movable type: immovable figura

Typecases (holders for individual pieces of movable type) from the China Printing Museum in Beijing, the largest printing museum in the world.  Although movable type was introduced into the Western world by Gutenberg, the process was invented in China centuries prior.

I visited the museum in July 2009 and there were three floors plus a huge warehouse of obsolete printing machines, incl. some massive newspaper offset ones. But there were no other visitors and they initially sent me up a pitch black staircase to the third floor. I used my feet to find the stairs in an eerie hesitant shuffle. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. A woman was assigned to quietly follow me through the museum.

Wooden movable type was first developed around 1040 AD by Bi Sheng(毕昇) (990–1051), as described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095), but was abandoned in favour of clay movable types due to the presence of wood grains and the unevenness of the wooden type after being soaked in ink. In 1298, Wang Zhen, a governmental official of Jingde, Anhui province, China, re-invented a method of making movable wooden types. He made more than 30,000 wooden movable types and printed 100 copies of Records of Jingde County (旌德县志), a book of more than 60,000 Chinese characters. Soon afterwards, he summarized his invention in his book A method of making moveable wooden types for printing books. Although the wooden type was more durable under the mechanical rigors of handling, repeated printing wore the character faces down, and the types could only be replaced by carving new pieces. This system was later enhanced by pressing wooden blocks into sand and casting metal types from the depression in copper, bronze, iron or tin. The set of wafer-like metal stamp types could be assembled to form pages, inked, and page impressions taken from rubbings on cloth or paper.

A particular difficulty posed the logistical problems of handling the several thousand characters whose command is required for full literacy in Chinese.

umbrellas entering the forbidden en masse (Beijing)


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