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The History of Printing in Asia According to Library of Congress Asian Collections – Part 1

(The following is a post by Ryan Wolfson-Ford, Southeast Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division. This is the first installment of a two-part series. Click here for part 2.)

Printing was invented over a millennium ago, around the year 700, in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907), before it spread across East Asia, Southeast Asia and the globe sparking a revolution in the dissemination of information in its wake. The Library’s collections contain some of the oldest surviving examples of this technology’s earliest history.

Indeed, the Library of Congress’ oldest example of printing is in fact held by the Asian Division. The oldest printed text in the division is the “Hyakumantō darani” 百萬塔陀羅尼 (The One Million Pagodas and Dharani Prayers), a Buddhist sutra printed by woodblocks in Japan sometime between 764 and 770, near the dawn of printing itself. According to Japanese historical accounts, the Empress Shōtoku (718-770) ordered one million copies of this text made, which likely could not have been produced in such a short period of time by hand. By this time, printing had already spread to neighboring countries like Japan and Korea from its origin-point in China.

Ancient unrolled scroll under glass next to a pagoda and box. This is the oldest Japanese language printed text in the Library of Congress.

Image of the oldest printed text held by the Library, the “Hyakumantō darani” 百萬塔陀羅尼 (The One Million Pagodas and Dharani Prayers). Japan, ca. 770. Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The oldest Chinese printed work held by the Asian Division is the “Yi qie ru lai xin mi mi quan shen she lie bao qie yin tuo luo ni jing: can juan” 一切如來心祕密全身舍利寶篋印陀羅尼經 : 殘卷, which dates to 975. One translation of its title is “Dharani on the Seal of the Casket of the Secret Whole-Body Relic of the Essence of All Buddhas.” Appropriately, the woodblock printed text describes the merit that will accrue to those who copy it. Appearing at the beginning of the new Song dynasty (960-1279), the text marks a time when printing was becoming more widespread within China but from which few printed texts survive to the present. In 1924, the text was found buried in the foundation of a famous Buddhist temple, the Thunder Peak Pagoda, in Hangzhou, after the temple had collapsed during a storm. Not surprisingly, Hangzhou was a major print center for centuries.

Both of these works demonstrate the major role Buddhism played in the origins and spread of the new technology. Devout Buddhists had long copied texts as a religious practice to make merit, but they invented printing as a way to accumulate merit faster. In China, the imperial bureaucracy also created a demand for large quantities of texts. The Song dynasty began printing Confucian classics and histories that were required reading for those hoping to pass exams to be selected as government officials. Another important element, paper, was also invented in China and used for writing from the first century. Paper became widely used in China in the third century and made books cheaper and more portable. In fact, paper was essential to the invention of printing because it was strong enough to withstand the printing process while still being soft and absorbent enough to take the ink.

Ancient unrolled Chinese scroll with mounted text fragment. This is the oldest Chinese language printed text in the Library of Congress.

Image of the first juan of the oldest Chinese-language printed text held by the Library, the “Yi qie ru lai xin mi mi quan shen she lie bao qie yin tuo luo ni jing: can juan” 一切如來心祕密全身舍利寶篋印[tuo]羅尼經 : 殘卷. China, 975. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

Printing technology continued to develop within China. During the Song dynasty moveable type printing was invented by Bi Sheng (972-1051) between 1041 and 1048 using earthenware type. This was not widely used within China itself, except for very large jobs, given the high upfront cost associated with it. Due to considerable number of characters used in the Chinese language and the relatively lower cost of the technology, wood- or metal- block printing remained the dominant technology. But moveable type would have a profound effect on the West when Johann Gutenberg introduced it to Europe more than four centuries later, where no more than 100 types were needed for the Latin alphabet compared to roughly 200,000 for Chinese.

