Following on from some comments on his previous article about moveable metal type, which expressed some doubts as to the justification behind its hallowed status amongst Koreans, Matthew Jackson investigates further, and returns to his original conclusion that it is a unique and extraordinary contribution to world history.
1. Mechanized versus non-mechanized
To say that Korean moveable metal type was less revolutionary because it was not mechanized like the Gutenberg printing press would not be strictly correct. In the first place, Korea was not lacking in the technology to develop a mechanised printing press. This is clear from other inventions, such the automated, self-striking water clock made in the 15th century, the first of its kind in the world, which took modern experts more than 20 years to recreate. The Sokkuram Grotto demonstrates that a mastery of geometry and applied mathematics existed in the 8th century, long before the invention of the printing press, and were used to achieve levels of precision far beyond modern standards.
Though mechanized, one should bear in mind that Gutenberg’s press was in fact a very simple machine, and operated by hand. The automated printing press, operated by steam or electricity, appeared only after the Industrial Revolution some 300 years later.
The machine was adapted from an existing model used to make olive oil. It was mechanized primarily because the paper used was very thick and required pressure. In Korea, quality paper existed from the fifth century AD. By the time of the printing press, the paper was transparent and thin, although very durable, and suitable for calligraphy. There was no need to apply pressure – by placing paper upon the inked types, and then brushing it, the letters appeared with ease.
On the other hand, paper manufacturing began in Europe around the 13th century. The technique, which came through Asia and the Middle East, was at an early stage of development even during Gutenberg’s time, and the paper was thick. Hence, a machine was necessary.
2. Korea’s literary heritage and culture
Heungdeok, where the the jikji simche yojeol (left) was printed, was a small temple in the region of Cheong-ju. Although little more than a remote rural shrine situated far from the then capital of Korea, Kaesong, excavation of the site revealed that the temple had manufactured its own metal types, as well as other metal utensils required for Buddhist ceremonies.
The fact that a small temple made its own printing equipment shows that printing with metal type (or woodblocks) was very common in the Koryo period (918~1392).
In the Choson dynasty (1392~1897), because metal was generally reserved for the manufacture of weapons, ordinary citizens were forbidden to use the metal press. While official publications, or literature of particular import, continued to be printed using the metal type, ordinary writers had literature printed with moveable wooden type instead.
It was not a coincidence that Korea invented the metal type. Previous achievements had led up to it, as evidenced by the world’s oldest woodblock print, The Great Dharani Sutra of Undefiled Pure Radiance, and the world’s largest collection of woodblocks, the Tripitaka Koreana, which would reach more than twice the size of Ben Nevis, the highest point in UK – 1344 metres – if piled on top of one another.
A historical record from 1123 states that there were many rare and precious books in Korea, with 5,000 volumes exported each year. The library of Cambridge University, by comparison, was one of the largest in Europe in 1430, and the entire collection comprised 122 books.
A Song dynasty envoy reported that “in every village in Koryo, we heard people reciting books out loud, and the people of the country considered illiteracy a terrible disgrace”. The French Navy, which invaded Kanghwa Island in 1886, were taken aback when they saw that even the houses of peasants had books inside, and that both the standard of publishing and appreciation of literature were universally high.
An English scholar J. Gare observed, “While we had one Chaucher, Koryo had a great army of writers and literary figures”. A great corpus of literature survives to this day, including works from as far back as the Silla (BC 1C~935) and Koryo (918~1392) periods.
3. Societal impact of the printing press and comparisons with China
It could be said that the invention of the metal type in Korea did not have the same societal impact in Asia as the Gutenberg printing press did in Europe. With printing technology that was already widely available, however, many copies of sutras and literature had been printed and distributed, and the general level of literacy was high. Historical evidence indicates that printing was already widespread well before 1377 (the year of the jikji simche yojeol – Korea’s oldest surviving metal type print), and particularly after the beginning of the 15th century. The use of these types grew rapidly, so that during the 32 years of the reign of King Sejong, a contemporary of Gutenberg, several thousand print runs of 120 publications were made, covering history, agriculture, literature, jurisprudence and science. To make a simple comparison with Europe is not appropriate.
The key features of metal type were
- the technology used to cast the type itself;
- the use of oil-based ink, which lends itself well to metal type printing (water-based ink is used for woodblock printing); and
- with moveable type, any work could be printed using different combinations of individualized types, as opposed to engraving the entire contents of a page on to a woodblock panel.
Since its invention in the Koryo period, moveable metal type continued to evolve under King Taejong and Sejong of Choson, with many innovations in the form of new typefaces and settings. Up to the introduction of mechanized printing in the West towards the end of Choson dynasty, they continued to play a pivotal role in the publication and distribution of literature.
The invention of metal type in Korea was truly pioneering, and it cannot fairly be regarded as inferior to the Gutenberg press. To devalue its contribution by a simple comparison without the necessary contextual background is misleading. For these reasons, it seems that Korea’s literacy levels, history of active book publishing and advanced printing technology deserve more recognition.