The Book & The Computer (書本與電腦)
Medieval China’s Rich Print Culture: Harbinger of Gutenberg
In 1996, I began teaching two undergraduate courses in Japan on the history and culture of book publishing. In planning the courses, I decided that I would depart from the most frequently used approach to the subject, which gives particular emphasis to the effects of advances in technology. I was, of course, well aware that the discovery of new technologies was a key factor in the history and culture of the book. But I also wanted to explore with my students what the scholar Minowa Shigeo calls “book publishing in a societal context.” In other words, I wanted us to look at the social mechanisms, activities and conditions that gave rise to the distinct publishing traditions of a variety of societies and, further, to see how these traditions have contributed to today’s international book culture.
Since most of my students were Asian, I was particularly concerned that we approach the subject from a perspective that would give proper attention to the book cultures of that region. This was, I found, easier said than done.
In preparation for the courses, I set about finding suitable teaching materials. I began with an exhaustive search of books, journals, archives and Websites in English, Japanese, French and German. I was looking for scholarship reflective of a comparative international perspective, but I found little that even pointed in that direction. Japanese sources came the closest to providing the sort of thing I wanted, but even these were inadequate. The view they presented was a compartmentalized one, in which Western developments, because of their more direct connection with modern book publishing, were seen as primary. Asian developments were regarded as either artifactual and unrelated to modern publishing or, as in the case of those occurring after the time of Gutenberg in the 15th century, as dependent on Western developments.
Still, despite their serious shortcomings, the Japanese sources did provide extensive and comprehensive information on Asia’s publishing history, particularly in Japan, China and Korea. Western sources, however, were a very different story.
Certainly, there was an abundance of good material by Western researchers on publishing’s history. The problem was that almost none of it was international in scope or comparative in nature. The long and rich history of Asian book culture was treated, if it was treated at all, as a peripheral matter, a kind of footnote to the main story. This main story was, of course, the history of the book in the West, the key development in which was the Gutenberg printing press.
Eventually, relying mainly on Japanese sources, I was able to gather enough material to compile a course reader. But the experience raised a number of questions for me. Why, I wondered, did Western scholars pay so little attention to Asia? Was it ignorance, or arrogance? Or was it, more innocently, that there was a paucity of primary research from which to work? Why did Asian scholars seem to view the history of publishing as a global phenomenon while the Western scholars, by and large, did not?
Whatever the reasons may have been for the Western scholars’ neglect of Asia, lack of information could not have been among them. In fact, for anyone with even a cursory interest in the subject, the long history of Asia’s flourishing book culture is hard to ignore. While Western histories conventionally emphasize the role of the “Gutenberg effect” in the rapid rise of literate societies in Europe and, later, North America, Asian histories focus initially on the development of woodblock printing, nearly 800 years before Gutenberg’s invention. Woodblock printing led to the rise of a highly literate society in China, a cultural influence that was in time exported to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet and other nearby societies.
Publishing culture is a complex affair. For publishing to flourish, the specific activities that it comprises — printing, yes, but also the generation and development of manuscripts; the production and availability of paper, ink and other materials; the various sorts of commercial exchanges, including the distribution and sale of the finished product — require the support of a broad framework of cultural, social, economic, political and technological conditions. The vibrant publishing culture that developed in China beginning in the 7th century — that is, after woodblock printing on paper came into widespread use — demonstrates clearly that China possessed these conditions in strength.
Western scholars have long overlooked or understated the achievements of non-Western societies. This is abundantly true in the case of China. Many of these scholars are aware of the Chinese origins of such things as gunpowder, the stirrup, the iron plow (and row cultivation), the stern rudder, the compass, cast iron, matches, paper, paper money, rockets, guns, the crossbow and the decimal system. They also know that modern Western civilization might not have advanced as far and as fast as it did without knowledge of these and other such innovations. Yet few of these scholars give more than passing references to China’s accomplishments and their influence on the West. Much worse, they give little recognition to the superb intellectual and scientific environment that fostered such achievements. One of the unfortunate effects of this kind of narrow-minded scholarship is that it fosters a sense of inferiority, real or imagined, among cultures that, supposedly, have been surpassed by Western advances.
Publishing is a case in point. In his book The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward, T. F. Carter argues that the ingenious idea of printing spread westward from China in the wake of the Mongol invasions, first of Turkistan and Persia, and then of Russia, Poland and Hungary. Carter provides strong circumstantial evidence to prove his point, a point that has come to be shared by many scholars.
In April 1999, the New York Times Magazine put out a special issue on humankind’s best achievements during the passing millennium. Their selection for best invention was the Gutenberg press. But the author, the historian Jared Diamond, points out that the popular idea that printing itself began with Gutenberg is simply a falsehood. He notes that, by Gutenberg’s time, printing had been around in China for centuries. What is more, even the idea that movable type originated with Gutenberg is mistaken. Sometime between the years 1041 and 1048 of the Common Era, the Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng, using baked clay and glue, had devised an effective form of movable type. During the following century, a metal form of movable type, an improvement on Pi Sheng’s invention, was developed in Korea. The key to the success of the Gutenberg press, and to the astonishing impact it had, was the surrounding society’s capacity to put the invention to use. In other words, the flowering of literacy and creativity in Europe after the 15th century happened not as a simple result of a technological advance but because that advance took place in an environment that facilitated its success.
