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Wooden movable-type printing preserved in Dongyuan village

Updated: September 2, 2020 L M S


A craftsman in Dongyuan village shows the wooden movable-type printing technique to a boy. [Photo/zj.zjol.com.cn]

The compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing are the "Four Great Inventions" of ancient China which are celebrated in Chinese culture for their historic significance. As early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Chinese invented block printing, in which characters are carved out to make a wood-block printing plate, which is then used to print text. Diamond Sutra, printed using the technique in the year of 868 and discovered at Dunhuang Cave in Northwest China in 1900, is the world's oldest printed book.

Block printing is a costly and time-consuming process, as each carved block can only be used for a specific page of a particular book and a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block. To overcome this, Bi Sheng (990-1051) invented movable-type printing during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Individual characters are carved on identical pieces of fine clay, which are then hardened by fire. The pieces of movable type can then be glued to an iron plate and easily detached. Each individual character can then be assembled to print a page and then rearranged as needed. When the printing is finished, the pieces are put away for future use.

Wooden type appeared in the early Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and was based on clay type. During the Yuan Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), most Chinese books and texts were published using wooden movable-type printing.

Chinese movable-type printing technology later spread to China's neighboring countries and to Europe. In the 1440s, the German Johann Gutenberg invented movable type made of metal.

Today, wooden movable-type printing is only practiced among a few dozen craftspeople in Dongyuan village, Rui'an city in East China's Zhejiang province, as the ancient village retains a proud family tradition of compiling clan genealogies and printing them using wooden movable-type. The printing technique, one of the oldest in the world, has been handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

In November 2010, "wooden movable-type printing of China" was inscribed by the UNESCO on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritages in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

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