The Invention of Block Printing and Early Forms of Movable Type

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The Invention of Block Printing and Early Forms of Movable Type


While written language is unquestionably one of the most important of all human achievements, the ability to reproduce written materials quickly and efficiently ranks not far behind. Only when written works could be duplicated in quantities and speeds exceeding those achievable through laborious handwritten copies did writing become a medium for the widespread dissemination of knowledge—the more copies of material available, the more people who have access to them, the more likely the spread of literacy. The challenge, particularly in civilizations with large, complex systems of writing, was to develop a method for quickly and efficiently arranging those symbols, using the arrangement to create printed material, then re-arranging the symbols for further use. The Chinese, beginning about a.d. 700, introduced innovations to carved seals, which in turn led to block printing, whereby an entire page of text is carved on a block. By a.d. 1041 block printing had given way to the earliest known system of movable type, a full four centuries before Johannes Gutenberg (1398?-1468) invented the printing press in Western Europe.


As with other early civilizations, notably the Mesopotamians, the Chinese had long used carved materials to stamp official documents and correspondence. Carved seals or stamps made their appearance in China as early as 300 b.c. (and are in still in use today.) Unlike the Mesopotamians, who pressed their stamps and seals into damp clay, the Chinese, by at least a.d. 650, had begun using ink, a medium obviously more portable than clay and which, when combined with paper, one of China's greatest early inventions, provided the foundation for the emergence of printing.

Paper itself had been invented in China by Ts'ai Lun (50?-118?), a member of the ruling order, who developed papers from materials that included hemp, tree bark, and scraps of cloth. The lightness of paper, as well as its adaptability for multiple purposes, helped it become common almost immediately throughout China, replacing the bulky, heavy bamboo strips and expensive silks on which written words had previously been recorded. By the middle of the eighth century, papermaking had found its way to Arab nations, and from there proceeded over the next five centuries into the West.

Of particular consequence to the development of printing was paper's ability to accept inked imprints, reproducing the symbols carved on stamps and seals. Among the most important uses of those seals was their application for mass-producing hundreds of copies of religious and philosophical comments and insights. While restricted to a few dozen words at most, these copies were produced rapidly and in large volume—something that would have been impossible to accomplish if copied by hand.

From relatively simple seals and stamps containing a few words and phrases, Chinese printers next made the leap to carving more extensive bodies of text on larger blocks of wood. By 868 block printing led to the creation of the first known book to be produced by printing—the Diamond Sutra, a 16-ft (4.9-m) long scroll containing Buddhist teachings. (Block printing had become important in Japan about a century earlier, and remains an important art form there to this day.)

Within a century block printing had advanced to the point where major editions of vital Chinese historical, religious, philosophical, and literary works were undertaken. The most notable of these was accomplished over two decades (932-53) when Feng Tao (881-954), a government minister, oversaw the block-printed duplication of a huge set of books containing the teachings of Confucius. The edition consisted of 130 volumes and is credited by some scholars with helping to dramatically increase the spread of literacy in China. Certainly it helped spur the publishing of more books—it has been suggested that over the next eight centuries the Chinese produced more printed books than all the rest of the world's cultures combined.

Like paper, block printing spread throughout the world, first to Japan and Korea, then onward to the West. One product of block printing that was popular in China—playing cards—also found early favor in the West, appearing in Europe as early as the 1370s.

The success of block printing did not halt attempts to further improve the printing process. Block printing, while vastly faster and more efficient than hand-copying, remained time-consuming: each page had to be carved separately, requiring many blocks for documents and books of even moderate length.

By 1041 an ambitious attempt was made to overcome the limitations imposed by the fixed, permanent nature of carved printing blocks. Ironically, the experiment rested on a return to the original printing medium, clay, but with a vital difference. Pi Sheng, an eleventh-century Chinese alchemist, began to experiment with shaping symbols in a mixture of clay and glue, then baking the formed symbols until they were hardened.

Once the shapes were baked they were arranged in the desired order on an iron tray covered with resin and other materials. The tray was warmed and the heat of the iron softened the resin until the baked-clay symbols settled into place. When the tray was cooled, the resin hardened once more and the symbols were fixed in place. After the tray was used to print the desired number of copies, it could be re-warmed, loosening the type and freeing it for rearrangement and reuse. Movable type had thus been invented.

Block printing continued to be the dominant printing technology, however. In part, this was a consequence of Chinese written language, which contained tens of thousands of characters, or logograms. Indeed, around 1313 a magistrate named Wang Chen commissioned the carving of more than 60,000 characters from individual blocks of wood to facilitate the printing of an enormous history of Chinese technology. To further increase printing efficiencies, Wang Chen also developed a system of cases designed to arrange and house type blocks for convenient access during the preparation of printing trays. As with Pi Sheng's innovations, though, Wang Chen's approach to reusable type found only limited acceptance in China.

Movable type fared better in Korea, where in 1403 the nation's king, Htai Tjong, ordered more than 100,000 symbols and characters to be cast in bronze. Two other enormous castings were made in Korea before Gutenberg independently discovered this process in the West.


Block printing played an important role both in the advance of literacy in China and the overall course of literacy throughout the world. So long as printed materials were rare and accessible to only a few, those materials were not only restricted to upper, educated classes, but they carried a symbolic weight—a sort of magical quality—often exceeding the value of the information they bore. By enabling rapid mass duplications the inventors of printing stripped printed material of some of its magic, but delivered to those materials a far greater gift—that of dispersal, of access, and content. Printed matter reached more people than any previous written medium, and the people, in turn, were able to focus on the content of the printed pages rather than their mystical or royal qualities. Print was the great lever, lifting all who could read. More pragmatically, printing on paper enabled not only the preservation of books, but also paper money, playing cards and other forms of entertainment, the transmission of immediate news, the codification and dissemination of laws, and the sharing of knowledge among cultures. It can be argued that printing, from its origins in clay and carved wooden blocks, is the most crucial of all technologies.


Further Reading

Carter, Thomas Francis. The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward. New York: Ronald Press, 1955.

Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization In China: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth, Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

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The Invention of Block Printing and Early Forms of Movable Type

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The Invention of Block Printing and Early Forms of Movable Type