Move over Gutenberg: Carved movable type from China

In the Western world, Johannes Gutenberg is widely celebrated for his invention of the movable type printing press. Gutenberg’s work certainly produced a major leap in the mechanization of the printing process, but movable type itself was invented four hundred years earlier by Bi Sheng who lived during China’s Northern Song Dynasty, just after the turn of the first millennium. He used both carved wood and fired clay to create his type, which he then temporarily fixed to an iron plate using resin and other glues.

Bi Sheng’s craft lives on in the work of a small number of wood carvers in China. At the IUFRO World Congress, the International Wood Culture Society invited Jianming Zou from the Ninghuan Cultural Center in Fujian Province to demonstrate and exhibit his work.

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 006The translator said that each block is hand-carved from walnut wood. The blocks were certainly hand-carved, but they did not look like walnut; the program notes indicated that pear and jujube are often used.

Unlike the limited number of graphemes in Latin alphabet, a complete collection of Chinese movable type includes thousands of logograms, 汉字. These displays show just a small selection:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 0012014-10-10 Chinese block print 004A large brush made from palm fibers is used to transfer ink to the frame of blocks:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 010Printing onto bamboo paper, with the help of a smaller brush:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 007Jianming Zou signs each printed sheet in red ink:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 011Would — wood — that all this craftsmanship was brought to you by hand-carved liquid crystals, illuminated by the glow of a polarized palm fire.

In moving away (for much of our writing at least) from direct sensory connection to paper, block, and ink, we’ve lost that beautiful congruence of botanical and zoological talents — wood, inks, our minds — and moved to something that makes the community of life harder to sense. Old, fossilized sunlight, turned to plastic, coal, and mining equipment is still “natural,” but those connections are mightily well hidden.

Take my word for it, I stamped my screen with a block of wood right here:





17 thoughts on “Move over Gutenberg: Carved movable type from China

  1. Anonymous

    Simply wonderful, David – thank you!

    “… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful…”

  2. Fountainpen

    Thank you, David.
    I still use my fountain pen/pens
    And yes! There is an organic
    I am thinking about trying a recipe
    for chokecherry ink!

  3. St Brigid Press

    YES!!! As a traditional (Western) letterpress printer using movable type and vintage presses, this is thrilling to see. In my reading, Korea also had a form of type long before Gutenberg (perhaps learned from the Chinese?). And yes, it is a deeply connective thing (for me, at least), to work with poetry and prose letter-by-letter and space-by-space, holding in my hand each word.

    Thanks so much.

  4. St Brigid Press

    By the way, David, do you know the work of Robert Bringhurst? He is a printer, linguist, poet, ecologist, essayist in Canada. If you haven’t already come across it, check out his mind-blowing book of essays, “The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology.”

          1. St Brigid Press

            It IS fascinating. In a further search I found that historically, in addition to maple and holly and boxwood, fruit-woods were also employed, particularly apple and cherry. The wood type in my collection was made between 1875 and 1910. The pieces are amazingly stable. Occasionally I need to “shim” a letter to bring it back up to the proper height for printing, but that is not often. And the pieces are almost never warped/curved. Here’s to strong trees and expert craftsmen!

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