Printing, An Ancient Industry of the Far East
LONG before the start of printing from movable type in Europe about the middle of the fifteenth century C.E., printing was being done in the Far East. Already by the end of the eighth century hundreds of thousands of impressions on paper had been made by means of wooden blocks.
It was in that century that the Japanese empress, Shotoku, ordered that a “million” Buddhist paper charms be printed. Though the printing was completed about 770, some of these charms still exist today.
No specimens of printing have survived from such an early date in China. But similar printing was done there. The year 868 is the earliest certain date of printing in that land. Testifying to this, as well as the high degree of development in the printing industry, is a complete book discovered in a walled-up chamber in a cave near Tunhuang, China.
Less than two hundred years later, printing with movable type was being done in China. The inventor of movable type was Pi Shêng. Shên Kua, a contemporary of Pi Shêng, writes:
“During the period Ch’ing-li [1041-1049 C.E.] Pi Shêng, a man in cotton cloth [i.e., a man of the common people], made also movable type. . . . If one were to print only two or three copies, this method would be neither convenient nor quick. But for printing hundreds or thousands of copies it was marvelously [literally, ‘divinely’] quick.”
Another Far Eastern land, where printing made great advances, was Korea. Toward the close of the tenth century the wood-block printing industry was developed there. During the reign of King Hyon-jong (1007-1031) the first edition of “Tripitaka Koreana,” a collection of Buddhist sutras, was printed. The third edition of this work, issued on September 25, 1251, was printed from 81,137 wooden blocks, which contain a total of more than 52,000,000 characters, and took about sixteen years to prepare. It being estimated that ten characters would be a day’s work for a modern carver, the job was indeed stupendous.
There are historical indications that about seventeen years before the issuing of the third edition of “Tripitaka Koreana” movable type began to be used in Korea. Then, in the year 1390, the king of Korea ordered the establishment of a type foundry. It was in this royal type foundry that the oldest metal type known today, the kyemi font, was cast. This was in the year 1403, several decades before Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, is thought to have invented movable type.
Though printing with movable type came into use in Eastern lands before it did in Europe, it did not become permanently established in the Far East nor is it known to have had any bearing on printing developments in Europe. The nonalphabetic writing systems of Chinese, Japanese and Korean were the primary obstacle in making printing from movable type truly economical and practical. The alphabetically written European languages, however, were ideally suited for printing from movable type. Hence, the invention of movable type in Europe had a more profound effect upon the intellectual enlightenment of peoples than did its earlier invention in the Far East.