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The Little Known History of Jikji, the World’s Oldest Printed Book via Metal Moveable Type

The Little Known History of Jikji, the World’s Oldest  Printed Book via Metal Moveable Type
Printing (1770) by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki (1726 — 1801)

Ah, history! As much as we strive to uncover the facts, it remains a mix of truth, falsity, and the unknown. Take, for example, the history of book printing and mass production. An astounding number of sources state that it began in Germany around the 1440s with the printing of Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible. But, in all actuality, the rise of book printing and mass production stemmed from the ideas and contributions made by a number of people over the course of several centuries, and predated Gutenberg’s invention by roughly 400 years.

Although books have been around for a while, the initial process for creating them as well as making them available to the public — instead of the privileged few — was painstakingly long and tedious. Before the emergence of book printing technologies, scribes were the gatekeepers of information; their job required a great deal of patience, decent penmanship, and an enduring passion for permeating knowledge. The invention of the movable type, however, revolutionized this process.

Metal Moveable Type by Willi Heidelbach

Movable type is both a printing system and a technology that uses movable components to reproduce the individual punctuation marks and alphanumeric characters on a traditionally paper document. The earliest mention of this technology is by Shen Kuo (1031 — 1095), a “Chinese astronomer, mathematician, and high official whose famous work Mengxi bitan (Brush Talks from Dream Brook) contains the first reference to the magnetic compass, the first description of movable type, and a fairly accurate explanation of the origin of fossils.”

According to Shen Kuo, movable type was developed by Bi Sheng (990 — 1051), “a man of unofficial position” around 1040 AD during the Northern Song dynasty:

“He took sticky clay and cut in characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. 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 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 words of each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases. If any rare character appeared that had not been prepared in advance, it was cut as needed and baked with a fire of straw. In a moment, it was finished.”

The Little Known History of Jikji, the World’s Oldest  Printed Book via Metal Moveable Type
Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra from Tang Dynasty, China, world's earliest dated printed book (868)

Shen Kuo went on to explain why ceramic moveable type was more efficient than the wood type that preceded it; he also explained that the printing technology was not simple or easy to use for the production of a few pages, as woodblock printing was better suited for smaller tasks, but it was an absolute lifesaver for mass production. To optimize efficiency, Bi Sheng worked on two forms at the same time. While making an impression from one form, he would set the type for the other. Allowing the forms to alternate made it easier for him to work quickly and efficiently.

Many experts believe that bronze moveable type was already in China by the 12th century. It was, however, predominantly used for the production of government documents and currency, and not for the printing and mass production of books; that honor actually belongs to the Korean Goryeo Dynasty (918 — 1392), which began printing books using metal moveable type in the early 13th century. The oldest of these did not survive the passage of time, but a work printed in July of 1377 — 78 years before Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible — did.

“At the outset, metal movable type was devised not to promote Buddhism, but rather to protect it from invaders,” argues Sophia M. Newman in Tricycle Magazine’s incredibly interesting 2016 article The Buddhist History of Moveable Type”:

“In the 12th century, the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan consolidated the largest empire in human history, an area stretching from Asia’s Pacific coast westward to Persia. After his death in 1227, his successor, Ögedei Khan, continued the conquest. In 1231, Ögedei ordered the invasion of Goryeo, the area now called Korea. The peninsula was then a rare strip of land not controlled by the Mongols. For 28 years, the Mongols mounted repeated attacks on the ruling monarchy. That government, the Goryeo dynasty, sought to repel the invaders, and also took pains to maintain and protect its greatest treasure— and that meant Buddhist teachings.”

Jikji, the abbreviated title of The Monk Baegun's Anthology of the Great Priests' Teachings on Identification of the Buddha’s Spirit by the Practice of Seon, was first woodblock printed at Seongbulsan in 1372. It was written by the chief priest of the Anguk and Shingwang temples in Haeju to assist in his teaching of Seon Buddhism, the predecessor to Japan's Zen Buddhism, “and includes dharma teachings, hymns, eulogies, epitaphs, prose and poetry by the seven Buddhas, 28 Indian patriarchs, 110 Chinese Chan (Zen) monks and one Silla-era Korean monk.”

The Little Known History of Jikji, the World’s Oldest  Printed Book via Metal Moveable Type
Jikji Metal Moveable Type

A copy of the anthology was printed using metal moveable type just five years later; it’s the edition that survives today. UNESCO confirmed it as the oldest metalloid type in the world on September 2001, contradicting the widely accepted Western narrative pertaining to the history of book printing and mass production. In fact, “scholars have called the printing technique used in the Jikji very similar to the one that Gutenberg later developed.” And, according to Newman, there may be an explanation for why that is, even if there is not enough evidence to prove it, yet:

“On the old Silk Road, halfway between Beijing and the heart of what was once the Mongols’ hold in Persia, the Ilkhanate, lies the homeland of the Uyghur people. In his lifetime, Genghis Khan recruited many members of this Turkic ethnic group into his own army… Scholar Tsien Tsuen-Hsien wrote in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China (1985), ‘If there was any connection in the spread of printing between Asia and the West, the Uyghurs, who used both block printing and movable type, had good opportunities to play an important role in this introduction.’”

The Little Known History of Jikji, the World’s Oldest  Printed Book via Metal Moveable Type
A Gutenberg press replica at the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum, in Bermuda

There are, however, notable differences between Gutenberg’s printing technology and that of the Goryeo dynasty. Both involved placing metal letters in a frame, inking them, and then pressing paper onto the surface. “But only Gutenberg’s method included mechanisms modified from wine or oil presses that allowed for lowering a metal frame over the top of the paper,” argues Newman. “Goryeo printing, created in an area without such presses, involved pressing paper to the metal type by hand, a considerably slower method.”

The Little Known History of Jikji, the World’s Oldest  Printed Book via Metal Moveable Type
Jikji (1377)

Today, the world’s oldest surviving printed book is preserved at the Manuscripts Orientaux division of the French National Library. Although it originally consisted of two volumes totaling 307 chapters divided into 165 subsections, the first volume along with the first page of the second volume are missing. Still, thanks to publication details on its last page, we know that the work was printed during the 3rd Year of King U at Heungdeok temple in Cheongju. “The fact that the metal-type Jikji was printed at such a small temple indicates that metal-type printing technology was likely already in widespread use throughout the nation.”

Note* All images are sourced from Wikipedia.


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