One of China’s most important contributions to civilization was the invention of printing, a revolutionary development that took place in the Eighth Century, some 700 years before it appeared in Europe. Made possible by two other Chinese inventions, paper and ink, printing was at first largely confined to copying Buddhist scriptures. But within 200 years it was being used for all kinds of works, from official histories to classical texts, increasing literacy and radically transforming Chinese society. Despite the complex changes this early printing wrought, the method itself was ingeniously simple, and is still sometimes used in China today.
A Printer’s tools (from top): paste, a rubbing pad, an ink pan, an engraving knife and brushes. (Drawings by Ed Young)
The earliest method of Chinese printing involved the use of wooden blocks, on which a text was carved in raised symbols; these symbols were then inked so an impression of them could be transferred to paper. Sometimes printers carved individual characters on single blocks, assembling them to form the text. Thus the same block could be used again and again, but this advantage was limited because early Chinese writing had thousands of symbols, requiring printers to hunt through endless racks of type for each character.
In the long run, printers found it quicker and easier to carve an entire page of text on a single wooden block-the process illustrated here. First an expert calligrapher formed the characters with a brush and ink on translucent paper. Next, a slab of soft wood was covered with rice paste and the paper was placed with its inked side down on the slab to prepare for the carving process.
While the rice paste held the paper to the wooden block, a block cutter rubbed the back of the paper with a rounded, cloth-covered pad. This caused the wet ink on the paper to stain the wood beneath. The paper was then removed and a sharp engraving tool was used to cut away all of the surface of the wooden block not covered with ink, leaving the characters as raised wood. (If the printer made a slight mistake, he simply shaped a small piece of soft wood and glued it to the block, correcting his error.)
When the block was ready for printing, the workman inked the raised characters with a brush. The best ink was made of gum mixed with lampblack, the soot given off by burning oil; it produced a sharp impression and was almost indelible. Indeed, texts have been found which have been exposed to water for so long that the paper has become petrified, but the ink has been scarcely changed at all.
Once the carved block had been inked, the actual printing began. A sheet of paper, made from rags, bark or hemp, was carefully placed on top of the raised characters. Then the printer took the brush that had been used to apply the ink; on the opposite end of the handle there was a dry brush, which the printer ran lightly across the paper. This gentle pressure was sufficient to transfer the characters to the page, which was immediately peeled off the block and set aside to dry. Eventually the printed sheets were sewn together in a book. Although the actual printing was completely done by hand, a skilled craftsman could run off as many as 2,000 pages in a single day.
The process, simple as it was, had a lasting impact on Chinese society, as it did later in the West. Books were no longer the privilege of the wealthy, but became a door to education and advancement for anyone who could learn to read.