History of Printing - Printing in Asia, Africa, and the Americas
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Printing Spreads

Printing with moveable type first began in China about 1000 AD, and by 1500 AD Europeans were printing everything they could think of, from Bibles to ancient Greek philosophy to advertising leaflets and posters. Jewish refugees from Spain brought printing to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire after 1492. When Christian missionaries left Europe for North and South America, they brought the new, exciting printing presses with them. Missionaries were printing religious texts in Mexico City by 1544, and Jesuits brought a press to Goa, in India, in 1556. In the 1500s, many Latin American presses printed books in Native American languages.

But in the 1500s and 1600s the Ottoman Empire opposed the printing press, just as it had opposed Silk Road trade in the 1400s. The Russian czars and the Chinese Qing Dynasty were no more enthusiastic. Neither were the Mughals or the Safavids. These rulers associated printing with Western Christianity, for one thing, and with radicals who wanted a voice in the government, for another. But more importantly, there were not enough people in China or West Asia who could afford books, or who had time to learn to read. China, Russia, and West Asia were poorer and more unequal places than Europe. Only a small number of very rich people learned to read, and most people were just poor peasant farmers with no education. Hand copying could produce plenty of books for the small group of people who could read. And wood block printing was actually better than moveable type for many Chinese printing jobs, because there were so many characters in the Chinese writing system.

But in the 1700s and 1800s, printing presses spread all across Asia, encouraged as a tool of imperialism by British and French colonists. These colonists wanted a fair number of native people to know how to read, so they could run government offices, train stations, and banks for the colonists. Printing also spread to Africa around this time, also for the benefit of the European colonists. In South Africa, Dutch settlers brought a printing press with them and printed almanacs for the settlers in 1795. But the British and French carefully controlled printing presses, so that native people couldn't print anything that threatened colonial rule.

The independence and democracy movements of the early 1900s brought many more printing presses, books, and newspapers to Asia. In 1878, Indian resisters began to publish The Hindu. In China, Sun Yat-Sen started a newspaper in 1910. In Russia, the Communists started publishing another newspaper, Pravda ("Truth") in 1912. But these efforts, too, eventually fell under the control of governments that wanted to control what their subjects knew.

Learn by doing: block printing
More about printing

Bibliography and further reading about the history of printing:

Paper
Printing
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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