Movable Metal Type – another world-beating Korean technology

Detail of the movable type for the JikjiMatthew Jackson continues his series of features on treasures from Korea’s past.

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.

Inside the copy of the Jikji at University of Southern California
Inside the copy of the Jikji at University of Southern California

Jikji from the Biblioteque NationaleThe 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.

5 thoughts on “Movable Metal Type – another world-beating Korean technology

  1. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I think that this post is seriously lacking in not pointing out that, for all the supposed “literary culture of medieval Korea” (first I’ve heard of it), the Korean printing press was in fact very unpopular and was virtually forgotten about within a couple of centuries. In order, there is one minor and one major reason for that:

    1) Those of means and inclination to use the technology – the Yangban elite, and the only ones that were literate – were in fact quite against the invention, precisely because of its potential to extend education beyond themselves. For the same reason, they were against the 24 letter writing system of Hangul invented two centuries later, preferring to continue to use much harder to learn Chinese characters.

    2) Lacking Hangul then, the actual physical process of producing tens of thousands of movable type Chinese characters, and then actually finding among those the ones that were required? The combination meant that producing a simple page was a much longer, more cumbersome and tedious process than it ever was in Europe a few centuries later. Lacking a market as explained above too, then printers simply gave up.

    That’s a very simple look at the issues, but the gist is correct. So sorry to be blunt, but without the extra information the post reads as if it were almost half-finished, and, by giving the reader the impression that Korea did have them at the same time, begs the question of why the scientific and religious revolutions that were ushered in by the printing press in Europe were not replicated earlier in Korea. In short, the answer is because Koreans soon (deliberately) forgot about the invention!

  2. Not rude at all. It’s always good to have a well-argued different / supplementary perspective! And nice to know that people take the time to read the material here and care enough to want to engage. Keep it coming!

  3. James, thanks for the sanity check. Here is my understanding of the history of printing in Korea.

    1234: ‘Sangjong Kogum Yemun’ was printed
    1297: ‘Chongryang Tapsun Chongsimyo Beopmun’ was printed
    1377: ‘Jikji’ was printed (now at National Library of France)
    1390~1400: Several books printed using metal type between 1390~1400 (now in posession of Korean scholar Yi Sin-yong)
    1392: Choson Dynasty established. Many books publsihed during the Choson Dynasty have survived to this day.
    1403: Kyemi Font was made by the order of King Taejong.
    1418: Printing technology progressed dramatically during the reign of King Sejong.
    (1397~1450) During this time the printing press began to be used in Europe.

    Having checked, I’m not clear that the printing press was forgotten, as Korea continued to develop printing press throughout the Choson Dynasty, and this technology greatly contributed to the printing technology of China and Japan. Regarding the opposition of the yangban elite, this was definitely the case with Hangul. During the Koryo period, though, I understand that as Korea was a Buddhist country there was considerable support for the printing of sutras.
    Nice to discuss this with someone for a change!

  4. There is another reason the moveable metal type press never took off in Korea — because in addition to the metal type itself, another thing that made Gutenberg’s invention so useful and revolutionary is that it was mechanized, which allowed for large print runs. The Korean and Chinese printing presses never became mechanized, contributing to their smaller print runs, and lessening the impact of the inventions.

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