behind: indeed, Europeans remained ignorant even of paper until the fourteenth century. Prior to that time, monks had used parchment, derived from animal skins, and instead of printing from blocks, they laboriously copied texts by hand. This in turn had numerous social implications: because books required enormous effort to produce, they were precious, and far beyond the reach of the common people. Without easy access to written material, the populace was largely illiterate, and virtually all learning lay in the hands of the Church. Furthermore, the inability to mass-produce the written word and the lack of multiple copies of many texts meant that literally thousands of writings from the ancient world, destroyed by barbarian invaders, were lost forever.

Yet in one of history's great ironic twists, the West rapidly caught up to the East and soon surpassed it. Block-printing technology apparently made its way westward at the hands of Mongol invaders, and combined with the adoption of paper in the fourteenth century helped spawn a minor revolution in information. In fact there was a brief period when block printing flourished in the West, a time that saw the production of texts such as the Bois Protat, dated to c. 1380, which depicts the crucifixion of Christ.

For several centuries afterward, Europeans would use a form of block printing, the woodcut, to provide inexpensive illustrations; but by then society had long since been transformed by the movable-type press. The latter was the invention of Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395-1468), who—independent, and most likely ignorant of, Chinese advances—developed his own printing press in about 1450. As a result of this innovation, literacy spread rapidly, fueling the fires of the Reformation and other movements that completely changed the cultural fabric of Europe.

Movable type would never have the same impact in the East that it did in the West, a fact that springs from differences in the form of most Eastern and Western societies' written languages. European languages use alphabets, with just a handful of characters, making it easy for a printer to use movable type. By contrast, Chinese—as well as Korean, Japanese, and most languages of East Asia—uses pictograms, phonograms, and ideograms to represent words or syllables. Chinese is particularly complex in this regard, having more than 30,000 characters, which meant that a printer using movable type had to sort through endless trays of precast blocks. Thus the movable-type press never really caught on in the East, and printers there largely continued to use, and improve upon, the block-printing technology developed by Chinese Buddhist monks in the seventh century.


Further Reading


McDonald, T. David. The Technological Transformation of China. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1990.

Ross, Frank Xavier, and Michael Goodman. Oracle Bones, Stars, and Wheelbarrows: Ancient Chinese Science and Technology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Steffens, Bradley. Printing Press: Ideas into Type. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1990.

Internet Sites

"Historical Stories." (December 3, 2000).

"Woodblocks for Printmaking." ANU Forestry. (December 3, 2000).

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The Development of Block Printing in China

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The Development of Block Printing in China