Tag Archives: Johannes Gutenberg

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: