Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Long Time Before Gutenberg

Gutenberg is credited with being the first European to use movable type in printing, and the first person (anywhere) to establish a printing press using movable type. This achievement is dated to 1439.

But the first book printed using movable metal type is thought to be the 백운화상초록불조직지심체요절 (aka Jikji Simche Yojeol), a Korean work that dates to July 1377. This is an anthology of the teachings of the the most revered Buddhist monks. The full title translates as The Monk Baegun's Anthology of the Great Priests' Teachings on Identification of the Buddha’s Spirit by the Practice of Seon. The work was in two volumes. The surviving copy, held by the National Library of France, contains only 38 sheets of the second volume.

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On 1 September 2010, a Korean academic announced that he had found the world's oldest movable metal print, which predates the Jikji Simche Yojeol. According to this story in The Chosun Ilbo [Daily News from Korea] the newly found letters "are possibly 138 years older."

Prof. Nam Kwon-heui of Kyungpook National University said, "After analyzing around 100 movable metal letters that were in the private collection of a Korean, we have confirmed that 12 of them were made in the early 13th century."

The owner of the movable type was quoted as saying he bought them around 10 years ago and was told they were discovered during Japan's occupation of Korea and that a Japanese collector smuggled them out of Korea after World War II.

The only other movable metal type presumed to date back to the Koryo Kingdom is in the National Museum of Korea and the Kaesong Museum of History, which have one sample each. The type used to print the "Jikji" has yet to be discovered.

Another article, by Claire Lee in The Korea Herald, quotes Nam:

"I have confirmed that these blocks are from the 13th century Goryeo Kingdom period, and had been used for the printing of Nammyeongcheonhwasangsongjeungdoga (Sermons of Buddhist Priest Nam Myeongcheon)," Nam said.

A copy of the same sermons printed using wooden blocks from the Goryeo Kingdom period, designated a national treasure, is currently owned by Samseong Museum of Publishing. Nam, after about three years of extensive research, confirmed that the newly found blocks and the print of the treasure match with one another. “I’d like to call the blocks ‘Jeungdoga-Ja,’ naming them after the treasure,” Nam said.

As Lee goes on to explain:

If the newly found relics are confirmed to be the world’s oldest movable metal type, they will rewrite history. However, researchers at the National Museum of Korea said it is difficult to confirm the year of origin of metal relics because of their lack of carbon substance which is crucial for the carbon dating process.

“It would possible to find which era they were from if the types were made out of wood,” she said under condition of anonimity. “But metals are diffirent and they are easily affected by rust as well.”

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Obviously, dating is an issue here. In The Korea Herald Nam is quoted as dating the type to "the 13th century" and in the The Chosun Ilbo it is claimed that they are from the "early 13th century." But the statement elsewhere in The Chosun Ilbo, that the "letters are possibly 138 years older," is clearly a kick at Gutenberg. These 138 years would date the type to the year 1239—exactly two centuries before Gutenberg's 1439. A bit too neat.

The bottom line is: movable metal printing type from anywhere in the 13th century is pretty amazing, and even if the type dates to 1299, this is still a long time before Gutenberg's 1439.

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