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The History of Printing in Asia According to Library of Congress Asian Collections – Part 2

(The following is a post by Ryan Wolfson-Ford, Southeast Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division. This is the second installment of a two-part series. Click here for part 1.)

Previously, part one of this blog examined the origins of printing in China and its introduction to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The early history of printing in Vietnam was facilitated by the fact that the Vietnamese Chữ Nôm script shared similarities with Chinese and that Vietnam had many cultural, linguistic and political connections to China that were less developed in other parts of Southeast Asia. These connections were due to the fact that Vietnam was ruled as a province of China for more than 1,000 years. Other places in the region did not receive printing technology from China, but from later European Christian missionaries who came with colonists and re-imported the technology to Asia in two phases. The first spanned the 16th to 18th centuries and was primarily led by Catholic clergy, while the second began in the 19th century when Protestants were more active. Both phases coincided with a time when the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and French colonized nearly all of Southeast Asia by 1900. Thus, several works featured in this blog are not found in the Asian Reading Room, but the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room.

Title page featuring an image of a Christian surrounded by religious symbols and bordering. Under the image is printed text.

Image of the digitized and freely available “Doctrina Christiana,” the oldest book in a Southeast Asian language printed in the region and held by the Library.. “Doctrina Christiana en lengua española y tagala…,” Manila, 1593. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The arrival of Catholic missionaries in the region takes us to the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room and the earliest extant printed book from Southeast Asia, the “Doctrina Christiana,” which was printed in the Philippines in 1593 (for a closer look at this work, check out “‘Doctrina Christiana’: More than Four-hundred Years of Filipino-American History”). Spain’s new colony, named after Prince Philip II, was to be used as a springboard for Christian missionary activities in China, and the Spanish established a printing house in the colony to publish missionary literature. When the Spanish first arrived in the Philippines, they depended on Chinese printers who were part of the diaspora community that developed alongside the burgeoning trade routes between Asia and the Americas. The “Doctrina Christiana” was printed using woodblocks carved by Chinese artisans. Thus, two technologies met and interacted in the Philippines: one Chinese, the other European. There was even a Chinese-language version of the text in addition to the bilingual edition in Spanish and Tagalog. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division also holds a related work from this same time period, “Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala,” which is the oldest work printed by a Filipino, Tomás Pinpin.

Title page featuring bordering followed by text and a crest on a page with some staining due to wear and aging of the text.

Image of the digitized and freely available “Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala,” the oldest book printed by a Southeast Asian and held by the Library. “Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala,” Bataan, 1610. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Asian Division’s oldest printed book in a Southeast Asian language is a 1677 Malay-Dutch bilingual text of Christian gospels, which appeared not long after the Dutch captured Melaka from the Portuguese in 1641. Some of the Library’s earliest printed texts in Southeast Asian languages are similarly bilingual dictionaries housed at Rare Books, like a 1589 Malay-Latin Dictionary included in a travel log from the first Dutch voyage to Southeast Asia and a 1776 Burmese-Latin dictionary. Vietnam provides an interesting case because it experienced both Chinese and Western printing technology. In 1651, Alexandre de Rhodes printed a Vietnamese-Latin dictionary in Rome written in a Romanized script called Quốc Ngữ (‘national language’ script) while, within Vietnam, Christianity spread via missionary tracts in the new script and Chữ Nôm. On the other hand, Vietnamese scholar-elites often printed their works in neighboring Guangdong province in China in Chữ Nôm, continuing intellectual ties long after Chinese rule formally ended.

Text featuring bordering above text arranged in columns: one for Latin and one for Vietnamese in a Romanized script. Page shows some wear.

Image of the digitized and freely available “Cathechismus pro ijs, qui volunt suscipere baptismum in octo dies diuisus” (Eight Days of Teachings for Those Who Wish to Receive Baptism), [1651?]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Despite this early influence, except in some places noted above, printing did not make much of an impact in Southeast Asia until the 19th century. This raises an interesting question: Why did countries neighboring China like Thailand, Laos, Burma or Cambodia not adopt printing earlier? In Laos there was an existing manuscript tradition embedded in the religious and monastic system. Even though the Lao used an abugida script that was appropriate for moveable type printing, they did not adopt it. This may have been because the manuscript tradition was cheaper, decentralized, and better suited to the geography and culture of Laos. Lower population densities, smaller government, and an easier script not necessitating mechanical reproduction were also factors. Most importantly, manuscripts were viewed as sacred texts.

