The History of Printing in East Asia

This paper researches the history of printing in East Asia. Moreover, it examines the methods of woodblock printing and the moving type and compares the advantages and disadvantages in East Asia. Also, it highlights the questions of the transformation of the Asian style of printing into the Western one and describes the way it has been developing in Europe.

Printing is one of the most important inventions that had influenced the cultural aspect of historical development. The first samples of printing were found in Egypt, however, in Asia, this process reached a new stage and was successful. In East Asia, the history of printing started at the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) in China with the appliance of woodblock printing on fabric and later, in the 7th century, on paper.

In the 11th century, artisans from South China invented a wooden movable type of printing. This method spread over East Asian countries rapidly. In the 13th century, in Korea, the wood and clay movable types were replaced by the metal one. This invention made a revolution in the further development of printing. The new western printing type became known is Asia only by the 16th century, however, it was adopted only after two centuries (Brokaw and Chow 24).

Woodblock Printing in China

Printing has been considered one of the greatest inventions that were made in Ancient China. It was a subsequent result of the development of ink and paper. In China, records of the first inks date back to 256 BC. These inks were made of animal glue and carbon dust. The earliest samples of printing that had been found in China implied the method of block printing to create patterns on fabrics and later on paper. The first woodblock prints in China were found around 220BC and they depicted flowers on colored silk. However, this technique became more common only after the 7th century.

The woodblock method was encouraged by the older one that comprised the use of stone or bronze seals to create impressions on silk or clay, the technique of taking rub-off inking of reordered texts from stone and bronze reliefs. By the end of the Tang dynasty, the procedure for block printing at the paper had advanced. This technology comprised the use of glue to paste a slight piece of paper to timber. The letters were then chipped out the timber, creating an impression of the images or texts. Every block comprised a whole page of illustrations and text. After the ink was applied to the woodcut, it should be used to print on paper or fabric. There was an innovative and time taking invention as for each different sheet a new board had to be applied and any error meant starting the block again from peening.

First of all, woodblock printing was chiefly employed for printing medical or agricultural books, calendars, and auspicious charms. In 762, the first commercial books were vended in the markets of Chang’an city, the Tang capital. Moreover, the first published book was the ‘Diamond’ Sutra or Vajracchedike, printed in 868 by this method. The moveable type was manufactured by Bi, Sheng in 1045-1058 and was employed to print paper money by the North Song dynasty (Chow 57). This technique used moveable elements to duplicate text and letters. Bi Sheng retained letters on a metal plate, which could be used one more time (Chow 57). This method was the quickest and the most efficient for the reproduction of the text and contributed to the idea for the Gutenberg who introduced his Press 400 years later based on this technique.

Changing of the Asian Printing Style into the Western

Mechanical presses that had been used for printing in Europe were considered as strange in East Asia. On behalf of this, printing stayed manual, labor-consuming procedure when the back of the paper was pressed on the inked element by hand “smearing” with a manual tool. Moreover, the first printing press in Korea was introduced in 1883 and in Japan, it became known in the 1590s; printing presses that were made by Gutenberg had arrived in Nagasaki only in 1848 on a Dutch ship (Thompson).

In opposite to Gutenberg’s press, which originally permitted printing of the text on two sides of the sheet (however, it was not simultaneous until the end of XX century), East Asian publishing was made only on a side of the sheet, because one side of the sheet had been spoilt by the reason that another side of the sheet need to rub when another side was published (Holcombe 109). Moreover, opposite to Europe, where Gutenberg introduced another more appropriate oil-based ink, Asian publishing stayed confined to the water-based inks which were drenched with the help of paper.

Printing in Japan and Korea

The Chinese invention of printing spread across Eastern Asia. However, it was the evidence that in Japan woodblock-printed texts existed from the 8th century. In 764, the Japanese Empress K?ken ordered one million of little wooden pagodas and all of them containing a little scroll with a Buddhist text printed with a woodblock. These were the first known samples of woodblock printing from Japan. From the 11th century on, the publishing market in Japan was prevailed by Buddhist images and texts. Buddhist temples manufactured printed books of a mandala, sutra, and other sacred images and texts.

The appearance of print had a limited influence in Japan where the procedure was time taking and its distribution was expensive. For a long time, publishing was constrained within the Buddhist sphere because it was expensive for high-volume manufacturing and did not have a demand on the market. Moreover, illiteracy was common in the country, and it meant that there were no market requirements for printed texts (Holcombe 113).

