The Chinese invention of paper and the advent of woodblock printing produced the world's first print culture. As the print scholar A. Hyatt Mayor noted, "it was the Chinese who really discovered the means of communication that was to dominate until our age."
Woodblock printing was better suited to Chinese characters than movable type, which the Chinese also invented, but which did not replace woodblock printing. In China and Korea, the use of woodblock printing on paper and movable type preceded their use in Europe by several centuries. Both methods were replaced in the second half of the 19th century by Western-style printing.
Further information: Four Great Inventions of ancient China,
The intricate frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra from Tang Dynasty China, 868 AD (British Museum)
Traditionally, there have been two main printing techniques in Asia, those of woodblock printing and moveable type printing. In the woodblock technique, ink is applied to letters carved upon a wooden board, which is then pressed onto paper. With moveable type, the board is assembled using different lettertypes, according to the page being printed. Wooden printing was used in the East from the 8th century onwards, and moveable metal type came into use during the 12th century.
The earliest woodblock printed fragments to survive are from China and are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from the Han dynasty (before 220 CE).
The earliest specimen of woodblock printing on paper, whereby individual sheets of paper were pressed into wooden blocks with the text and illustrations carved into them, was discovered in 1974 in an excavation of Xi'an (then called Chang'an, the capital of Tang China), Shaanxi, China. It is a dharani sutra printed on hemp paper and dated to 650 to 670 AD, during Tang Dynasty (618–907). Another printed document dating to the early half of the Chinese Tang Dynasty has also been found, the Snddharma pundarik sutra printed from 690 to 699.
Chinese playing card dated c. 1400 AD, Ming Dynasty
A copy of the Buddhist Dharani Sutra called the Pure Light Dharani Sutra (Hanja: 無垢淨光大陀羅尼經 Hangul:무구정광대다라니경; Revised Romanization: Mugujeonggwangdaedaranigyeong), discovered in a Silla Korean pagoda that was repaired in 751 AD, was undated but must have been created sometime before the reconstruction of the Shakyamuni Pagoda of Pulguk Temple, Kyongju Province in 751 AD. The document is estimated to have been created no later than 704 AD. Joseph Needham states that the Pure Light Dharani Sutra utilizes the extinct writing system of Empress Wu, who reigned over China from 690 to 705. Choi Junshik states that the characters on the Pure Light Dharani Sutra were invented by Silla, noting the invention of characters by Silla throughout its existence. Pan Jixing refutes this, stating that research has allegedly shown that the dharani sutra discovered in Korea was translated in China from Sanskrit in 701 and printed in 702 at Luoyang, which was the capital of China under Wu Zetian.
Robert Temple notes that the earliest known book printed bearing an actual date and at what is considered to be a 'regular size' was the Chinese Diamond Sutra of 868 AD. Joseph Needham notes that the intricate artistic designs and fine lines of calligraphy found in the Diamond Sutra attest to the level of refinement reached in woodblock printing in the time between the printing of it and the Pure Light Dharani Sutra of 704. The oldest known printed calendars in the world also come from Tang China, printed in 877 and 882.
The earliest woodblocks used for printing in Europe, in the fourteenth century, using exactly the same technique as Chinese woodblocks, lead some pioneering scholars of Asian subjects to hypothesize a connection: "the process of printing them must have been copied from ancient Chinese specimens, brought from that country by some early travelers, whose names have not been handed down to our times" (Robert Curzon, 1810–1873). Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China has a chapter that suggests that "European block printers must not only have seen Chinese samples, but perhaps had been taught by missionaries or others who had learned these un-European methods from Chinese printers during their residence in China."
But historians of the Western prints themselves see no need for such a direct and late connection. Rather, they assume that European woodcut appeared "spontaneously and presumably as a result of the use of paper as it had been observed that paper was better suited than rough-surfaced parchment for making the impressions from wood-reliefs".
European woodblock printing shows a clear progression from patterns to images, both printed on cloth, then to images printed on paper, when it became widely available in Europe in about 1400.Text and images printed together only appear some sixty years later, after metal movable type.
Jiaozi (currency), 11th century paper-printed money from the Song Dynasty.
Movable type in China
The first known movable type system was invented in China around 1040 AD by Bi Sheng (990-1051). Bi Sheng's type was made of baked clay. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095):
When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.
For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.
However, Bi Sheng's fragile clay types were not practical for large-scale printing.Clay types also have the additional handicap of lacking adhesion to the ink. Separately invented in China (but first in Korea) was metal movable type, pioneered by Hua Sui in 1490 AD during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
Wooden movable type
A revolving typecase for wooden type in China, from Wang Zhen's book published in 1313 C.E.
Wooden movable type was developed by the late 13th century, pioneered by Wang Zhen, author of the Nong Shu (農書). Although the wooden type was more durable under the mechanical rigors of handling, repeated printing wore the character faces down, and the types could only be replaced by carving new pieces. This system was later enhanced by pressing wooden blocks into sand and casting metal types from the depression in copper, bronze, iron or tin. The set of wafer-like metal stamp types could be assembled to form pages, inked, and page impressions taken from rubbings on cloth or paper. Before the pioneer of bronze-type printing of China, Hua Sui in 1490 AD, Wang Zhen had experimented with metal type using tin, yet found it unsatisfactory due to its incompatibility with the inking process.
