So, Gutenberg Didn’t Actually Invent the Printing Press
On the Unsung Chinese and Korean History of Movable Type
Originally Published By M. Sophia Newman on Lit Hub
History is a mystery in which the whole story is often not front and center. Perspective matters. Why are specific events remembered as they are? How is the past used and how does it evolve? Where are the gaps? History is not just about the past; it speaks volumes to our present.
If you heard one book called “universally acknowledged as the most important of all printed books,” which do you expect it would be?
If you were Margaret Leslie Davis, the answer would be obvious. Davis’s The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey, released this March, begins with just that descriptor. It recounts the saga of a single copy of the Gutenberg Bible—one of the several surviving copies of the 450-year-old Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg, the putative inventor of the printing press, in one of his earliest projects—through a 20th-century journey from auction house to collector to laboratory to archive.
Davis quotes Mark Twain, who wrote, in 1900, a letter celebrating the opening of the Gutenberg Museum. For Davis, Twain’s words were “particularly apt.” “What the world is to-day,” Twain wrote, “good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source. . . .” Indeed, Gutenberg’s innovation has long been regarded an inflection point in human history—an innovation that opened the door to the Protestant Reformation, Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the advent of widespread education, and a thousand more changes that touch nearly everything we now know.
The only problem?
The universal acclaim is, in fact, not so universal—and Gutenberg himself is a, but not the, source of printing. Rather, key innovations in what would become revolutionary printing technology began in east Asia, with work done by Chinese nobles, Korean Buddhists, and the descendants of Genghis Khan—and, in a truth Davis acknowledges briefly, their work began several centuries before Johannes Gutenberg was even born.
In a traditional printing press, small metal pieces with raised backwards letters, known as movable type, are arranged in a frame, coated with ink, and applied to a piece of paper. Take the paper away, and it’s a printed page. Do this with however many pages make up a book, and there’s a printed copy. Do this many times, and swiftly printed, mass-produced books appear.
The printing press is often said to have been created by Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, around 1440 AD, and it began taking root in Europe in the 1450s with the printing of the aforementioned Bible. Books themselves had been present in Europe long before then, of course, but only in hand-copied volumes that were accessible mainly to members of the clergy. Access to mass-produced books revolutionized Europe in the late 1400s, with advancing literacy altering religion, politics, and lifestyles worldwide.
“What the world is to-day,” Twain wrote, “good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source.”
At least, this is how the story is rendered in most books, including, for the most part, The Lost Gutenberg. But a single sentence late in the book nods to a much longer story before that: “Movable type was an 11th-century Chinese invention, refined in Korea in 1230, before meeting conditions in Europe that would allow it to flourish—in Europe, in Gutenberg’s time.”
That sentence downplays and misstates what occurred.
The first overtures towards printing that began around roughly 800 AD, in China, where early printing techniques involving chiseling an entire page of text into a wood block backwards, applying ink, and printing pages by pressing them against the block. Around 971 AD, printers in Zhejiang, China, produced a print of a vast Buddhist canon called the Tripitaka with these carved woodblocks, using 130,000 blocks (one for each page). Later efforts would create early movable type—including the successful but inefficient use of ideograms chiseled in wood and a brief, abortive effort to create ceramic characters.
Meanwhile, imperial imports from China brought these innovations to Korean rulers called the Goryeo (the people for whom Korea is now named), who were crucial to the next steps in printing history. Their part of the story is heavy with innovation in the face of invasion.
First, in 1087 AD, a group of nomads called the Khitans attempted to invade the Korean peninsula. This prompted the Goryeo government to create its own Tripitaka with woodblock printing, perhaps with the aim of preserving Korean Buddhist identity against invaders. The attempt would be prescient; it preserved the concept and technique for later years, when more invaders eventually arrived. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan had created the largest empire in human history, which stretched from the Pacific coast of Asia west to Persia. After he died in 1227, his successor, Ögedei Khan, continued conquering, including gaining ground that Genghis Khan had never held. In 1231, Ögedei ordered the invasion of Korea, and in 1232, invading Mongol troops reached the capital. As part of their conquering, they burned the Korean copy of the Tripitaka to ash.
The Goryeo dynasty immediately recreated the book. This is thought to have been “as prayers to the power of Buddhas for the protection of the nation from the invading Mongols,” per a text by Thomas Christensen, but it was also done with the intention of preserving the dynasty’s culture. This was important; attacks by Mongols would continue for the next 28 years.
The Tripitaka reboot was scheduled to take Korean monks until 1251 AD to complete, and, meanwhile, the rulers began expanding into printing other books. In 1234 AD, they asked a civil minister named Choe Yun-ui to print a Buddhist text called The Prescribed Ritual Text of the Past and Present (Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun). But the lengthy book would have required an impossibly large number of woodblocks, so Choe came up with an alternative. Building on earlier Chinese attempts to create movable type, he adapted a method that had been used for minting bronze coins to cast 3-dimensional characters in metal. Then he arranged these pieces in a frame, coated them with ink, and used them to press sheets of paper. When he was done, he could reorganize the metal characters, eliminating the need to persistently chisel blocks. It was faster—to a certain extent. He completed the project in 1250 AD.
Perhaps it should be Choe Yun-ui whose name we remember, not Gutenberg’s.
