Gutenberg and the Koreans

Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?

Thomas Christensen

  right reading news service

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Cast-Type Printing in Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392)

The Goryeo dynasty (from which the name “Korea” comes) was founded by Wang Geon, who unified the country in 918 and established Buddhism as its state religion. Because China was in transition after the collapse of its Tang dynasty in 906, Goryeo was able initially to flourish without undue concern about external affairs. A Song envoy, Xu Jing, produced a travel account in 1123 that depicted Goryeo as a sophisticated and well-managed society. Already, however, the country found itself forced to respond to threats from Central Asian peoples. Finally, in 1231, Mongol forces invaded. They were repulsed, but launched five more attacks over the next thee decades, forcing the Goryeo court to withdraw to the island of Ganghwa. In 1270 the Goryeo king formally surrendered, and Mongols assumed control of Korea. Many native Koreans continued to oppose the Mongol occupiers, however, and since military resistance had failed, spiritual power was summoned through the printing of Buddhist texts.

Korea had a long and distinguished woodblock printing tradition. According to Kumja Paik Kim, “The oldest extant woodblock printed text on paper in East Asia is the Dharani sutra discovered in the Seokka-tap (Shakyamuni pagoda) in 1966 in Bulguk-sa Monastery in Gyeongju. Since this pagoda was completed in 751, the printed sutra placed within has the terminal date of 751.” Kim also notes the remarkable Goryeo dedication to reproducing the Tripitaka, leading up to the first printing with movable metal type:

This period is especially famous for carrying out monumental projects of carved woodblocks containing the complete set of Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka (sutras, laws, and treatises), not just once but twice. The first set, which was burned during the Mongol invasion in 1232, had been completed in 1087 to expel the invading Khitans through prayers to Buddhas. The second set, known today as Tripitaka Koreana, was completed in 1251 as prayers to the power of Buddhas for the protection of the nation from the invading Mongols. The second Tripitaka set, containing more than 8,000 woodblocks, is now housed in the repository in Haein-sa Monastery near Daegu. Goryeo is also credited with inventing movable metal type in the first half of the thirteenth century to meet the heavy demands for various types of books, both religious and secular. Prescribed Ritual Texts of the Past and Present (Sangjong Gogeum Yemun) was printed with the movable metal type in 1234.24

Under Mongol rule “Korea and China also grew closer, as the Mongol-enforced peace throughout their conquered territory allowed envoys and traders to move freely between the two countries. Goryeo officials served in the Yuan government, where because of their literary skill and knowledge of Confucian statecraft, they made contributions to governance.”25 There was also a sea trade that connected Korea to China and points beyond (when Giovanni di Marignolli arrived at the port of Zhengzhou in 1346 he found a depot for European traders ready to receive him). Wang Geon served as an admiral in the Korean navy. Fifty-seven official diplomatic sea voyages, each carrying 100–300 emissaries, were recorded to Song China in the 160 years following the establishment of the dynasty. For a joint Goryeo-Mongol expedition to Japan in 1274 the Koreans built an armada of 900 ships in four and a half months.26 Under Goryeo rule private merchants actively traded by sea with mainland ports—several arrivals of West Asian trading ships were recorded during the eleventh-century.27 Consequently all of the conditions existed for the transmission of significant technological information from Korea to Europe.

Haein-sa Temple in Hapchon County, North Kyongsang Province, is home to the most complete and best preserved woodblocks of the Buddhist Tripitaka. Top left: the temple entrance. Bottom left: storage rooms. Right: Some of the more than 80,000 woodblocks used to print the Tripitaka (Park Seung-U, Koreana 7, no. 2, 34–35, permission pending).

While the development of Korean metal type anticipated or responded to the need to replace documents abandoned or destroyed during the Mongol invasions, a contributing factor was the relative scarcity of appropriate hardwoods comparable to the pear wood and jujube used in China. The Korean mold-casting method of producing fonts was probably based on their experience with bronze coins; Koreans were also accomplished in bronze casting of bells and statues. The “excellent workmanship,” “dignified form,” and “clear and even characters” of Korean coins were admired by Song dynasty Chinese scholars.28 A fifteenth-century description of the Korean font casting process was recorded by Song Hyon:

At first, one cuts letters in beech wood. One fills a trough level with fine sandy [clay] of the reed-growing seashore. Wood-cut letters are pressed into the sand, then the impressions become negative and form letters [molds]. At this step, placing one trough together with another, one pours the molten bronze down into an opening. The fluid flows in, filling these negative molds, one by one becoming type. Lastly, one scrapes and files off the irregularities, and piles them up to be arranged.