In the Asian Division, there are a number of early 19th-century printed works in Southeast Asian languages, such as an 1839 Thai-language Old Testament and an 1829 New Testament in Javanese. Unlike earlier efforts based in Europe, Western printing gradually moved into the region, in places like Serampore in British India and Penang and Melaka in the British Straits Settlements. The London Missionary Society began printing in Melaka in 1815, and in Singapore in 1822. Printed in Singapore in 1840 by American missionary Alfred North in collaboration with Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, the “Sejarah Melayu” (Malay Annals) is the first printed edition of this major Malay chronicle. One of the few extant copies is held in the Asian Division’s Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection.

Christian missionaries brought printing to many areas of Southeast Asia previously untouched by the technology. To further their evangelizing, they printed religious tracts in vernacular languages, introducing printing technology for the first time to many societies. The Northern Thai tract “Letters from Sīlōm” is a unique example. Printed in 1892 by the Chiang Mai Mission Press, which was set up by American Presbyterian missionaries that year, it is perhaps the earliest extant printed work from Northern Thailand. But because it was printed in the Tham script, a religious script widely used in manuscripts, it likely reached much farther, into Laos as well as the Shan and Tai-Lue areas of Burma and China.

Title page featuring four lines of text in a non-Latin script arranged vertically. Page shows some creasing but otherwise in good condition.

Image of Chiang Mai Mission Press text printed in Northern Thailand in 1892. “Letters from Silom, Gift from foreign lands: Flower of (my) parents.” [Thailand] : [Chiang Mai Mission Press], 1892. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Lastly, 19th-century missionaries brought printing to some of Southeast Asia’s ethnic minorities. One can see this in the publication of Bibles such as an 1846 New Testament in Ngaju, one of the many Dayak languages. Other examples include an 1847 New Testament in Mon, an 1849 Gospel of Matthew in Karen, and an 1871 Gospel of Matthew in Shan. A new Protestant influence is evident in missionary efforts in Indonesia and Myanmar, all of which were linked to rising Western imperialism in the 19th century.

Interestingly, however, the Karen and some Dayak did not yet have a form of writing in the 19th century, unlike other ethnic minorities, like the Shan and Mon. Prior to the 19th century, writing had been limited to the lowland power centers of the Thai, Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese and Burmese, but after the missionaries introduced printing and newly devised scripts, this was no longer strictly the case. While linked to Western colonialism, missionary printing also decentralized writing, allowing it to spread to the margins of Southeast Asia.

Most interesting may be how different societies used printing technology in ways that subverted Western missionaries. In Thailand, a 39-volume set of the first Thai-language printing of the Theravada Buddhist Tripitaka was printed in 1893. King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910), who undertook many reforms in Thailand, presented a copy personally to the Library of Congress in 1904. Thai Buddhists responded to the challenge of Western missionaries by harnessing printing technology and using it to spread Buddhism with renewed vigor in the face of Christian missionizing. On the other hand, in the early 20th century, French authorities in colonial Vietnam adopted the Quốc Ngữ script, which is now the modern script of the Vietnamese language. The result was closer cultural connections to the West and higher literacy rates while younger generations of Vietnamese largely lost the ability to read the old Chinese-style script, Chữ Nôm.

When looking for the earliest Southeast Asian printed texts at the Library of Congress, one can see most are linked to Catholic and Protestant missionary activity. Less well-represented is the earlier but crucial printing technology, which spread directly from its origin-point in China. Both phases have indelibly marked Southeast Asia, just as printing has changed the course of human history. While printing spread by religious impulses, Christian or Buddhist, it was also linked to imperialism, whether Chinese or Western.

Learn More:

Chia, Lucille, “Chinese Books and Printing in the Early Spanish Philippines,” Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-chin Chang (eds.), “Chinese Circulations and Networks in Southeast Asia” (Duke University Press, 2011)

Gallop, Annabel Teh, “Early Malay Printing: an introduction to the British Library Collections,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol 63, No 1 (258), 1990.

Thongchai Winichakul, “Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation” (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997)

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