History of printing – movable type

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Wong Jei's block-printed scroll, 868 AD

Wong Jei’s block-printed scroll, 868 AD

For four thousand years after the invention of writing in Iraq, all writing was done by hand, a character at a time. When people needed a copy of a scroll, they had to pay a scribe to copy it out for them. Of course this made scrolls very expensive. So only the richest people could have scrolls.

Then someone invented a faster method : printing. Somebody in Tang Dynasty China, about 650 AD, had the idea of carving wooden blocks with a page of text. Then you could ink it and press paper on the block to print a page. The oldest printed scroll we know of – some Buddhist sayings – comes from north-west China. It was printed about 700 AD. Uighur printers used this method for their Manichaean texts in the later 700s. By about 800, Chinese printers also used wood-blocks to print the first playing cards.

An early playing card (Ming Dynasty, ca. 1500 AD)

An early playing card (Ming Dynasty, ca. 1500 AD)

Wong Jei’s scroll was printed in 868 AD. It’s also a Buddhist holy text, like the Bible is for Christians. People in China who were Buddhists believed that copying out these texts would bring you merit, like good luck. This scroll was printed by Wong Jei for his parents. The government had killed thousands of Buddhists in the 840s and 850s, and destroyed thousands of Buddhist texts. So it must have seemed very important to create many copies of these texts.

Chinese movable type

Chinese movable type

Wong Jei’s scroll was block printed – the whole page carved together. But by the 1000s AD a new West Asian idea had come east to China: people began to make books instead of scrolls. Books were easier to copy, and easier to use for research. You could have them open to two pages at once, or mark your place with a bookmark. To work better with the new book format, an alchemist named Pi Sheng in China invented the more flexible system of movable type – carving each Chinese character separately on small fired clay blocks and arranging them to make words, so that the same blocks could be reused to make many different texts. But there are so many characters in Chinese writing that movable type printing was still pretty hard, and it didn’t really catch on.

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible

Around 1200 AD, people in Europe learned how to make paper for themselves instead of buying it from West Asia. Newly enthusiastic about books and printing, they gradually worked out how to use movable type made out of metal, which worked better than the old clay type.

Probably printers in Europe had seen Chinese block printing and movable type come across the Silk Road. But they recognized that movable type would be far more useful in the West, where people used an alphabet, than for the logograms of Chinese. Also, because the Medieval Warm period had made northern Europe richer, many more people in Europe knew how to read, and might buy books.

In the 1400s AD, Gutenberg used movable metal type made from a mixture of leadtin, and antimony to print a Christian Bible. This combination of many new technologies – Chinese paper and movable type with West Asian books and the alphabet, and the large number of people in Europe who knew how to read – led to an explosion of much cheaper printed books in Europe.


Here’s a video of a man making a 17-color woodblock print

Learn by doing: block printing
More about paper
Printing outside Europe

Bibliography and further reading about the history of printing:

Papyrus
Parchment
Paper
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By | 2017-07-27T17:44:08+00:00 July 27th, 2017|China, Literature|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. History of printing – movable type. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 27, 2017. Web. November 17, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
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.

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