It is important to recognize what this means. The innovation that Johannes Gutenberg is said to have created was small metal pieces with raised backwards letters, arranged in a frame, coated with ink, and pressed to a piece of paper, which allowed books to be printed more quickly. But Choe Yun-ui did that—and he did it 150 years before Gutenberg was even born.
Perhaps it should be Choe Yun-ui whose name we remember, not Gutenberg’s.
However, Korea’s printed books did not spread at a rapid pace, as Gutenberg’s books would 200 years later. Notably, Korea was under invasion, which hampered their ability to disseminate their innovation. In addition, Korean writing, then based closely on Chinese, used a large number of different characters, which made creating the metal pieces and assembling them into pages a slow process. Most importantly, Goryeo rulers intended most of its printing projects for the use of the nobility alone.
Nonetheless, it is possible that printing technology spread from East to West. Ögedei Khan, the Mongol leader, had a son named Kublai who had situated himself as a ruler in Beijing. Kublai Khan had access to Korean and Chinese printing technology, and he may have shared this knowledge with another grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulegu, who was then ruling the Persian part of the Mongol empire. This could have moved printing technologies from East Asia westward by thousands of miles. “Mongols just tended to take their technologies everywhere they go, and they become a part of local culture, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not,” Colgate University Asian history professor David Robinson explains.
To get from East Asia to Persia at that time, one traveled the Silk Road. In the middle of that route lay the homeland of the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group that had been recruited into the Mongol army long before. “If there was any connection in the spread of printing between Asia and the West,” the scholar Tsien Tsuen-Hsien wrote in Science and Civilization in China in 1985, “the Uyghurs who used both blocking printing and movable type had good opportunities to play an important role in this introduction.”
This is because, in the 13th century, Uyghurs were considered distinguished, learned people—the sort for whom printing might be a welcome innovation. They had also something no one else in printing had had up till then: an alphabet, a simple group of relatively few letters for writing every word one wished to say.
There was no explosion of printing in the Western Mongol empire. “There was no market, no need for the leaders to reach out to their subjects, no need to raise or invest in capital in a new industry,” the historian John Man points out in his book, The Gutenberg Revolution. Nonetheless, movable-type Uyghur-language prints have been discovered in the area, indicating the technology was used there.
Furthermore, the Mongols may have carried the technology not only through Uyghur and Persian territory, but into Europe, including Germany. The Mongol empire repeatedly invaded Europe from roughly 1000 to 1500 AD; that period saw the entry of enough Western Asian recruits and captives to bring the loanword horde from their Turkic languages into European ones. “Generally, if something is going from East Asia [to the west], it would be hard to imagine without the Mongols,” Christopher Atwood, a Central Eurasian Studies professor at Indiana University, said in an interview.
The fantastical idea that Gutenberg alone invented the printing press ignores an entire continent and several centuries of relevant efforts.
Eventually, early capitalists in Europe invested in Johannes Gutenberg’s business venture—the one that combined technology quite like the movable type innovated by Choe Yun-ui with a screw-threaded spiral mechanism from a wine or olive press to ratchet up printing to commercial speeds. That business took decades of his life to bring to fruition, forced him into bankruptcy, and led to court filings by investors who repeatedly sued him to get their money back. As Davis notes in The Lost Gutenberg, these records are the means by which we know Gutenberg and his Bible: “This most famous of books has origins that we know little about. The stories we tell about the man, and how the Bibles came to be, have been cobbled together from a fistful of legal and financial records, and centuries of dogged scholarly fill-in-the-blank.”
Indeed, the entire history of the printing press is riddled with gaps. Gutenberg did not tell his own story in documents created on the printing presses he built; to the best of modern knowledge, he did not leave any notes on his work at all. And if Gutenberg was reticent, the Mongols, their Uyghur compatriots, and Eastern Asia government heads were even more so.
But if doubts are natural, then the result we’ve made of them is not. The fantastical idea that Gutenberg alone invented the printing press ignores an entire continent and several centuries of relevant efforts and makes no effort to understand how or why technology might have spread. During a study of Gutenberg’s lettering techniques, computer programmer Blaise Agṻera y Arcas pointed out how strange this is: “The idea that a technology emerges fully formed at the beginning is nuts. Anyone who does technology knows that’s not how it works.”
To her credit, Davis notes the same, explaining it this way: “Perhaps the image of Johannes Gutenberg as a lone genius who transformed human culture endures because the sweep of what followed is so vast that it feels almost mythic and needs an origin story to match.”
But Davis, who was unavailable for an interview for this article, does little to correct the record in The Lost Gutenberg. She mentions China just a few times and Korea only once—and the Mongols, Uyghurs, and non-Christian aspects of printing history not at all.
Indeed, she never explains that the Gutenberg Bible is not universally acclaimed as the most important book in history. Nor are copies of the Bible the oldest books created with movable type that still exist today—although a reader could be forgiven for gathering that impression from The Lost Gutenberg.
Rather, the earliest extant movable-type-printed book is the Korean Baegun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeo (“The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings”). It dates to 1377 and has served as a starting point for scholarship on the origin of movable type.
Korea regards it and other ancient volumes as national points of pride that rank among the most important of books. But it is only very recently, mostly in the last decade, that their viewpoint and the Asian people who created printing technologies have begun to be acknowledged at all. Most people—including Davis, who declined an interview with the remark, “I’m afraid I can’t really add much further on the topic of ancient printing”—still don’t know the full story.