Printed Books Existed Long Before Gutenberg’s Bible

Johannes Gutenberg is often credited as the inventor of the printing press. Many people think of him in that regard to this day. The reality is that Gutenberg didn’t exactly invent anything. His contributions to printing technology; namely his advancements in moveable, mechanized type, were indeed revolutionary, but the history of printing, and the printing press, begin about 600 years before Gutenberg’s time in Asia.

The true origins of printing begin with what historians refer to as woodblocks, a system in which printers would carve an image or letters into flat pieces of wood, ink the images, and then press them against cloth and paper to transfer. The earliest known woodblock printed book originated in China. Diamond Sutra (pictured below) was printed in 868 and is currently kept at the British Library in London. Woodblock printing was also utilized in Japan and Korea as early as the 8th century. The use of metal blocks was also not uncommon.


The onset of the 11th century marked a very important improvement to this method of printing; moveable type. Moveable type was developed by a Chinese man named Bi Sheng. Shen Kuo, a scholar who documented the work of Sheng mentions that his method of printing was actually fairly efficient in that day and age, and could print thousands of copies. The issue here, and why Sheng is not as prominently recognized as Gutenberg is for his advancements in moveable type, is that his method of printing didn’t become popular for centuries after his development.

One of the most notable examples of Chinese moveable type can be seen in a work printed in the 14th century by Wang Chen. His book on agriculture, “Nung Shu,” was originally printed in 1313 using the woodblock method, but was later reproduced using moveable type. Historians suggest that moveable metal type was independently discovered in Korea during the same century. In 1377, Baegun, a buddhist monk, printed a compilation of buddhist ideologies using moveable metal type. “Jikji” (Pictured below) is recognized as the oldest book in the world that was printed using metal type.


Whether or not Gutenberg was aware of Wang’s and Baegun’s advancements in moveable type is not exactly known, and up for debate. What is clear, is why the technology was so much more widespread in European countries as opposed to the Asian ones where it was first developed. The number of characters in Asian Languages is far greater, and the characters themselves are more ornate and detailed. With western languages, you’d need to cast only a few dozen pieces and you’d have the entire alphabet.

The reason that Gutenberg is “the man” (pictured below) when it comes to the origins of printing, is because he developed the press that mechanized the whole process. The first printing press, with its assembly line style printing process, allowed for far greater efficiency than simply pressing by hand as his Asian predecessors had done.



Palermo, Elizabeth. “Who Invented the Printing Press?” Live Science. N.p., 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.


China What do they have to do with type

Johannes Gutenberg is always considered the guy when it comes to the Movable type. What I fine really interesting is the fact that the Chinese first invented movable type. Let us answer a simple question for clarification first, what is movable type. It is when each individual character, ligature, punctuation, and numbers are on a piece of material. They can be infinitely rearranged and changed to form infinite possibilities. They usually look like this.

China during the Song Dynasty were under much pressure to increase their understanding of technology. This Dynasty houses some of the most important inventions we have seen, a few examples would be movable type, the compass, and gunpowder. As with many things today most westerners even some easterners see the world through a westerner’s lens. If we look closely at China we see that movable type was first invented around 1040 C.E. for printing on paper. Usually made with porcelain. It was during the Song Dynasty in China innovated by a man named Bi Sheng. Bi Sheng was a commoner therefore nothing is known of the man, except for the fact that he conceived a way to make type and print them. He made clay models of each character and multiples of common simple characters so he could print them on the same page. He would bake the clay in order to harden the type for use. Bi Sheng did not have a press yet what he did was prepare a plate full of a resin and set his type on that. Once the page was ready he would heat the plate and the type would stick to the plate. After the end of the Song Dynasty into the Yuan Dynasty an official named Wang Zhen Innovated Bi Sheng’s type. He decided to make it out of wood. This was done around the 13th Century.  He not only changed the material which was previously thought unsuitable for type but speed the process up. He used a big round table that housed all the characters. It looked a little like this.

We think that the English language was labor intensive to make a type face, and the movable type, and to print it. We only have 26 letters to make, The Chinese character system has over 50,000 characters, now they of course more common characters than others so it can be narrowed down but that still is much more laborious than other languages. If you have trouble thinking about it think of the 50,000 characters something like words rather than letters. Each character can represent a word so that explains the plain magnitude of how many characters they have to make. After Wang Zhen made these innovations two centuries later a man named Hua Sui decided to use bronze for typesets rather than wood or ceramics. At this point in time Gutenberg has created the movable type printing press. Gutenberg did not event movable type but instead had grab other people’s inventions and innovated them into something that would be huge. Korea also made great strides in print technology before Gutenberg as well. In the 13th centaury The first book printed by metal type was created. It was called Jikji, it was a Korean Buddhist text. I hope you enjoyed my little history lesson of the origins of movable type.