Table of Contents Hide
- The Rise of Printing-on-Paper Techniques in Ancient China
- The Incredible Story of Bi Sheng: The Inventor of China’s Revolutionary Movable-Type Printing System
- The Last Inheritors of the Ancient Chinese Wooden Movable-Type Printing System
- The Genealogy Concept Found and Expressed by Traditional Wooden Movable-Type Printing of China
- The Future of the Millennia-Old Chinese Wooden Movable-Type Printing
- Traditional Wooden Movable-Type Printing of China: Final Food for Thought
Ancient China has earned world recognition for the Four Great Inventions, namely the compass, gunpowder, printing, and nonetheless, papermaking.
Astonishingly, it was approximately 1000 years back in time when the Chinese inventor Bi Sheng created the first movable type printing system.
It was during the reign of the Song dynasty, and more specifically, between 1041 and 1048 AD that the first movable-type printing system was invented.
As a comparison, Europe’s mastermind – Johannes Gutenberg – introduced the movable type mechanical printing technology in Europe in 1450. This equals four centuries later after the traditional Chinese movable-type printing system was born.
Video by Museum of the Bible – The Gutenberg Press An Invention That Changed the World
Transmuted from generation to generation, Chinese wooden movable-type printing technique requires attaining a great set of skills in order to follow the strict rules of the printing system.
Being made solely by hand, each step of the process is also related to paying a tribute to the ancestors as Chinese wooden movable-type printing was traditionally used for compiling the genealogy of a family or more specifically, of an entire clan.
Inscribed on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, Chinese wooden movable-type printing serves like an invisible bridge connecting generations of families to their roots.
Keeping the ancient traditions alive doesn’t come without challenges, though, and especially in modern-day China where the pace of life has become so busy that ancient crafts like that of wooden movable-type printing have started to become increasingly endangered by oblivion.
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The Rise of Printing-on-Paper Techniques in Ancient China
For a start, it’s important to highlight the fact that Chinese people started using stamps, seals, and carved stones for printing as early as approximately 2 200 years ago.
Experts believe that the predecessor of the wooden movable-type printing technology could be a wooden stamp. The wooden stamp was 13.5 x13.5 cm in size and it contained 120 Chinese characters.
The extraordinary stamp was first mentioned by Ge Hong (AD 284-364) who was a highly respected alchemist during the reign of the Jin Dynasty that ruled the Eastern parts of China in AD 317-420.
According to Ge Hong’s writings, the wooden stamp was used by the Taoist monks.
Interestingly,woodblock printing on silk appeared much earlier than woodblock printing on paper. The supposedly first and yet premature woodblock printing technique applied on paper can be traced back to the early Tang Dynasty that ruled during the period of 618 – 907 AD.
The first dated book that was produced through the still-developing woodblock printing system – the Diamond Sutra – was created in AD 868.
A 488cm-long scroll, the Diamond Sutra consists of seven pieces of paper printed with Buddha images and scripts.
Video by IDPUKvideo – Conserving the Diamond Sutra
In order to apply the traditional engraved block printing technique of the time, not a single one but several skilled craftsmen had to work in close collaboration.
The master craftsmen would use wood blocks of about 2 centimeters thickness that were cut off out of fine-grained pear or jujube trees. Next, the wood blocks had to be carved into a relief matrix.
The unprinted part of the wood had to be chipped away. Meanwhile, the printed illustration and the accompanying text were being carved into low relief.
If working on the creation of a thick book, artisans would spend months, and sometimes, years before carving the full assembly of numerous wood blocks.
In the case even a single mistake was made in carving, the craftsman had to throw away the wood block and once again start everything from scratch.
With all of this in mind, even though the early form of printing on paper in ancient China existed, it was a rather low-productive, as well as an extremely complicated technique, especially if many different materials had to be printed.
The need for inventing a more mature, reliable, and advanced printing technique was accomplished by the father of the movable-type printing system – Bi Sheng.
The Incredible Story of Bi Sheng: The Inventor of China’s Revolutionary Movable-Type Printing System
Bi Sheng was enchanted by carving wood from a very early age.
When he was just 15 years old, his father sent him to a printing shop located in Hangzhou so that the young Bi Sheng could become an apprentice in order to learn how to carve the woodcut properly and then use it as a woodblock for printing texts, illustrations or different patterns employed by the traditional printing system of the time.
