Engraved texts: 2nd - 8th century AD

The emperor of China commands, in AD 175, that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone. His purpose is to preserve them for posterity in what is held to be authentic version of the text. But his enterprise has an unexpected result.

Confucian scholars are eager to own these important texts. Now, instead of having them expensively written out, they can make their own copies. Simply by laying sheets of paper on the engraved slabs and rubbing all over with charcoal or graphite, they can take away a text in white letters on a black ground - a technique more familiar in recent centuries in the form of brass-rubbing.

Subsequent emperors engrave other texts, until quite an extensive white-on-black library can be acquired. It is a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised form (and in mirror writing) and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters. When this ink is transferred to paper, the letters appear in black (or in a colour) against the white of the paper - much more pleasant to the eye than white on black.

This process is printing. But it is the Buddhists, rather than the Confucians, who make the breakthrough.

Printed Buddhist texts in Korea and Japan: AD 750-768

The invention of printing is a striking achievement of Buddhists in east Asia. Korea takes the lead. The world's earliest known printed document is a sutra printed on a single sheet of paper in Korea in AD 750.

This is closely followed in Japan by a bold experiment in mass circulation (precisely the area in which printed material has the advantage over manuscript). In AD 768, in devoutly Buddhist Nara, the empress commissions a huge edition of a lucky charm or prayer. It is said that the project takes six years to complete and that the number of copies printed, for distribution to pilgrims, is a million. Many have survived.

The first printed book: AD 868

The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T'ang dynasty. Discovered in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life.

It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world's first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.

The name of the donor, Wang Chieh, is revealed in another device which later becomes traditional in early printed books in the west. The details of publication are given in a colophon (Greek for 'finishing stroke') at the end of the text. This reveals that the scroll is a work of Buddhist piety, combined with the filial obligations of good Confucian ideals: 'Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.'

The printing of Wang Chieh's scroll is of a high standard, so it must have had many predecessors. But the lucky accident of the cave at Dunhuang has given his parents a memorial more lasting than he could have imagined possible.

Cutting round the characters: 9th - 11th century

The separate sheets making up the Diamond Sutra are what would now be called woodcuts. They are printed from pieces of wood in which the white areas on the page have been carefully cut away, until the remaining parts of the flat surface represent (in reverse) the shapes to be printed, regardless of whether they are to be text or image.

Printing is achieved by covering the flat surface with ink, placing a piece of paper on it and rubbing the back of the paper.

Chinese publishing: 10th - 11th century

Printing from wood blocks, as in the Diamond Sutra, is a laborious process. Yet the Chinese printers work wonders. In the 10th and 11th centuries all the Confucian classics are published for the use of scholar officials, together with huge numbers of Buddhist and Daoist works (amounting to around 5000 scrolls of each) and the complete Standard Histories since the time of Sima Qian.

The carving of so many characters in reverse on wood blocks is an enormous investment of labour, but the task is unavoidable until the introduction of movable type. This innovation, once again, seems to have been pioneered in China but achieved in Korea.

Movable type: from the 11th century

Movable type (separate ready-made characters or letters which can be arranged in the correct order for a particular text and then reused) is a necessary step before printing can become an efficient medium for disseminating information.

The concept is experimented with in China as early as the 11th century. But two considerations make the experiment unpractical. One is that the Chinese script has so many characters that type-casting and type-setting become too complex. The other is that the Chinese printers cast their characters in clay and then fire them as pottery, a substance too fragile for the purpose.

Type foundry in Korea: c.1380

In the late 14th century, several decades before the earliest printing in Europe, the Koreans establish a foundry to cast movable type in bronze. Unlike earlier Chinese experiments with pottery, bronze is sufficiently strong for repeated printing, dismantling and resetting for a new text.

The Koreans at this time are using the Chinese script, so they have the problem of an unwieldy number of characters. They solve this in 1443 by inventing their own national alphabet, known as han'gul. By one of the strange coincidences of history this is precisely the decade in which Gutenberg is experimenting with movable type far away in Europe, which has enjoyed the advantage of an alphabet for more than 2000 years.

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