The Story of Chinese Printing

This is the second post of a multi-part series about Chinese typography, from the history of Chinese characters, to printing, to digitisation.

When we talk about printing, what we're actually describing is a method of duplication for text and images. Before any mechanical methods were devised, the most straightforward method is copying by hand. Earliest books and manuscripts were handwritten by scribes trained in the art of language and writing.

In other words, transcription, which was the de facto method of duplication in Europe before printing. Medieval transcription culture blossomed during the Middle Ages as demand for texts increased. This is evidenced by the large collection of medieval manuscripts that are still preserved in various national museums, libraries and universities all across Europe.

But it seems that human beings generally have ingenuity in spades, and it was probably inevitable that we developed mechanical devices to aid our efforts.

Precursors to printing

The earliest forms of such devices are seals and stamps, which were almost universally used, from Ancient Greeks still in use today. Other techniques include ink squeezes for rubbings, and stencils.

According to Tsien, the carving and impressing of seals is considered one of the technical precursors of the invention of printing in China. Making a seal involves carving a mirror image of whatever you wanted to reproduce in relief on a material that was sturdy enough to carry this impression for multiple stampings.

Chinese have been using seals for the longest time, all the way back to the Shang dynasty. Seals could have been made in any reasonably hard material, from metals like bronze or silver to stone, jade, ivory or wood. They were usually used as proof of authentication or authority, with inscriptions of a person's name and title. Seals were often stamped with red ink on paper documents or books.

Rubbings are used to obtain “prints” from inscriptions on hard surfaces like stone, metal or bone and so on. Paper is moistened, then laid on top of the inscription and squeezed against the surface. Ink would then be applied on the drying paper with a pad. What resulted was the inscription in light on the dark ink applied all over the paper. This technique dates quite far back, to before the 6th century.

Stencils were created from sheets of thick paper perforated with needles to create the intended design to be duplicated. This technique can be traced even earlier than rubbings, supposedly all the way back to the 2nd century.

Woodblock printing

Transcription was also popular in the East, but as demand for books grew, the invention of printing technology was inevitable. The earliest mechanical printing method for duplication of texts was woodblock printing, invented in China during the Tang dynasty, one of the most prosperous eras in Chinese history between 618-907AD.

Xuanzhang (玄奘), who went to India on a pilgrimage to retrieve the Buddhist sutras, returned to China in 645AD, and proceeded to translate them, as well as print and distribute images of Samantabhadra(普贤菩萨)on huifeng paper(回锋纸).

The first complete printed book is probably the Diamond Sutra, dated 868AD. From the level of detail of those facial expressions and robes, we can see how advanced woodblock printing techniques had developed in China by that time.

The method of woodblock printing persisted all the way till the Qing dynasty and beyond. Woodblock printing was an integral part of Eastern printing culture, coexisting with and complementing moveable-type printing during the later years.

Woodblock printing was introduced to Europe through Russia, likely by the Mongols, who crusaded along the Silk Road to the West. Evidence of woodblock printing could be found in Europe by 1400, but at the time they were mostly crude cuts, serving as illustrations for new printed books.

Although block-printed books were produced in Europe, for example, the Speculum Humanae Salvationis and the Ars moriendi. They were largely used for thin volumes, and mostly religious texts like the Biblia pauperum.

Woodblock printing was never a major method for text duplication in Europe. By the time woodblock printing reached Europe, transcription infrastructure was very strongly established, and woodblock printing could not replace it.

Moveable type

Moveable type was too pioneered in China. Invented by an ordinary citizen, Bi Sheng (毕昇), during the Qingli (庆历) reign from 1041-1048. 毕昇's invention was recorded in the Dream Pool Essays (梦溪笔谈) by Shen Kuo (沈括), using ceramics to manufacture his types. The Chinese used a variety of other materials for making types, like clay, wood, bronze, tin and even lead.

Moveable-type printing had a number of advantages, mainly its speed and flexibility in typesetting, making it possible to print all types of books. Moveable types could also be shared between printers. Travelling craftsmen could just carry a load of wood types and set up wherever they could.