It is still uncertain how exactly Chinese printing came to Europe although some scholars like Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien have suggested it may have been brought by Mongol armies in the 13th century. This would have involved a long and winding route in which printing reached several other peoples before reaching Europeans. In this view, moveable type printing traveled west from China along the Silk Road to the Uighurs at Turfan in the 11th century. The Mongols later conquered Turfan in the early 13th century and employed Uighurs in their armies as scribes, potentially bringing the technology along as their conquests reached Central Europe by the mid-13th century. Printed items like playing cards, religious images, block books and textiles appeared in Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and France by the 1380s.

Metal and wood Korean types in rows and columns on a grey surface. This includes the oldest metal moveable type in the Library of Congress.

Collection of 13th-century Korean metal and wood types, the “Hwalchabon” 一활자본, [1200z]. Korean Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Indeed, peoples who wrote using an alphabetic script were most likely to benefit from moveable type, like the Uighurs, who used a Sogdian alphabet, or the Koreans, who created the Hangul alphabet. In this regard, the Asian Division’s Korean Rare Book Collection holds examples of print type in a Chinese script from the 13th century made of brass, iron, copper and wood. It also has a 1421 edition of the earliest known Korean book printed by moveable type, the “Tongguk Yi Sang-guk chŏnjip” (The Complete Collection of Chancellor Lee Kyu-bo in the Koryo Dynasty), which was first printed in 1241. By doing so Koreans were the first to use metal moveable type in the 1200s. The Korean Rare Book Collection also holds a 1987 photographic reprint of the 1377 text “Chikchi” (also “Jikji”), which is one of the oldest extant printed texts produced using moveable type. And when the Hangul alphabet was introduced early in the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1897) it further spurred printing in Korea.

How printing came to Southeast Asia, the “land below the winds” on the trade routes between India and China, will be examined in part two. But the region was at the crossroads of printing technology. Some places near China that had already adapted a Chinese-style script first adopted printing from China, like Vietnam. Vietnamese scholars wrote in a script heavily influenced by Chinese, the Chữ Nôm script, which they modified from the Chinese script starting in the 13th century. The Southeast Asia Rare Book Collection holds a number of modern reprints of works produced in Nôm such as a history of Vietnam, composed in 1452, from its mythic origins to the beginning of the Lê dynasty (1428-1789) and a collection of poems by Lê Thánh Tông, one of the great kings of Vietnam. Nôm works continued to be printed in Vietnam well into the 19th century, examples of which include a collection of poems by the famous poet Ho Xuan Huong and the most famous work of Vietnamese literature, the “Tale of Kieu.” In 1918-1920, the French colonial École française d’Extrême-Orient donated several Nôm texts printed from the original woodblocks of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) to the Library. These include two 19th century texts: a gazetteer, the “Dại Nam Nhat Thong Chi” and an edition of a major chronicle of Vietnamese history, the “Dại Viet Su Ky Toan Thu.”

Page from a Vietnamese work showing individual characters arranged in vertical lines. Title of the work is outlined in red pencil.

Image of 19th century Vietnam gazetteer printed from the Nguyen palace woodblocks, the “Dại Nam Nhat Thong Chi,” [1886-1906]. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Title page of a Vietnamese work in characters with a red seal. This is one of the oldest Vietnamese language works printed by woodblocks.

Image of Vietnamese historical chronicle printed from the Nguyen palace woodblocks, the “Dại Viet Su Ky Toan Thu,” 1884. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

By the mid-19th century, and in the face of growing Western imperialism, traditional printing in China began to decline as newer printing technology from the West was gradually introduced. But Europeans also re-imported print technology to Southeast Asia in the 16th century, spreading the technology to new areas. This will be discussed in part two. While Europeans of the time mistakenly believed they had invented both paper and printing, the larger globally-connected story of printing has gradually come to light. New research continues to examine the global connections underlying the spread of this amazing technology.

Learn More About It:

Baldanza, Kathlene, “Publishing, Book Culture, and Reading Practices in Vietnam: The View from Thắng Nghiêm and Phổ Nhân Temples,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol 13, Issue 3, 2018.

Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, Paper and Printing, Joseph Needham (ed.) “Science and Civilisation in China,” Vol 5, Part 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

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