Gutenberg and the Koreans

Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?

Thomas Christensen

  right reading news service

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print workshops east and west

Left: Jost Amman, The Printer’s Workshop, from the Book of Trades, woodcut, 1568. Right: Qing dynasty illustration of a small print workshop (Ying Chih Wen Thu Chu).

Johannes Gutenberg’s development, in mid fifteenth-century Mainz, of printing with movable metal type was enormously consequential—it made texts available to an increasing percentage of the population and helped to spark the European Renaissance.1 So it is surprising how much remains unknown about Gutenberg and his invention, such as its year of creation, what the press looked like, what tools were used to prepare the type, or what financial structure supported the print operation.

Another question also remains unanswered: Was Gutenberg aware that he was far from the first to print with movable metal type, and that printing in this manner had been done in Asia since the early thirteenth century? “The question if there was a direct influence from the orient on the invention of printing with movable type in Germany around 1440,” says Eva Hanebutt-Benz of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, “cannot be solved so far in the context of the scholarly research.”2 What is certain, however, is that that printing with movable wooden type is documented from the eleventh century; that printing with movable metal type had been an active enterprise in Korea since 1234; that other printing technologies had Asian origins and were subsequently transmitted to the West; that a single empire (the Mongol khanates) stretched from Korea to Europe through much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, facilitating cross-cultural exchange across a large region; that there was considerable East-West travel, contact, and exchange during this period; that the written record of such contacts records only a fraction of what actually occurred; and that there was awareness of Asian printing in Europe in the centuries before Gutenberg.

For all these reasons it is likely that Europe’s print revolution did not occur independently but was influenced or inspired by similar printing in Asia.

Mongol passport (paizi)

Passport (paiza) enabling travel through the Mongol empire. (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

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1 Although Gutenberg is widely acknowledged as the first European to print with movable metal type, that honor is sometimes claimed for a handful of other printers. In addition, researchers Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas have recently suggested that Gutenberg did not in fact use movable type as we understand it (Princeton Weekly Bulletin 90, no. 16). This dispute has little bearing on the present argument. [return]

2 Hanbutt-Benz, 41. For full bibliographical information on citations see the selected readings. [return]

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Print Technology and Society

The Development of Printing in China and Its Transmission to the West

Cross-Cultural Currents under the Mongol Empire

Cast-Type Printing in Korea's Goryeo Dynasty

Selected Reading ***


also of interest:

Chinese Jade

Taoism and the Arts of China

Yi Ching, the Chinese Classic of Changes

The Typehead Chronicles

How to Publish a Book


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