Korea adopted Bi Sheng's idea of moveable-type printing during the Kingdom of Goryeo and brought it to new heights during the Kingdom of Joseon. Moveable type developed in Korea almost out of necessity. The royal palace library had been destroyed in fires during 1126 and 1170. There was also the war in China between the Song and the Chin that made it impossible to import books.

Yi Seonggye, who founded the Joseon dynasty, wished to implement a new national policy, giving rise to the need to publish large numbers of books. The government set up Chuja-so or the Bureau of Type Casting, which casted hundreds and thousands of metal types, as well as official printing offices in every province.

The hallmark of Korean printing was the mass production of metal types, mostly bronze, by casting. This technique of casting was pioneered by the Goryeo craftsman, with cast metal types being in use before 1239. They had previously mastered a manufacturing technique via sand moulds. They also developed an ink which was less oily than the kind used for woodblock printing, which adhered much better to paper.

Records have shown that Choe Yun-ui (최윤의), a Korean civil minister, printed Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun (상정고금예문) in 1234. And the earliest moveable-type printed book still in existence today, is Jikji (직지), a Korean Buddhist text, dated 1377, three-quarters of a century before Gutenberg. And with the volume of types cast, the Koreans honed their techniques to levels far beyond that of other countries.

Korea's golden age of scientific progress took place during the reign of King Sejong from 1418-1450. The king held printing in high regard, pushing for the development of a new series of very thin and very small type, with his officials supporting and directing the endeavour.

New metal types were constantly being improved upon, with Gyemi types in 1403, Gyeongja types in 1420, Gabin types in 1434, Byeongjin types in 1436 and Gyeong-o types in 1450. Gabin types were seen as

However, moveable-type printing never really took off in China, and there are various reasons for this.

  1. Moveable type was widely used across Korea, but barely used at all in China.
  2. The Chinese printers also used a different method from the Koreans to manufacture types, choosing to engrave the types as opposed to casting them. Typesetting was challenging, and there were inking problems with these types.
  3. The choice to engrave types as opposed to casting them pushed up the manufacturing cost of types immensely as well.
  4. Furthermore, economies of scale only kicked in for large production runs, but printers were often wary of overstocking and often only printed a hundred copies per run. The resetting of type was troublesome and uneconomical when compared to woodblocks for such quantities.
  5. Given the lack of emphasis and development of moveable-type printing, the quality of prints left much to be desired as texts were littered with mistakes.
  6. Besides, with the long tradition of woodblock printing, the Chinese were exceptional at it. If any technical improvements were necessary for mass produced prints, they would probably have chosen to refine woodblock printing rather than replace it.

Over in Europe, by the mid-15th century, Gutenberg had printed his first book, Ars grammatica by Aelius Donatus, using moveable type. Even though he did not invent the idea of moveable type, he can be credited for making it work in Europe.

Moveable type became the de facto technique for printing in the West, and moveable type technology surged forward through the centuries since. Moveable type printing suited alphabetic languages very well, given there was only a small fixed set of types required to print entire books.


Songnan mengying lu written by Huang Shiquan, that Lithographic books were printed with Western stone plates with surfaces as smooth as mirrors. The writing was imaged onto the stone and then gum was applied to the stone. After the ink was rolled over the surface, the plates were done. By using lithography, thousands of leaves could be printed in one day. Moreover, strokes were clearly shown even those of the smallest characters.

Lithographic editions were far clearer and faster printed than woodblock printed editions but there were those who would not accept it.

While people were amazed by the fast and fine lithographic editions, some worried that they were not durable enough.

Lithography was introduced to Guangdong before Aloys Senefler's death. Chinese repository was a periodical run by a missionary, E. C. Bridgeman, which provides rich materials for the history around the Opium Wars. According to the Chinese repository, W. H. Medhurst had printed Chinese books by lithography in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) between 1830 and 1831. He then established a lithography printing house in Macao, then another in Guangzhou in 1832, both successful.

As early as 1820, Medhurst went to Penang in Malaysia with printing equipment. The next year he went to Batavia to evangelise. He helped popularise lithography in China. In London, he published China: its State and Prospects, which proides valuable information on the early dissemination of Western printing techniques in China.

Lithography was not widely used in China until 1880 as protestants were subject to many official restrictions around 1840 and had to print brochures of sermons by lithography in secret, apart from disciples, there was little chance for anyone to get to know about lithography, let alone to compare it with woodblock printing. Materials for lithographic printing, like stone plates and mimeograph ink, had to be imported. People paid no due attention to typography or lithography since they lacked information about the outside world in a closed China.

