The Development of Movable Type
Revolving type table from the Nung-shu of Wang Chen, 1313.
The invention of movable type in China is attributed to the Sung dynasty inventor Bi Sheng (ca. 990–1051; spelled Pi Sheng in the Wade-Giles transliteration system used in the extract below) in the eleventh century. His process was described by Shen Kua (ca. 1031–1095). Bi’s types were made of baked clay. They were set in an iron form, their position stabilized with heated resin and wax. After the printing was completed the wax and resin were melted to release the type for later reuse, as Shen Kua explains:
Pi Sheng, a man of unofficial position, made movable type. His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it 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 the 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.
If one were to print only two or three copies, this method would be neither simple nor easy. But for printing hundreds or thousands of copies, it was marvelously quick. As a rule he kept two formes going. While the impression was being made from the one forme, the type was being put in place on the other. When the printing of one form was finished, the other was then ready. In this way the two formes alternated and the printing was done with great rapidity.
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 characers were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.19
Shen Kua reports that “When Pi Sheng died, his font of type passed into the possession of my nephews,” and Bi Sheng’s type was still being used to print philological primers and neo-Confucian documents during the rule of the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan, by one of his personal councilors.20
A report by Wang Chen in 1313 adds that tin type was also used. (The Chinese abandoned tin as a material for type because it would not hold the water-based Chinese ink.) Wang Chen spent more than two years cutting 60,000 type for use in his own wood-based movable-type printing. An illustration of his technique of laying type with a revolving table has survived.
19 Tsien, 201–202. [return]
20 Tsien, 203. [return]