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
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. 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.
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. Even now, after 775 years, these woodblocks can be employed to print a crisp, complete reproduction of the Tripitaka.
 The Buddhist Dharani Sutra, called the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, is Korean National Treasure No. 126-6.
 Tripitaka Koreana is Korean National Treasure No. 32.
 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.
 Jikji is Korean National Treasure No. 1132.
 “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.
 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.
 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
 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/
 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/