Printing and Society in China and the West

By Tsuen-Hsuin, Tsien | UNESCO Courier, July 1988 | Go to article overview
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Printing and Society in China and the West

Tsuen-Hsuin, Tsien, UNESCO Courier

Printing and society in China and the West

OF all the products from the ancient world, few can compare in significance with the Chinese inventions of paper and printing.

Paper was invented in China some time before the Christian era. From early in the second century AD its manufacture became improved, using new materials and superior techniques. By the third century it had become widely used in China itself and had begun to migrate across the Chinese borders; it reached the Western world only just prior to the modern age. Printing from wood blocks was first practised by the Chinese around 700 AD, and movable type was used several centuries earlier than Gutenberg. Even the indelible ink of lampblack, which has been manufactured in the West under the misnomer "Indian Ink", can be traced back to Antiquity in Chinese civilization. It was the introduction of these ingenious elements that made possible mass production of written records for wide circulation.

Paper was not invented expressly for writing, as has often been presumed. It was extensively used in China in the fine and decorative arts, at ceremonies and festivals, for business transactions and records, monetary credit and exchange, personal attire, household furnishings, sanitary and medical purposes, recreations and entertainments. It was not used for writing until perhaps early in the first century AD, and even then did not entirely replace the more cumbersome bamboo and wood slips as the chief materials for making books until the third century. But when it came, the use of paper enabled books to be cheaper and more portable, though their extensive production and wide distribution was not possible until the invention of printing.

There is a long history of pre-printing techniques in China, including the use of seals for stamping on clays and later on silk and paper, of stencils to duplicate designs on textiles and paper, and of the inked impressions taken from stone inscriptions. All these processes gradually led to more efficient methods of the mechanical multiplication of copies and to printing. Movable type was introduced by the middle of the eleventh century and multi-colour printing some time in or before the twelfth century. The movable type was first made of earthenware, but later various other materials, including wood, metal, and a variety of ceramics, were also adopted.

Because of the great number of characters in written Chinese, woodblock printing was used far more often than movable type for book production in China until recent times. Wood blocks were simpler and more economical, and could be stored easily and were readily available when a reprint was needed; movable type was preferred only for large-scale production of voluminous books. Nevertheless, both wood blocks and movable type have gradually given way, since the mid-nineteenth century, to the modern printing press.

The prerequisites for a useful invention included both the physical and the mental readiness for the event; besides a creative mind and a popular demand, proper materials and the essential basic techniques must be available. Since all the material facilities for the invention were present in Europe as well as in China, why did the invention occur in one civilization but not the other?

The early use of printing in China was chiefly due to the early invention of paper, the specialized use made of seals and rubbings for duplication, the greater need for mechanical aid in duplicating texts written in a complex ideographic script, the standardization of Confucian texts used for civil service examinations and, finally, the demand for great quantities of Buddhist scriptures which could not be met by hand-copying. In the West, paper was not introduced until a rather late date, seals were not used as duplication devices, rubbing was not known until fairly recently, while printers were restricted by craft unions or guilds.

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