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.


Typography & The Gutenberg Bible

The history of graphic design begins with typography.  In our first sessions, we will trace the evolution of typeset from the fifteenth century to the Victorian Age.  We will examine the shift from orality to print and highlight the origins and development of the movable type system and what is perhaps the most iconic work in the age of the printed word, The Gutenberg Bible.

To prepare for these first sessions and the description of Johannes Gutenberg’s work and the activities related to the letterpress and its printers, students are expected to watch the following video, the BBC production The Machine that Made Us, starring Stephen Fry.


McGrady, Patrick, Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Irving. 2008. The machine that made us. New York: Filmakers Library.