The first Chinese to acquire knowledge of lithography was a Christian, Qu Ya'ang, a student of the famous printer Liang Afa. He learnt lithography form the oldest son of Robert Morrison, John Robert Morrison and printed sermons on one page and illustrations on the next.

In the late Qing, some printing shops in Shanghai began to use multi-colour lithography. Collotype printing was invented by a German called Joseph Albert in 1869. A glass plate coated with a gelatin substrate is exposed to the daylight in contact with the negative so that the gelatin hardens and the subsequent drying produces reticulations which can hold ink.

The Chinese made concious choices. A society's willingness to accept the value of certain kinds of technology when presented with various options all at the same time, rather than sequentially, as happened in the West, is influenced by its own history and culture. Although Western printers surmounted multiple difficulties in creating serviceable early Chinese type fonts, their efforts were eventually thwarted by Chinese emphasis on the aesthetics of calligraphy in particular. As a result, from 1876 to 1905, Chinese visual sensibility led to major Chinese investments, not in moveable-type letterpress printing operations, but in lithographic ones.

On the one hand, lithography, the most important Western technological alternative to techniques of casting and setting type for use with printing presses, provided a culturally sensitive compromise between the limitations of both Chinese xylography and imported typography. On the other hand, after 1905, Chinese-designed type fonts, which could be harnessed to fast letterpriess printing presses, edged out both lithography and the old missionary fonts just in time for use in late Qing educational and revolutionary movements.

Lithographic publishing in Shanghai was in large part a reprint industry. Shanghai publishers sought to absorb not only the contents of woodblock book culture. In many areas they relied on long-established bookshops and routes of sale for distribution of texts. Shanghai lithographic publishers saw the advantages of using long-established networks to market their books. The networks covered the empire.

Printing is inevitably tied in with religion. First Jesuit emissaries reached Chinese shores in 1841 and decided to establish their headquarters near Shanghai and limit their activities to the Jiangnan region. They also bought land around the village of Zikawei, and due to its protected locations, it soon became a harbour for old and new Chinese Christians uprooted by famine, drought and rebellion.

The Jesuits placed great emphasis on teaching their members the Chinese language and sought ways to help recruit local helpers to further their cause. Building of educational insinuations became one of the central concerns of the new mission. Printing was a key component in the establishment of schools and trade workshops that provided instruction for orphans on the production of liturgical and devotional articles. The first Jesuit print shop was established at the orphanage of Caijiawan. It operated on a very small scale, relying on woodblocks carved by young apprentices under the supervision of Spanish Jesuit Juan Ferrer (範延佐) and his Chinese assistant Lu Bodu (陸伯都).

In 1872, the newly established Comité scientifique du Kiang-nan drafted a plan to turn Zikawei into a centre of scientific research, which included initiatives to push forward to development of printing. With sizeable funding from the committee, new production manager Yan Siyun introduced metal type for the printing of works in both Chinese and Western languages in 1874. Instruction in the new technology was supervised until 1876 by French Jesuit Casimir Hersant (翁壽祺). The first Chinese text printed with the new lead type was a slim lithurgic manual, the Preces tempore Missae recitandae (彌撒規程).

In 1876, Yan and Hersant enlisted the help of non-Christian printer Qiu Zi‘ang (邱子昂) to bring lithography to Zikawei. Although Lithography had been used to print Chinese texts from 1828 onward by Protestant missionaries, it was not widely used in China itself. Hershant and Qiu also experimented with the related process of collotype printing and enabled the print shop to create more sophisticated illustrations than traditional techniques allowed.

In 1900, the Imprimerie began to experiment with photo-engraving.

Chinese periodicals were mostly produced with imported technology, letterpress or lead-type printing. The goal of commercial publishers and missionaries who pioneered the use of the medium in China, was to reach and create large audiences. The ability to produce large print runs was a basic requirement.