Thus, the first illustrated book in Japan appeared approximately in 1590. This was the two-volume Chinese-Japanese dictionary Setsuy?-sh?. Nevertheless, the Jesuits used a movable type publishing press from 1590 in Nagasaki; printing tools were brought from Korea by the Japanese army only in 1593. It had a serious impact on the development of printing in prospect. In 1597, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu provided the production of the first local moveable type which was based on the wooden type-pieces, not on the metal one. He supervised the production of 100,000 details that were used to create a number of historical and political texts. Shogun promoted learning and literacy and had contributed capital to develop an educated urban public (Vickers and Jones 261).

Private publishers appeared at the beginning of the 17th century in Kyoto with the help of Toyotomi Hideyori, who was Ieyasu’s primary political opponent. In 1598, an issue of the Confucian Analects was printed with the application of a Korean movable type publishing press at the request of Emperor Go-Y?zei. This paper is the oldest copy of moveable type printing in Japan. In spite of the attraction of moveable type, craftsmen decided that it was better to produce Japanese writings by means of woodblocks. Nevertheless, by 17th-century woodblocks were once again employed almost for all purposes (Department of Asian Art ).

The discovery of printing is impressive attainment of Buddhists in East Asia and Korea had occupied the leading position in this sphere. The first known printed issue is a sutra that was printed on a single paper in Korea in the 8th century. In Korea, there was a high demand for secular and religious books and the transition from woodblock printing to moveable type print took place in the 13th century. After a method of casting from bronze was applied, the simplified alphabet of 24 hieroglyphs was advanced. This system was called Hangul and it made typing more uniform and feasible. The new alphabet was to be used by the common people. However, opposite to Europe where the appearance of the publishing press made books available to different social classes, in Korea books were available only to the noble classes (Park 41).

In the early 13th century, the Koreans had established a foundry to cast bronze movable type. In opposite to Chinese experiments with ceramic, bronze is much stronger for multiple printing, demolition and adjusting for a new text. With this method, in 1377 the Koreans made the first known book that was printed with movable type. It was called Jikji, and it was a book with Buddhist texts that were used as a manual for students. Moreover, only one of two volumes rested (now it can be seen in the National Library of France). The Koreans had a problem with using the Chinese type matter; it contained in a lengthy number of hieroglyphs. They solved this issue in 1443 by creating their own local alphabet that was called hangul (Department of Asian Art).

Comparison of Woodblock Type and Movable Type Printing in East Asia

Nevertheless, woodblock and movable type block both had advantages and disadvantages. For most of the Chinese printers, the application of movable-type fonts was financially impractical because the structure of their language needed the quality to output several thousand of hieroglyphs.

It is known that in China, the majority of texts were made with the metal movable type that was sponsored by the government, opposite to an individual publisher, who had the ability to purvey the capital for the manufacture of the obligate large font. Wooden movable-block type publishing was more tempting and, actually, it increased in popularity from the late Ming Dynasty. As long as threading costs stayed low, xylography was the more profitable way for economically minded printers (“The Invention of Woodblock Printing in the Tang and Song Dynasties”).

This difference in technologies led to a long range of other distinctions. Movable-type publishing, the dominant technology in Europe from the late fifteenth through the nineteenth century, permitted the quick printing of serial copies of a single text. (Perhaps, it was the speed of this kind of publishing that pulled in the Chinese government, in spite of the high price). Given the labor that involved in setting type, movable-type publishing can be thought to encourage the printing of a long run of a single text and every new print runs would need the diligent adjustment for every page of the whole book (Broaw and Chow 9).

Also, a movable-type printer realized a large primary placement of funds. Firstly, it was set?ting up of his business practice and buying his font. Secondly, in every new book, he would print more texts than he would need immediately and bearing the expenses of storage and the risk of slow sales. The calculation had to be exact: the publisher had to calculate his financial resources against his assessment of the popularity and “saleability” of a title.

With woodblock printing, the issues were somewhat different. Clearly, the greatest expenditure in the printing process was the initial carving of the blocks. This, however, might not be too onerous an expense, as block carving did not require long training or even literacy. Thus, once the blocks were carved, the printer could produce as many or as few copies of the text. When he needed more copies of the text that was printed before, it was necessary only to change the block. However, the printer had faced the problem of storage because instead of completed texts, woodblocks were massive and publishers had to buy or rent some space for them, which led to additional expenses (Park 41).

Nevertheless, the technology of Chinese woodblock printing made a range of economic aspects different from those that European printers had confronted with. It also influenced the organization and structure of the book industry in a number of ways.

First, xylography allowed for greater mobility and decentralization in the organization of the publishing industry. Woodblocks might not have been easy to move, however, block carvers, requiring only an easily portable set of tools, could and often did travel, offering their services to individuals that were interested in publishing a single text or set of texts or to religious establishments desirous of sponsoring the publication of hardwood, paper, and printer’s ink (which could be made rather easily in areas forested with pine), could publish as few or as many books as he could afford. Thus, though there were certainly clearly identified publishing centers in late imperial China, as there were in Europe, there was also a much greater opportunity for the diffusion of printing operations, particularly small-scale ones in China (Broaw and Chow 10).