While Bi Sheng eagerly embraced his passion for working with wood as an apprentice, he couldn’t stop wondering how the printing technique could be upgraded as it was rather inefficient and extremely laborious.
Bi Sheng tried various methods for upgrading the painstaking printing technique but none of these prove to work until that one day when a sudden illumination came to Sheng’s mind.
At that time, Sheng was spending time with his wife and their two children, paying a visit to their home village. His kids were playing with clay, making various tiny figurines.
Watching them swiftly create various forms out of the easy-to-mold clay, Bi Sheng got the fantastic idea of implementing clay into the process of printing on paper.
“If I can carve each character onto a piece of clay block and make as many such clay blocks as I need, then I can combine those pieces into any text that is about to be printed. And once I am done printing a particular text, these clay blocks can be used again in the printing of other books”Sheng was thinking to himself
And so Bi Sheng began his experiments, starting with the production of several clay blocks.
Next, Sheng carved the mirror-like images of the characters on each clay block so that once the paper was placed over the images, the characters would be readable which wouldn’t have been possible if they were not carved following a mirror-like pattern.
Afterward, the carved clay blocks had to be hardened with the use of fire. In order to do the typesetting, Bi Sheng used an iron plate covered with an even layer of pine resin, paper ash, and wax mixture.
Placing an iron frame on top of the printed area of a single page, Sheng would then fit the hardened clay blocks into the frame in such a manner as to match the original text that was about to be printed.
This technique worked but Sheng wanted to make it even more advanced since the numerous Chinese characters were very, very meticulous to reproduce.
And that’s how Sheng decided to arrange the ceramic types of about 3000 of the most used Chinese characters, thus, making them handy to use when necessary.
Furthermore, he came up with the idea to group these characters into dozens, based on their rhymes so that once could find the character he needs much more effortlessly.
Throughout the course of the next years, Sheng’s unique and pioneer movable-type printing system was further upgraded as the clay blocks were substituted with woodblocks, and metal also became part of the process of making the different types.
The new printing technology proved to be a never-seen-before invention which soon became so popular that the printing system was exported to some of the neighboring countries, such as Korea.
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The Last Inheritors of the Ancient Chinese Wooden Movable-Type Printing System
Wang Chaohui an inheritor of China’s wooden movable-type printing in Rui’an, Zhejiang province. He has more than forty years of experience with applying the ancient Chinese technique of wooden movable-type printing.
During the last decades, Wang Chaohuialone has crafted over 10 000 wooden movable-type cubes throughout the course of a single year. Amazingly, he has also used 7000 sheets of paper and approximately 100 engraving knives.
In fact, Wang Chaohui’s incredible expertise as a master craftsman has spread the fame of his skills not only within his hometown but also across the country of China, as well as across the globe.
“First one must learn to write characters in reverse with a Chinese brush. This is a must. Only after that could one learn character carving which follows certain rules. First, one should learn the horizontal and vertical strokes including the left-falling and right-falling strokes. And then the turning and hook strokes,” Wang Chaohui explains.
Video by UNESCO – Wooden movable-type printing of China
Following the delicate specifics of the strokes is utterly important to master because traditional characters of the old song style possess peculiar features.
Firstly, the traditional song style characters are square.
Secondly, the horizontal and the vertical lines differ from each other as the horizontal lines are thin while the vertical lines are thick. Hence, horizontal lines require thin, well-controlled and precise stokes, and the vertical lines require thicker, no less well-controlled strokes.
Thirdly, the corners need to be simultaneously distinct and sharp.
Undoubtedly, carving the characters is the most difficult procedure in wooden movable-type printing.
“One needs to keep a pithy search formula in mind which contains 160 characters in total,” says Mr. Chaohui, and further reveals the beginning of the traditional pithy search formula shared below.
“The emperor establishes himself in the palace hall,
Around him are all kind and honest officials,
If the common people can observe the proprieties,
The society would be one of fairness and justice… ”Mr. Chaohui
The 160-character search formula was passed on for generations. It makes a crucial aspect of typesetting as the craftsmen need to resort to this formula to swiftly find the needed type of character out of the multiple ready-made wooden types.
