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              History of Chinese Invention and Discovery

History of Chinese Invention - The Invention of Movable Print

Chinese movable type- clay blocks The ability to transfer images to various media is an important skill, critical to developing meaningful communication proficiency for a culture. Mesopotamian civilizations used cylinders carved with seals to roll impressions onto clay tablets as early as 3000 BC. The Chinese used wooden blocks to transfer images of flowers on silk in the Han dynasty in the 2nd century, and around the 4th century, woodblock printing on cloth was practiced in Roman Egypt. The Chinese began printing on paper with simple dhāraṇīin the 7th century, and they created the Diamond Sutra, the first complete printed book (wood block), in 868. During the Ch'ing-li period (1041-1048) the printing technique was further advanced through the invention of movable type. Block printing was a costly and time-consuming process, for each carved block could only be used for a specific page of a particular book. An alchemist named Pi Sheng appears to have conceived of movable type. Each piece of movable type had on it one Chinese character which was carved in relief on a small block of an amalgam of clay and glue. The portion that formed the character was as thin as the edge of a small coin. After the block had been hardened by fire, the type became a durable porcelain.

To proceed with the process of printing, a printer smeared an iron plate with a mixture of turpentine, resin, wax, and burned paper ash. Pieces of movable type were then placed on the plate closely together and were arranged in such a way as to reflect the text of a book to be printed. They were confined within the plate by an iron fence fastened tightly to the plate. The iron plate was then placed on a gentle fire in order to melt the mixture type so that the heads of all pieces would appear on the same level. The plate was then ready for printing. Characters could be assembled to print a page and then broken up by reheating the plate, and redistributed as needed.

For each Chinese character there were several pieces of type. The number reached twenty or more for each of such commonly used characters. When pieces of type were not in use, they were covered with paper for the purpose of protection, were grouped together according to rhymes, and were stored away in wooden frames. Occasionally there were uncommon Chinese characters that had not been prepared in advance. In such cases, the printer had to carve them on the spot, harden them by fire, and make them fit for printing in a minimum amount of time.

It would thus appear that Pi Sheng had found an overall solution to the many problems of typography: the manufacture, the assembling, and the recovery of reusable type. In about 1313 a magistrate named Wang Chen commissioned a craftsman to carve more than 60,000 characters on movable wooden blocks so that a treatise on the history of technology could be published. To him is also attributed the invention of horizontal compartmented cases that revolved about a vertical axis to permit easier handling of the type. Wang Chen's innovation, like that of Pi Sheng, was not followed up in China.

The transition from wood type to movable metal type began in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty (around 1230). The Jikji ("Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests' Zen Teachings") Korean Buddhist document, written by the monk Baegun (1298–1374), has been confirmed by UNESCO as he world's oldest book printed with movable metal type. It was published in two volumes in 1377.

Throughout the centuries both movable type and blocking printing existed side by side in China. In the 11th century movable type (one piece of type for each character) was invented. Movable type was never widely used in China because whole-block printing was less expensive, but when movable type reached Europe in the 15th century, it revolutionized the communication of ideas. The Muslims knew about the technology but didn't use it. It is uncertain when the printing was introduced to the Xinjiang area; however the printing material in several languages was found in Turfan, dated as early as the 13th century.

Sometime in the 13th century, paper money and playing cards that were block printed in China reached the West. When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, he must have seen printed books. It is possible that he or some other Silk Road travelers brought that knowledge to Europe, which later inspired Johannes Gutenberg to invent printing in the West. By the middle of the 15th century print masters in German, Holland, and Prague were on the verge of perfecting the techniques of printing with movable metal type. When Gutenberg perfected the technique with sophisticated press designs typesetting methods, mass production of books became a reality and the technology spread throughout Europe.

The Chinese invention of moveable type did not significantly impact Chinese society. Three hundred years later in Europe, Gutenberg's development of moveable type revolutionized the Western world. One explanation attributes the complexity of the Chinese language, that typically uses thousands of characters in an average newspaper. The English language, in comparison, uses 26 characters in an average newspaper. Clearly, manipulating 5000 characters on a printing press took much longer than moving 26. Still, the invention of moveable type furthered Chinese technology and its role in the advancement of human civilization. Printing contributed to a rebirth of classical (that is, preceding the third century AD) Confucian learning, helping to revive a fundamentally humanistic outlook that had been pushed aside for several centuries.


The Genius of China
3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention
written by Robert K.G. Temple and published by Simon and Schuster, 1986
Currently out-of-print

The British Library

The Silk Road Foundation Website

The Franklin Institute Online

UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize


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