A particular difficulty posed the logistical problems of handling the several thousand logographs whose command is required for full literacy in Chinese language. It was faster to carve one woodblock per page than to composit a page from so many different types. However, if one was to use movable type for multitudes of the same document, the speed of printing would be relatively quicker.
Later in the Jin Dynasty, people used the same but more developed technique to print paper money and formal official documents. The typical example of this kind of movable copper-block printing is a printed "check" of Jin Dynasty in the year of 1215.
Movable type in Korea
"Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Son Masters", the earliest known book printed with movable metal type, 1377. Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.
The transition from wood type to movable metal type occurred in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty, sometime in the thirteenth century, to meet the heavy demand for both religious and secular books. A set of ritual books, Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun were printed with movable metal type in 1234. The credit for the first metal movable type may go to Choe Yun-ui of the Goryeo Dynasty in 1234.
Examples of this metal type are on display in the Asian Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The oldest extant movable metal print book is the Jikji, printed in Korea in 1377.
The techniques for bronze casting, used at the time for making coins (as well as bells and statues) were adapted to making metal type. Unlike the metal punch system thought to be used by Gutenberg, the Koreans used a sand-casting method. The following description of the Korean font casting process was recorded by the Joseon dynasty scholar Song Hyon (15th c.):
At first, one cuts letters in beech wood. One fills a trough level with fine sandy [clay] of the reed-growing seashore. Wood-cut letters are pressed into the sand, then the impressions become negative and form letters [molds]. At this step, placing one trough together with another, one pours the molten bronze down into an opening. The fluid flows in, filling these negative molds, one by one becoming type. Lastly, one scrapes and files off the irregularities, and piles them up to be arranged.
Among books printed with metal movable type, the oldest surviving books are from Korea, dated at least from 1377. However, Korea never witnessed a printing revolution comparable to Europe's:
Korean printing with movable metallic type developed mainly within the royal foundry of the Yi dynasty. Royalty kept a monopoly of this new technique and by royal mandate suppressed all non-official printing activities and any budding attempts at commercialization of printing. Thus, printing in early Korea served only the small, noble groups of the highly stratified society.
A potential solution to the linguistic and cultural bottleneck that held back movable type in Korea for two hundred years appeared in the early 15th century—a generation before Gutenberg would begin working on his own movable type invention in Europe—when King Sejong devised a simplified alphabet of 24 characters called Hangul for use by the common people, which could have made the typecasting and compositing process more feasible. Although the common sense believes that the Korean ruling aristocrats disdained the use of hangul, this is simply untrue. As the hangeul was used extensively in administrative and educational works, and was almost the sole mean for communicating with the women of the Royal House, the aristocrats also used hangul widely.
Movable type in Japan
Though the Jesuits operated a Western movable type printing-press in Nagasaki, Japan, printing equipment brought back by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's army in 1593 from Korea had far greater influence on the development of the medium. Four years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, even before becoming shogun, effected the creation of the first native movable type, using wooden type-pieces rather than metal. He oversaw the creation of 100,000 type-pieces, which were used to print a number of political and historical texts.
An edition of the Confucian Analects was printed in 1598, using Korean moveable type printing equipment, at the order of Emperor Go-Yōzei. This document is the oldest work of Japanese moveable type printing extant today. Despite the appeal of moveable type, however, it was soon decided that the running script style of Japanese writings would be better reproduced using woodblocks, and so woodblocks were once more adopted; by 1640 they were once again being used for nearly all purposes.
Movable type in other East Asian countries
China Block Printing Museum in Yangzhou
Printing using movable type spread from China during the Mongol Empire; among other groups, the Uyghurs of Central Asia, whose script was adopted for the Mongol language, used movable type.
Possible influence on European use of movable type
Since the use of printing from movable type arose in East Asia well before it did in Europe, it is relevant to ask whether Gutenberg may have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the Chinese or Korean discoveries of movable type printing. There is no actual evidence that Gutenberg knew of the Korean processes for movable type. However, some authors admit this possibility, and argue that movable metal type had been an active enterprise in Korea since 1234 (although oldest preserved books are from 1377) and there was communication between West and East. Despite these conjectures, there is no evidence that movable type from the East ever reached Europe.
Mechanical presses as used in European printing remained unknown in East Asia. Instead, printing remained an unmechanized, laborious process with pressing the back of the paper onto the inked block by manual "rubbing" with a hand tool. In Korea, the first printing presses were introduced as late as 1881-83, while in Japan, after an early but brief interlude in the 1590s, Gutenberg's printing press arrived in Nagasaki in 1848 on a Dutch ship.
Contrary to Gutenberg printing, which allowed printing on both sides of the paper from its very beginnings (although not simultaneously until very recent times), East Asian printing was done only on one side of the paper, because the need to rub the back of the paper when printing would have spoilt the first side when the second side was printed. Another reason was that, unlike in Europe where Gutenberg introduced more suitable oil-based ink, Asian printing remained confined to water-based inks which tended to soak through the paper.