There is nothing unique about this. The automobile may have made its first appearance in Germany, but it was in America that it was turned into the practical means of conveyance now used by millions around the world. Americans may have discovered the transistor, but it was the Japanese who developed the mechanisms to use it practically in small-sized, low-cost devices. To say that printing or movable type did not originate with Gutenberg takes nothing away from their importance to the spectacular expansion of print culture in Europe after 1458. It does, however, suggest that we give due attention, and credit, to the print culture that had already been flourishing in China for centuries.
Although definitions of what is meant by the word “book” may vary, one would be justified in claiming that the first complete printed book was produced in China, in the year 868 C.E. The text in question was a Chinese translation from the Sanskrit of the Buddhist scripture called the Diamond Sutra. In all likelihood, the translators had worked from a version of the text written on palm leaf or wood strips, which were then tied together. This was a common technique used in India and elsewhere as far back as the 5th century. The Chinese text was printed on a paper scroll 533.4 cm long and 26.67 cm wide.
By the 8th century, well before the appearance of the printed version of the Diamond Sutra, woodblock printing had taken a firm foothold in China. The demand for Chinese versions of Buddhist texts was one key factor. And it was through the spread of Buddhism that China’s print technology spread rapidly to nearby Korea and Japan. In fact, the oldest extant artifact of printed matter is the Japanese version of the Buddhist incantation, the Hyakumanto Dharani,which dates from the 8th century. It is estimated that one million copies of the text were printed, a testament to the capacity of cast block print technology.
Such large print runs for Buddhist texts were not uncommon. Even today, some 400,000 copies of one centuries-old Buddhist collection still survive intact. We are left to contemplate the figures for the original print runs of this and other surviving texts, but we can safely guess that some printings numbered in the millions.
But China’s print technology did not respond solely to the demand for Buddhist texts. Poetry, science and philosophy, along with other types of literature, were available in China’s thriving book culture. One of the largest undertakings was the printing of the 11 classics of Confucianism and two supplemental books commissioned by Prime Minister Feng Tao in the 10th century. It took 22 years to complete 130 volumes, which were sold to the public under the auspices of the Chinese National Academy. By this time, belles-lettres and philosophy were being widely printed in a format that resembled that of a modern Chinese book. (We know precious little about the rise of other, less prestigious types of literature. We do know, however, that by the 14th century sales of certain works of fiction, which was considered a lowbrow form of entertainment, were booming, and that bookseller districts and book markets were springing up in many major cities.)
By the time Pi Sheng’s movable type was introduced, woodblock printing had existed, and been successful, for hundreds of years. Indeed, not only had movable type appeared in China well before Europe, but by the time of Gutenberg, the Chinese had already abandoned it. For the Chinese, woodblock was simply the superior technology. The nuances of the brush strokes used in Chinese writing and the subtleties of ink-brush illustrations were better replicated by woodblock. And, because of the number of characters needed for an average book, movable type was too cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. It was not until the 19th century that the technologies descended from Gutenberg became practical for meeting the print needs of East Asia.
Today, digital technology has made possible print-on-demand publishing (a subject written about frequently in this very publication). But for East Asians, the use of woodblocks has long allowed for the feasibility of on-demand printing. Because they are durable and easily stored, a text on woodblock could be printed in runs just large enough to satisfy a customer’s request — perhaps, say, a dozen — and then be stored away to await future orders. Because of woodblock printing, the Chinese were also the first to employ techniques for multicolored printing. They originally developed a two-color process, but by the 12th century four-color printing was being used widely.
Having taken a quick tour through the rich history of China’s early print culture, we might return to the questions, mentioned earlier, about why Western scholars have ignored or minimized its importance. One answer might simply be that they are puzzled by it. Prior to Gutenberg, Europeans produced books by the hand-copying of a text. Gutenberg’s invention was pivotal because it provided Europe, for the first time, with a means to produce, efficiently, copies of a book in great numbers. To the Westerner, the failure of movable type to catch on in China looks, perhaps, like a failure of China’s literary culture. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather then being a regression, China’s rejection of movable type, centuries before it emerged in Europe, attests to the extraordinary success of woodblock printing in meeting the particular needs of Chinese society.
Another explanation — one that does not negate the first — was provided by the renowned scholar Joseph Needham. In 1946, in a lecture delivered to the China Society in London, Needham said:
“I personally believe that all Westerners, all people belonging to the Euro-American civilization, are subconsciously inclined to congratulate themselves, feeling with some self-satisfaction that, after all, it was Europe and its extension into the Americas which developed modern science and technology. In the same way I think that …[Asians]…are subconsciously inclined to a certain anxiety about this matter, because their civilizations did not, in fact, develop modern science and technology.”
It seems to me that such attitudes — Western self-satisfaction and Asian anxiety — serve no useful purpose. And it might well be that the recognition, long overdue, of the accomplishments and contributions of Asian book culture would help us all put such feelings behind us.
What more is there to say, except “Amen!”
— Bevin Chu
Explanation: Medieval China’s Rich Print Culture: Harbinger of Gutenberg
Illustration(s): Medieval European Print Shop, Chinese Print House Typesetting, Replica of Pi Sheng’s Movable Type, The Diamond Sutra, Oldest Surviving Paper Book
Author(s): Amadio Arboleda
Affiliation: Professor of Publishing Culture, Josai International University
Publication Date: February 4, 2003
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect