Gutenberg and the Koreans

Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?

Thomas Christensen

  right reading news service

homeward bound



Woodblock b ook printing

In China a commercial book trade existed as early as the first century of the common era. Books were also commissioned by religious institutions and by the state. The earliest dated printed book was discovered in a cave temple at Tun-huang.17 A scroll about sixteen feet long, it is a a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, bearing a date equivalent to 868. The quality of the printing is remarkably high, suggested an established print industry.

Diamond Sutra, 868

Frontispiece of the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra, dated 868.

The entire Buddhist canon was printed by imperial decree around 1000, and it was reprinted several times in following centuries. One of these is the Jisha edition, named for the island where the monastery that commissioned the printing was located. The printing was begun in 1231 but completed under the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty. The complete edition consisted of 6,362 printed volumes containing 1,532 texts entailing the carving of more than 150,000 woodblocks.

Jisha Tripitaka

Chapter 2 of the Magical Charm Scripture of Great Splendor, 1231–1322, Yenshengyuan Monastery, Jisha, Suzhou, Jiangsu province. (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco).

Woodblock printing became popular in Europe in the fourteenth century. The blocks used were remarkably similar to Chinese woodblocks. Robert Curzon (1810–1873) was one of the first to pursue the similarity between Asian and European block books to its logical conclusion, arguing that “we must suppose that the process of printing them must have been copied from ancient Chinese specimens, brought from that country by some early travelers, whose names have not been handed down to our times.” “Since all the technical processes are of Chinese rather than European tradition,” adds Tsien Tsuen-Hsien, “it seems that the European block printers must not only have seen Chinese samples, but perhaps had been taught by missionaries or others who had learned these un-European methods from Chinese printers during their residence in China.”18

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17 A printing of the Dharani sutra, discovered in Korea in 1966, is undated but must have been produced before 751. The development of Korean printing will be discussed below. [return]

18 Tsien, 313. [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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