What is the earliest book printed from cast-metal moveable type?

Most Westerners think the earliest printed book is the 42-line Gutenberg Bible.

If you are from East Asia, though, you think of Jikji.

How and when did moveable type first come about? What is the whole story?

What is the earliest book printed from cast-metal moveable type?

Most Westerners think the earliest printed book is the 42-line Gutenberg Bible.

If you are from East Asia, though, you think of Jikji.

How and when did moveable type first come about? What is the whole story?


Background image: Rob Watling


Early examples of printing East and West

In the grip of today’s digital revolution, it is important to delve into an earlier technological upheaval, an innovation of equal magnitude and lasting significance.

Johannes Gutenberg’s method of printing books from movable cast-metal type made a profound and pervasive impression on Western Europe when first introduced about 1455. The impact of East Asian woodblock printing (xylography) that preceded Gutenberg’s invention by 700 years is less well understood.

In East Asia, printing and the dissemination of printed works originated as early as 751 when the Korean scroll printed from woodblocks – the Pure Light Dharani Sutra – was printed from woodblocks on to a single sheet of paper.[1] East Asian printers carved the reverse image of a text onto wooden block, rubbed ink on the surface of the block, and then pressed a sheet of paper against the block. This technique, called xylography, allowed them to print individual sheets of paper, which they sewed into entire books. Xylography was the dominant print technology in China, Korea, and Japan at this time and had the advantage of requiring few tools (no machinery), and so was in widespread use.

The dharani are the oldest known printed texts in the world, preserved in Buddhist pagodas.

Replica of Dharani sutra in the Koren Culture Museum in Incheon Airport, South Korea. Image Source: Wikipedia

Movable type for book printing in East Asia evolved from three materials: wood, clay (which was little used), and ultimately a cast-metal system that was developed fully in Korea where the extraordinary cost of casting bronze type was borne by the government. This medium permitted quick printing so, for example, the state printing office could produce approved texts from metal type for rapid distribution to provincial officials who then ordered woodblocks to be cut for broader distribution. The xylographic woodblocks could then be preserved for later reprinting. The effectiveness of xylography is exemplified by the 13th century Tripitaka Koreana, an extensive collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto the face of 81,258 wooden printing blocks, that remain housed today in a light, airy building in the Haeinsa Monastery in southwestern Korea.[2] Even now, after 775 years, these woodblocks can be employed to print a crisp, complete reproduction of the Tripitaka.

Copy of a Tripitaka Koreana woodblock used to allow visitors to make an inked print of the woodblock.

The woodblock of Tripiṭaka Koreana in Haeinsa, Hapcheon, South Korea. Image Source: Wikipedia

The oldest surviving Korean cast-metal printing types have been carbon dated to between 798 and 1166. In Korea these bronze types were used in 1239 to print the Nammyeong Cheon Hwasangsong Jeungdoga, a poetical work written by a Chinese monk that only exists today in a later woodblock edition.[3] The oldest extant book printed from cast-metal type is the Jikji Simche Yojeol (Essential Passages Pointing Directly to the Mind).[4] This book, compiled by Master Baegun (1298 ~ 1374), recounts stories of venerated Buddhist Chan monks and was printed by Baegun’s students in Cheongju, Korea in 1377, shortly after his death. As noted by Wonhaeng, President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in 2020, the sole surviving copy of Jikji is now “in the safekeeping of the National Library of France [and] remains an essential cultural legacy of the Korean nation.”[5]


Biblia Latina, Mainz: Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, 1455 Image Source: The Morgan Library and Museum

The 42-line Gutenberg Bible was printed from cast-metal type in Mainz, Germany about 1455. The type casting process conventionally attributed to Gutenberg begins by carving a single type character on the end of a steel punch. This carved steel character is then “punched” into a softer copper matrix which is then justified and inserted into the base of an adjustable hand mold used to cast large numbers of individual lead-alloy type characters. In 2001, Paul Needham, then Scheide Librarian at Princeton University, and Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a 25-year-old Princeton physics graduate, carefully compared single letter forms (i.e., a lower case ‘i’) photographed from Gutenberg’s 1456 printing of the papal bull, Bulla Thurcorum. The differences observed in a single letter as it appeared in several places on the same page could not be satisfactorily explained given the relative uniformity typically achieved when casting type with the adjustable hand mold. Needham and Agüera y Arcas’s concluded that, “each physical piece of type was manufactured individually, and was not the outcome of a mass-reproduction process at all,” a clear break from centuries of tradition.[6] A New York Times article at the time asserted that Needham and Agüera y Arcas believed “Gutenberg employed a cruder printing method, sand casting, used at the time for making metal objects,” and that the punches did not represent whole letters but rather parts of the letter’s shape that could be combined to configure single letters.[7] One goal of the From Jikji to Gutenberg project is to address the uncertainty related to Gutenberg precise method of type casting

Both the 42-line Gutenberg Bible[8] and Jikji[9] were inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register in 2001 to mutually recognize their “outstanding universal value.”[10] Yet Jikji, printed over 70-years before the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, remains almost unknown in the West. Fully exploring these two archetypes will provide a better understanding of their historic origins.


[1] The Buddhist Dharani Sutra, called the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, is Korean National Treasure No. 126-6.

[2] Tripitaka Koreana is Korean National Treasure No. 32.

[3] Jeungdoga is Korean National Treasure No. 758. See: W. Hong, S. C. Lee, J. H. Park, G. Park, K. H. Sung, J. G. Lee, K. H. Nam. “Age Determination of the World’s Oldest Movable Metal Types Through Measuring the “Meog” [Ink] using AMS [Accelerator Mass Spectrometer].” Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 361 (2015): 580-585.

[4] Jikji is Korean National Treasure No. 1132.

[5] “Preface,” in Jikj, Essential Passages Pointing Directly to the Mind. Compiled by Ven. Baegun (1298-1374). Translated by Eun-su Cho and John Jorgensen 2nd ed. Seoul, Korea: The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2020.

[6] Blaise Aguera y Arcas. “Temporary Matrices and Elemental Punches in Gutenberg’s DK Type.” In Kristian Jensen, Incunabula and Their Readers: Printing, Selling and Using Books in the Fifteenth Century. London: British Library, 2003: 1-12; and, Blaise Agüera y Arcas. “Computational Analytical Bibliography.” Proceedings Bibliopolis Conference The Future History of the Book. The Hague: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, (November 2002): 1-12.

[7] Dinitia Smith. “Has History Been Too Generous to Gutenberg?” New York Times 27 January 2001: B9. Accessed 3 January 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/27/arts/has-history-been-too-generous-to-gutenberg.html

[8] UNESCO Memory of the World. 2001 Inscription for “42-line Gutenberg Bible, printed on vellum, and its contemporary documentary background.” Accessed 3 January 2021, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-3/42-line-gutenberg-bible-printed-on-vellum-and-its-contemporary-documentary-background/

[9] UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. 2001 Inscription for “Baegun hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol (vol.II), the second volume of “Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings.” Accessed 3 January 2021, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-1/baegun-hwasang-chorok-buljo-jikji-simche-yojeol-volii-the-second-volume-of-anthology-of-great-buddhist-priests-zen-teachings/

[10] UNESCO Memory of the World. “Programme Objectives.” accessed 6 Nov 2020, https://en.unesco.org/programme/mow