Much of our knowledge of Goryeo printing is based on written records, as Korea's turbulent history has prevented many works from surviving. But one surviving book, the Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Soen Masters (Pulcho chikchi simch'e yojol) contains a date equivalent to 1377, making it the earliest extant book printed with movable metal type. It was printed at Hungdok-sa Temple near Chongju (the ruins of the temple, including a typecasting foundry, were discovered during building excavation in 1985). The book was clearly printed with metal type for, among other telling features, some characters were printed upside down, their alignment is not always straight, and the inking is uneven in a manner not characteristic of block printing.29

It might surprise the heirs of Gutenberg to learn that a woodblock version of this same book was printed just a year after the metal type printing. Today we are accustomed to think of movable-type printing with metal type as dramatically superior to woodblock printing, and certainly the European alphabets are ideally suited to this technique. But in East Asia the advantages were less clear-cut. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci noted in the early seventeenth century that Chinese cutters could produce wood blocks as quickly as European typesetters could make up their pages. What’s more, the wood blocks could be stored for later use, unlike the printers’ forms used in the West, which were disassembled and the type returned to its cases when the printing had been completed. Woodblock technology also facilitated book illustration, which was far more advanced, and more common, in East Asia than in the West.

Joseon dynasty plate

Printing plates from Song of the Moon’s Reflection on a Thousand Rivers and Episodes from the Life of the Buddha (Worin ch’on-gang chi kok), Korea, Joseon dynasty. In the fifteenth century, during the Joseon dynasty that succeeded the Goryeo, a new system of writing Korean was introduced, which was better suited to movable type than the Chinese character system used during the Goryeo period (Park Seung-U, Koreana 7, no. 2, 27, permission pending).

Movable-type printing, as Shen Kun had already noted in the eleventh century, was of most value when a large number of copies were desired. The practicality of woodblock printing meant that in East Asia books could be produced in very limited runs, while the adoption of movable-type printing in the West meant that only commercial or underwritten publications could be published without great difficulty (a situation that has endured to this day). Thus in the West printing actually caused “an impoverishment of the written tradition,” in the view of Jacques Gernet, “because publishers could not take the risk of bringing out works which were not assured of a fairly large sale.”30

But being a late-comer to printing was also a kind of blessing for Europe. The entire development of printing was highly compressed: Europe adopted paper in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; by the thirteen century good-quality paper was being made in Italy. In the fourteenth century woodblock printing became widely adopted, and the following century saw the development of typographical printing, which spread with astounding rapidity. By contrast, China had used paper as the principal material for writing since the Han period, and the proto printing techniques of stamping and rubbing were also widely used during the Han. Woodblock printing was employed at least from the eighth century. All of these technologies were a routine part of East Asian culture by the end of the first millennium, so printing did not carry the shock of the new for East Asia as it did for Europe . Put another way, the impact of printing in East Asia, though in its way just as dramatic as in Europe, had long since occurred, contributing to the result that East Asian culture was in many respects more advanced than that of Europe; the Gutenberg boom amounted to a kind of catching up with the East.

So was Gutenberg influenced or inspired, directly or indirectly, by Asian printing? As Eva Hanebutt-Benz properly observes, “We do not know if Johannes Gutenberg had any kind of knowledge of the fact that long before his invention printing with moveable type was done in East-Asia.”31 Still, as new information is discovered "the notion that knowledge of printing in the Far East could have found its way to Strasbourg or Mainz," in the view of one Western scholar of printing, "becomes more insistent and persuasive."32 While there is no “smoking gun” to establish a direct connection, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting that East Asian printing influenced early Renaissance Europe, and we may ask why movable-type technology should have differed from other print technologies in its development. While the continuous line of transmission from East Asia to Europe was for a time interrupted, under the mature Mongol empire widespread trade and exchange resumed, and this occurred around the same time that Korea perfected movable-type printing. The continuous line of cultural connection that existed between Korea and Europe through the fourteenth century would have enabled this technology to follow a similar route of transmission as those that preceded it.

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24 Kim, Kumja Paik (2003), 13. [return]

25 Edward Shultz, “Cultural History of Goryeo,” in Kim, Kumja Paik, 30. [return]

26 Young, “Korea’s Sphere of Maritime Influence,” 18. [return]

27 Kim, Kumja Paik, 19f2 [return]

28 Pow-key Sohn, 100. [return]

29 Ch’on, 20. [return]

30 Gernet, 336. [return]

31 Hanebutt-Benz, 41. [return]

32 Kapr, 109. [return]

continue to recommended readings ...




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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