On Facebook I recently stumbled across a link to a piece on 3 Quarks Daily, which in turn was only a lede for a short essay on the London Review of Books entitled, The Oldest Printed Book in the World. This is an article about the Chinese Dunhuang Diamond Sūtrafrom the ninth century explaining its origin and how it came to be housed in the British Library. The article contains the following sentence:
A colophon at the end of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra scroll dates it to 868, nearly six centuries before the first Gutenberg Bible.
Although not stated explicitly the intention of this sentence seems to be, the Chinese invented book printing six hundred years before the Europeans. Although on a very superficial level this is true it is actually a case of comparing apples with pears, as the two books in question are printed with very different reproduction technologies. The Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra is a woodblock print, whereas the Gutenberg Bible is printed with movable type.
For woodblock printing the image to be printed is carved into a woodblock or rather the parts that are not to be printed are cut away with a knife or chisel. This is then inked and pressed onto the sheet of material, cloth or paper, to be printed. The used block produced by this difficult process can only be used to print this one page. With moveable type the individual pieces of type, or sorts, are composed into the image to be printed, inked and pressed into the sheet of material to be printed. When finished the sorts can be reused to compose a new page and so on. Once cut a set of woodblocks can only be used to print the same book over and over again. A full set of type can be continually reconfigured to print literally thousand of different books. This difference is important and the six hundred year gap throws up some very important and intriguing historical questions.
Central to these is the question of technological transfer. Woodblock printing was developed in East Asia sometime before the third century CE. The oldest fragments of printed cloth date to 220 CE. The oldest woodblock prints on paper date to the late seventh century CE. And as stated above to oldest extant woodblock printed book the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra dates to 868 CE. Although the Chinese invention of paper arrived in Spain via the Islamic Empire in the late eleventh century CE and crossed the Alps into Northern Europe in the late fourteenth century CE, woodblock printing does not appear to have accompanied it. Strangely European books printed with woodblocks, block books, apparently only appeared after Gutenberg had introduced printing with movable type in the second half of the fifteenth century. There are a very limited number of such books mostly dating from the 1460s and 1470s and printed in the Netherlands of Southern Germany.
Gutenberg was by no means the first to use moveable type. Around 1040 CE a Chinese inventor, Bi Sheng (990–1051) invented a form of moveable type with the pieces of type made of ceramics. Beyond a short description of his invention nothing more is known about it and nothing he might have printed has survived. This was followed in East Asia by various other forms of moveable type carved from wood or made of various metals. The oldest book printed with wooden movable type was Records of Jingde County printed by Wang Zhen in 1298. In 1313 he published an account of his invention A method of making moveable wooden types for printing books.
The oldest known book printed with metal moveable type is the two volume Jikji, a collection of excerpts from the analects of revered Buddhist monks, printed with metal type in Korea in 1377; that is at least seventy years before Gutenberg’s famous Bible. However, whereas 49 copies of Gutenberg’s Bible still exist, of which 21 are complete, only one copy of the second volume of the Jikji is still extant.
Even within Europe Gutenberg was not the first to use moveable type, with several people experimenting with varying system. However Gutenberg was the first to produce anything functional and in reality his greatest inventions were not so much moveable type as the printing press (he converted a wine press) and printing ink or to put it another way he didn’t just invent moveable type but the whole printing process.
Although extensive effort has been invested into the research on the topic, no evidence has been found of a technology transfer from East Asia to Europe and it is thought that Gutenberg’s was an independent (re)invention.
Although my account is itself only a sketch of the development of printing, both woodblock and moveable type ( I don’t even touch upon book (re)production before woodblock printing or after moveable type), my main argument is that the London Review of Books article in just making its invalid comparison between the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra and Gutenberg’s Bible creates an inadequate and distorted impression of a long and complex historical process; an impression that uninformed readers will take away with them. A mythical historical meme has been created “the first printed book is the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra and not the Gutenberg Bible” to replace the Eurocentric myth that Gutenberg invented movable type printing and his Bible is the earliest printed book. If writing short popular historical pieces for the general public we should avoid simplistic descriptions and thereby the risk of creating myths rather than transmitting real knowledge.