The character of a newspaper seemed to ask for a printing technology based on moveable type. Even the Peking Gazette had been printed with moveable wooden type since the Ming dynasty. As opposed to woodblocks, matrices set with moveable type could be dismantled after use and the type used again. Publishers had no need to keep printing blocks for later reprints, as the periodical newspaper, even the court gazette was perceived to be ephemeral. One of the great advantages of woodblock printing, the possibility of easy reprinting, was of no use in periodical publishing.

The boom in lithographic technology that finally marginalised woodblock printing only came with the introduction of photo-lithography in the late 1870s.

The first Chinese-language paper to use lead type was the monthly Chinese Serial (遐邇貫珍), published between 1853 and 1856 by the London Missionary Society Press under editor James Legge. The Serial's equipment was crucial for the launching in 1874 of the Universal Circulating Herald (循環日報), the first Chinese-run daily in Hong Kong. The Chinese and Foreign Gazette (中外新報) used lithography. The Record of Things Heard and Seen from the East and the West, published in 1872 by American missionaries in Beijing was printed from woodblocks.

The casting of Chinese lead type was time-consuming, cumbersome, and so expensive that letterpress printing was unaffordable for most printers before the application of the electrotype process to Chinese printing by William Gamble in 1859.

The breakthrough of letter-press printing was not enough to develop a modern publishing industry, modern mechanised printing presses, paper that would not crumple when sent at high speed through the cylinders of the modern rotary presses and the social need for tens of thousands of newspapers daily, were crucial developments that needed to take place.

From 1860s onwards, most newspapers like the Shanghai Journal founded in 1872, were printed from lead type, most on traditional Chinese bamboo paper. Only the Shanghai News (上海新報) used Western paper, which could be printed on both sides. It was the first Shanghai newspaper to appear in modern broadsheet format, but it was pushed off the market by the Shanghai Journal. The smaller, folded format and conservative layout of the Journal would become the model for Chinese newspaper for the next three decades.

Only the reformers' journals, like Chinese Progress (時務報), that proliferated after 1895 preferred lithographic printing. Some journals that lacked access to new technologies were set in wooden moveable type or even printed from woodblocks.

The use of more durable lianshi paper after 1874 suggests that this was the time a new mechanised cylinder press, which could print one thousand sheets per hour, was in use.

The rising demand for newspapers and the import, largely from the West, of increasingly powerful printing machines crucial to faster production and higher volume. It was preceded by the transformation of the overall appearance of newspapers and demand for new ways of writing, which in turn led to the transformation of old text genres and the adoption of new ones. The short critique or editorial comment was imported from Japan.

An anonymous article on the editorial form that was originally published in the Waseda University Journal and translated into Chinese in the Eastern Times in January 1907. It celebrates the newspaper as the carrier of public opinion and assigns the task of both reflecting and guiding public opinion to those writing the daily editorial or lead article.

The author suggested that very few people actually read the editorial articles, but everybody loved to read the miscellaneous and more playful writings. The author proposed to move from the classical to the vernacular style and to abandon lengthy articles in favour of short comments.

It was said that Robert Morrison converted an engraver, Cai Gao, to Christianity in 1814, and in 1819 sent Cai Gao and William Milne to Malacca to establish a printing house to print The New and Old Testament in Chinese. It was the first book printed in Chinese with moveable type of European style. The book Liang Fa, however, doubted this claim, suggesting that Liang Afa was responsible for the block engraving and printing of Bibles.

Robert Morrison compiled A Dictionary of the Chinese language, which the British East India Company agreed to publish. A professional printer, P P. Thomas, was sent from London to China with printing machines, moveable types and other necessary equipment approximately 1814 and worked with several Chinese block-cutters on allows containing tin to cut moveable type. The dictionary was the first book printed by Western people with Chinese moveable type, but cut in a Chinese not Western way.

They cut two fonts of different sizes for the dictionary, 200,000 types for than 20,000 Chinese characters. But even more were needed for printing books in Chinese. Moreover, the characters looked rather exotic. Therefore, books had to be printed in both English and Chinese.

In the early nineteenth century, quite a few foreigners tried to make matrices for Chinese moveable type and made the following attempts: Divisible type Under the guidance of Sinologist I. Pauthier and with the help of several Chinese students in Paris, Marcellin Legrand, an expert in making moveable type in Paris, began to cut steel punches for a font of 2000 of the most frequently used Chinese characters. In order to reduce the number of types, he divided the phono-semantic compound characters into the radicals and roots and combined them later. Characters combined by the divisble types looked stiff and disproportionate which also caused much trouble for the compositors. In 1838, two fonts were available, one was developed by Marcellin Legrand in Paris and the other was developed by Samuel Dyer.