The readily made wooden types are brushed over with ink. This is a continual process that can be repeated as much as needed. However, there are certain rules that need to be followed on that note, too.
“Too much ink makes the print blurred. Otherwise, the print looks unclear. The type must be evenly brushed,” highlights Wang Chaohui.
Once the characters are handwritten, hand-carved, and carefully brushed over with ink, it’s time to cover the wooden types with high-quality paper.
Video by UNESCO – The traditional handicrafts of making Xuan paper
Traditionally, finest grade xuan paper is used for this purpose. After covering the wooden types with paper, a clean brush is used. Because of the light broom with a brush over the paper, the ink starts to become more and more visible until it can finally be clearly seen through the back.
Lastly, the paper has to be lifted very gently and carefully as not to spoil the fine ink printing. Thus, a single page of traditional Chinese wooden movable-type printing gets finished. After being assembled and bind together, multiple pages turn into a book.
The Genealogy Concept Found and Expressed by Traditional Wooden Movable-Type Printing of China
As a rule of thumb, genealogy records typically consist of four to five volumes. In some areas, genealogy records are updated every ten years or so. However, the revisions and upgrades are usually made only every twenty to thirty years.
In order to understand the importance of the genealogy concept, we must look into the very roots of the local society of the Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.
From a historical point of view, the northern Fujian and the southern Zhejiang provinces have something crucial in common –and that’s migration. As the native people from these two regions used to travel in groups and lead a rather non-sedentary life, a very strong sense of belonging to the community was born in order to help preserve the very roots and deep knowledge of the different families – and respectively, clans – alive.
Thus, the genealogy concept became especially important. Due to the strong culture and the immense demand for genealogy records, Chinese movable-type printing was preserved and handled down to future generations.
Even though done solely by hand and taking a lot of expertise, efforts, and time to be accomplished, the wooden movable-type printing technique remained the most cost-friendly and efficient choice for compiling the genealogy records for a long time.
But with the beginning of the boom of contemporary printing systems, things drastically changed.
“Changes began in 1990. Typewriters and computers were used to print genealogy. These two ways were not preferred in the past. In the past, our genealogies were all printed by the wooden movable print type. It is also a culture, a history,” explains Wang Chaohui.
Video by CCTV English – Chinese Arts and Crafts: Wooden Movable-type Printing
The Future of the Millennia-Old Chinese Wooden Movable-Type Printing
Thankfully, the Chinese government has put efforts into preserving the rich cultural heritage of the wooden movable-type printing alive through various methods.
One of the strategies applied to safeguard Chinese wooden movable-type printing is to involve the young generations in studying more about the ancient technique. Thus, each weekend, a classroom is organized right next to the side of the old printing house in Rui’an, Zhejiang province.
The children in the specialized classroom learn all the aspects of traditional Chinese wooden movable-type printing one by one – starting from the very writing of the Chinese characters in reverse.
Contaminated by the vital enthusiasm of the children who are currently involved in studying the secrets of Chinese wooden movable-type printing, Wang Chaohui has great hopes for the future of the remarkable, one-of-a-kind, ancient technology.
In fact, he has been eagerly expanding his skills as a master craftsman by exploring the opportunities of creating new cultural products apart from the traditional genealogies.
The mutual efforts of all the bearers of the ancient Chinese printing system secrets’ are of great importance for preserving and transmuting the know-how forward to the next generations. Currently, there are only 20 master craftsmen proficient in the traditional Chinese movable printing system, and none of them is below 50 years of age.
Traditional Wooden Movable-Type Printing of China: Final Food for Thought
For thousands of years people from all over the world have used wood as the number one material in literally any aspect of life.
But what’s more, wood conveys the mystical way different nations interpreted the surrounding environment and cleverly made use of the available materials in order to develop and bring humanity to a brighter future.
Wooden movable-type printing of China is one more solid proof of the spectacular ingenuity of the ancient people who interacted with wood to create not only practical but also revolutionary inventions.
No matter how much ahead of time a country like modern-day China is able to grow and develop, no real progress can be made without staying rooted to the traditions. It is traditions that make up the consciousness of a nation and they keep people close together not only in times of glory but also in times of despair.
Hopefully, China will find its way into preserving and transmuting the amazing craftsmanship associated with wooden movable-type printing, and especially after being listed by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.