Second, block threading did not require the technical skill or the level of literacy that was demanded by the series of workers who produced matrices for printing in the fifteenth and sixteenth century in Europe. While type makers had to be skilled metal workers, it seemed that great manual skill was not necessary for block threading. Though highly skilled carvers were in demand for the pro?duction of quality books, in China carvers might have gone into business activity after a rather short training, perhaps from two to three years. Religious institutions might even have employed nonprofessional labor to thread blocks free.

Block Printing in Europe and Precursor of the Printing Press

In six centuries, after the invention of printing in the east, it was introduced in Europe in about 1400. In fact, it was the technique of printing from woodblocks. However, there was a simple method of image printing. People laid a piece of paper on an inked and carved block and then rubbed its back in order to transfer the ink. As in the east, the main market was sacred images, which were sold to pilgrims. Another early part of western trade was playing cards. In the 15th century, in Germany due to technical advance painting was transformed from a handicraft industry to a keystone of western civilization (Kreis).

Gutenberg had made a highly significant achievement in the story of printing. In 1439, his name first appeared in a law case in Strasbourg, in connection with printing. His great achievement had several components. In fact, one of them was the development of the printing press, capable of applying rapid, but steady downward pressure.

Even though the concept of the press was not new, existing presses, for oil, wine or paper, exert uneconomical slow pressure in printing. Nevertheless, more significant were Gutenberg’s skills with metals. These allowed him to master the complex stages of the manufacture of a separate piece of type. It involved the creation of a copy of each letter, formulating the molds in which multiple versions could be cast. Moreover, he developed a suitable alloy for casting them. All these technologies preceded the basic work of printing, which is arranging the individual letters, well-spaced and aligned in a good form which is able to hold them leveled and firm in order to transfer the ink on the paper.

However, the printing process involved many problems at every stage, and the success of the first known works of Gutenberg’s press suggests that early efforts must have been lost. The decision to make the first publication of a full-length Bible in Latin, also known as the Vulgate, printed to the standard of the black – letter manuscripts, is a bold one indeed (Kreis).

The Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-line Bible, was simultaneously on 6 presses during the 1450s. Furthermore, there is no exact date when the Gutenberg Bible appeared. However, by 24 August 1456, at least one copy is known to have been finished. Its initial letters were colored red. In fact, the first dated book from the same press is much more impressive. In 1457, the Mainz Psalter achieved prominent color printing in its two-color initial letters.

Moreover, these two German publications had an extraordinary standard, because of the commercial need in order to compete with manuscripts. Therefore, new technology, so skillfully launched, spread rapidly all over Europe.

However, there is evidence that textile stampers and block cutters were used in medieval Europe. These techniques were used to print patterns and letters onto fabrics. In the 14th century, woodblock printing came from China to Europe, as well as paper, and it led to the development of printing onto fabrics. Woodblock printing meant carving lines and patterns into a piece of wood and then printing this onto paper. The images were printed on cloth for walls and altars. After the 14th century, paper became more available, and woodcuts became widely popular (Eisenstein 63).

In Germany, this technique was used particularly for producing religious scenes. However, it still remains a labor-intensive process, and the woodblocks required continuous replacement. In Medieval Europe, the usage of woodblocks led to a new artistic style where pictures were thin, made of simple lines, which made printing easier. However, there were other methods, which were developed in the 15th century. These methods involved cutting lines into metal and printing from this.

Therefore, in Medieval Europe, printing was a difficult and expensive process, and only skilled craftsmen could carry it out. The process of producing printing materials took a lot of time. Moreover, books were tender, but it did not matter to the majority of inhabitants, who were illiterate. In the 15th century, with the development of paper, there was a breakthrough in the sphere of printing, which is the printing press (Eisenstein 64). Due to this fact, today, the printing press could mass-produce printed text.

In conclusion, it is necessary to highlight that the invention of printing in East Asia changed the history and development of this phenomena and it was a cornerstone of the new European printing. Moreover, publishing was the reason for cultural evolution all over the world. Also, it encouraged the liquidation of illiteracy and ignorance and provided access to all social classes. In East Asia, the main countries that impact publishing was China, Japan, and Korea. The first printing press was made in China. However, it was improved in Korea later. The first printed books and texts were sacred Buddhist books, which were spread all over East Asia. In addition, it is necessary to point out that printing also changed the alphabet in these countries and made them easier than they were at the beginning of the printing age. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine the modern world without printing books. Nevertheless, people have to remember that these are East Asian scientists who made this invention.