International Printing Museum

The Book In Asia: Part II

For Asian American Heritage month, we will be exploring the history of the book in Asia. We will dive into how papermaking, bookbinding, and printing varied between different regions and cultures.

An unbroken cast of Korean movable metal type in the shape it was molded from the Museum Collection

Last week, we looked into how Japan they drew inspiration from Chinese innovation to create its own distinctive methods of papermaking and bookbinding. Today we’ll be exploring book production in Korea and how it differs from processes we discussed in our two previous posts.

Like Japan, Korea was in contact with China and imported a number of their ideas about printing and papermaking as soon as they developed. For several centuries, Korea used woodblock printing and paper made out of hemp to produce written texts. This process was almost identical to what the Chinese were doing at the same time. Things began to change, however, during the Goryeo period when Korea went through an artistic golden age.

In 1234, a man named Choe Yun-ui was tasked with printing a lengthy Buddhist text that would have taken thousands of wooden blocks to reproduce. Choe found a way around this by creating moveable metal type. The final form of this metal type is practically identical to what Gutenberg created 200 years later but Choe’s method for producing the type is vastly different. Gutenberg produced his letters with a type mold, pouring molten metal into an opening where it would fill a matrix that had been indented into the shape of the letter being cast. The Korean method that Choe envisioned did not use a mold at all. Instead, a character would be carved into a piece of wood and then pressed into a bed of sand, where it could be filled with metal. To expedite the process, multiple characters would be pressed into the sand and connected with thin trenches. The freshly cast type looked a little like a tree when it was pulled out of the sand, each character connected by a metal branch. Once it had cooled, the characters could be broken off their branches and used individually.

While the Chinese had come up with the idea of moveable type before the Koreans, it gained more traction in Korea. Korea had a simplified alphabet called Hangul that was about the same size as the Roman alphabet, which made typecasting and typesetting much more feasible. In China there were too many characters for moveable type to be a practical alternative to woodblock printing. While China gets credit for creating the first printed book, the oldest surviving book printed with moveable metal type is a Buddhist text called the Jikji, which was produced in Korea in 1377.

During the Goryeo Dynasty, Korea also made considerable strides in their papermaking methods. They developed a type of paper called Hanji, which was made from the bark of a paper mulberry tree called Dak and tree sap. This type of paper is extremely durable– there are surviving examples of Hanji that have lasted for hundreds of years. As printing flourished during the Goryeo period, so did papermaking. Paper mulberry trees were planted all across the country to meet the demands of printers and for centuries the government nurtured the growth of the paper market.

In the 1800s, Western technology was introduced into Korea. It reshaped the fields of papermaking and printing to become more industrialized and less traditional, in the same way it had in Japan. However, like Japan, Korea still recognizes the importance of traditional printing and papermaking and celebrates these processes.

India is a huge country with a hybrid of different cultural traditions, which makes for a very complicated history. There are lots of different artistic styles based on region and religion. The Jains, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians that occupied the subcontinent all had differing beliefs, which led to wildly different iconography in the books they created. They each brought different methods of papermaking, printing, and bookbinding to the areas they occupied. Today, we’re going to touch on some of those different processes and how they were introduced to the country.

In ancient times, Indian books were made of long strips of palm leaves or birch bark then bound together like venetian blinds, with thread at the edges of the book linking each page to the next. These books were meant to be read one page at a time, but they could be unfurled into one long text, sort of like a scroll. Artisans would carve or write religious texts into the page and paint vibrant miniatures alongside these texts as illustrations. Bookbinding as we know it was introduced to India during the Middle Ages, when an Islamic kingdom called the Mughal Empire assumed power. Like books in the West, Islamic books have pages sewn into signatures and a hard cover. What makes them distinctive is the triangular flaps on the front cover that hold the book shut.

The Mughals also introduced papermaking to India. The legend is that Arabic invaders captured papermakers from China and forced them to share their secret craft. As these invaders moved from China into the Middle East, they spread their knowledge of papermaking wherever they settled. Although the story of the Chinese prisoners is probably more of a myth than a reality, the route papermaking took from Asia to the Middle East is pretty accurate. Islamic people coexisted with many different cultures, and they brought the traditions they learned to new territories, like India, as they migrated across the continent. Indo-Islamic papermakers, called Kagzi, took up residence in northern regions of India where they had access to fresh water, trade routes, and cooler climates. They made durable rag paper out of hemp fibers, rather than cotton or linen like Europeans. During the British Raj, this practice largely died out and industrial paper mills that used wood pulp became the norm in India.

While Indian bookbinding and papermaking were the result of centuries of cultural synthesis, the introduction of printing was more of a happy accident. In 1556, a group of Jesuits was traveling from Portugal to Abyssinia (now modern Ethiopia) with a printing press in tow and got detained in Goa, on the southwest coast of India. Shortly after, the head of the expedition passed away before the rest of the priests could resume their travels, so the printing press never left the region. The remaining Jesuits began teaching the locals about the art of printing and then created metal type in the native Indian script, Tamil. Unfortunately, by the 17th century missionaries began to make efforts to suppress indigenous languages, which put a halt to printing in the area. Printing really took off in India a century later when the British East India Company set up print shops in the region of Calcutta, but this was much more for the benefit of English colonists than existing Indian communities.

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