It was arguably the most far-reaching invention since the wheel. Whereas the wheel enabled greater ease in transporting people and physical objects, the invention of metal type printing enabled the speedy transportation of ideas.
The new technology was introduced in Korea 200 years before Gutenberg. This appears from a record dating from the Mongol invasion of 1234, which tells us that the text ‘Sangjong Kogum Yemun’ was republished in that year using metal type.
The oldest surviving text printed with metal type is the second volume of Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol (known as Jikji), printed in 1377 (78 years before Gutenberg’s press). It later fell into the hands of a French collector, and is currently kept in the National Library of France (detail left).
It is no accident that the invention of moveable metal type took place in Korea. If demand for the mass printing of bibles was the primary stimulus for Gutenberg, the quasi-religious devotion of Koreans to education and literature was behind the early development of printing technology, which began with the invention of woodblock print.
The following extract from a Song Chinese officer’s journal illustrates the literary culture of medieval Korea:
In every street and village, you will find both public and private schools, where the children of commoners and those unmarried learn literature from a teacher. Even children of a very young age are taught by village teachers. It is a truly commendable state of affairs.
Foreign visitors in subsequent ages, including the French and the British, were also struck by the unusual prominence of books in Korean society, which could be found in the hut of the lowliest peasant.