Marcellin Legrand reduced the number of matrices by thousands by dividing the charters into radicals and roots. More than 3000 matrices were cut including 214 for radicals and 1100 for roots. It was said that these radicals and roots could form 22,471 Chinese characters. The American Presbyterian Church showed great interest in the font and bought a set for more than $5000 in 1835.

In 1844, the font made by Marcellin Legrand was brought to Presbyterian Mission Press in Macao for the printing of religious books. A printing house was opened and run by Richard Cole, who had been running a newspaper in the USA before he was sent ot China. He began to make Chinese types and print iwth printing machines and matrices he brought with him. In addition to the 323 matrices, Cole brought a young Chinese who had learned printing in the United States, and began with only two printers and a compositor. Later, Richard Cole added more types to the font made by Dyer and moved to Ningbo in 1845, staying there until the end of 1847.

In 1847, A. Beyerhaus supervised research in large-size moveable type in response to a request from the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church in New York. The Berlin font was made in the same way as Legrand's font but was of a size between Dyer's and Legrand's.

Samuel Dyer joined the London Missionary Society in 1824 and became a priest in 1827. Later, he travelled to Malacca by sea and arrived in Penang in August. Besides learning the Chinese language, running a school and preaching, he was devoted to improving Chinese metal types. He arrived in Malacca in 1828 and prepared to print Chinese books. He returned to Malaaca at the beginning of 1831 and began to cast type for the printing house after he settled down there in 1835. He returned to Britain in 1839 and reached Calcutta at the end of 1841. He went to Hong Kong in 1843 ad visited Guangzhou as well. He died in Macao on his way back to Singapore.

In Dyer's opinion, Chinese metal types were needed to print Chinese and Western language dictionaires. Moreover, J. Marshman's experience showed printing with moveable type cost only a third as much as printing with woodblocks. But as the three fonts used in Macao, Malacca and Serampore in India in 1833 showed, this font was cut on hard metal and the type face was exotic and not elegant.

In 1833, Dyer cast a set of woodblocks. The plates were then sawed into single types. But the types were not elegant and durable. Because these types made of soft wood had to be recast after five or six years, the cost was much higher than had been expected. So he suggested that steel punches should be cut to strike copper matrices to reduce the cost. Before Dyer, the most famous type-founder, Figgins in London, had succeeded in making types by cutting steel punches but at a high price. Someone in India was also capable of making Chinese types perhaps with steel punches. So Dyer prepared woodblocks to be transported to Britain for cutting steel punches.

Before he set off for India, the idea occurred to him that in England, a variety of devices were cast in metal from engravings on wood, by means of stereotype, and why not cast metal types on woodblocks frequently used by Chinese? A publisher then showed him a machine which could cut the metal plates into types of the uniform size easily.

After his arrival in India, Dyer began the experiment. He had woodblocks engraved in Malacca, which were sent to Britain and successfully made into 700 types. He then calculated the charcters in books like Lunyu, Guoyu, works by Zhu Xi and religious materials of protestants, and found that the mass of the language was found to consist of only about 1200 characters in variety, the rest only occurred occasionally, but upon the whole about 13,000 to 14,000 in variety were required to constitute a complete font.

Dyer cut blocks for these 13,000 to 14,000 characters in Malacca, and a considerable portion already sent to England, to be stereotyped, and the type was expected in India as soon as possible. But the inconvenience of obtaining type in this way was very great, and it was an inconvenience that would always be experienced utile punches were obtained. It therefore was desirable to commence punch making, and this work may proceed while we are supplied by means of the blocks, and by the time we need a new fount it is hoped that the principal characters will all be cut in steel.

THe occasional characters may easily be supplied by cutting them upon the tin, until these also be cut in steel. Dyer picked out sample characters of frequent use to facilitate cutting steel punches.

The development of Chinese type started in the United States no later than the spring of 1834. Two fonts were made by casting the blocks used for printing religious materials in Chinese in Boston.