The Oldest Book Printed with Movable Type is Not The Gutenberg Bible: Jikji, a Collection of Korean Buddhist Teachings, Predated It By 78 Years and It’s Now Digitized Online

The his­to­ry of the print­ed word is full of bib­li­o­graph­ic twists and turns, major his­tor­i­cal moments, and the sig­nif­i­cant print­ing of books now so obscure no one has read them since their pub­li­ca­tion. Most of us have only the sketchi­est notion of how mass-pro­duced print­ed books came into being—a few scat­tered dates and names. But every school­child can tell you the first book ever print­ed, and every­one knows the first words of that book: “In the begin­ning….”

The first Guten­berg Bible, print­ed in 1454 by Johannes Guten­berg, intro­duced the world to mov­able type, his­to­ry tells us. It is “uni­ver­sal­ly acknowl­edged as the most impor­tant of all print­ed books,” writes Mar­garet Leslie Davis, author of the recent­ly pub­lished The Lost Guten­berg: The Astound­ing Sto­ry of One Book’s Five-Hun­dred-Year Odyssey. In 1900, Mark Twain expressed the sen­ti­ment in a let­ter “com­ment­ing on the open­ing of the Guten­berg Muse­um,” writes M. Sophia New­man at Lithub. “What the world is to-day,” he declared, “good and bad, it owes to Guten­berg. Every­thing can be traced to this source.”

There is kind of an over­sim­pli­fied truth in the state­ment. The print­ed word (and the print­ed Bible, at that) did, in large part, deter­mine the course of Euro­pean his­to­ry, which, through empire, deter­mined the course of glob­al events after the “Guten­berg rev­o­lu­tion.” But there is anoth­er sto­ry of print entire­ly inde­pen­dent of book his­to­ry in Europe, one that also deter­mined world his­to­ry with the preser­va­tion of Bud­dhist, Chi­nese dynas­tic, and Islam­ic texts. And one that begins “before Johannes Guten­berg was even born,” New­man points out.

The old­est extant text ever print­ed with mov­able type pre­dates Guten­berg him­self (born in 1400) by 23 years, and pre­dates the print­ing of his Bible by 78 years. It is the Jikji, print­ed in Korea, a col­lec­tion of Bud­dhist teach­ings by Seon mas­ter Bae­gun and print­ed in mov­able type by his stu­dents Seok-chan and Dai­jam in 1377. (Seon is a Kore­an form of Chan or Zen Bud­dhism.) Only the sec­ond vol­ume of the print­ing has sur­vived, and you can see sev­er­al images from it here.

Impres­sive as this may be, the Jikji does not have the hon­or of being the first book print­ed with mov­able type, only the old­est sur­viv­ing exam­ple. The tech­nol­o­gy could go back two cen­turies ear­li­er. Mar­garet Davis nods to this his­to­ry, New­man con­cedes, writ­ing 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.” This is more than most pop­u­lar accounts of the print­ed word say on the mat­ter, but it’s still an inac­cu­rate and high­ly cur­so­ry sum­ma­ry of the evi­dence.

New­man her­self says quite a lot more. In essays at Lithub and Tri­cy­cle, she describes how print­ing tech­niques devel­oped in Asia and were tak­en up in Korea in the 1200s by the Goryeo dynasty, who com­mis­sioned a print­er named Choe Yun-ui to recon­struct a wood­block print of the mas­sive col­lec­tion of ancient Bud­dhists texts called the Tip­i­ta­ka after the Mon­gols burned the only Kore­an copy. By cast­ing “indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters in met­al” and arrang­ing them in a frame—the same process Guten­berg used—he was able to com­plete the project by 1250, 200 years before Gutenberg’s press.

This text, how­ev­er, did not sur­vive, nor did the count­less num­ber of oth­ers print­ed when the tech­nol­o­gy spread across the Mon­gol empire on the Silk Road and took root with the Mus­lim Uyghurs. It is pos­si­ble, though “no clear his­tor­i­cal evi­dence” yet sup­ports the con­tention, that mov­able type spread to Europe from Asia along trade routes. “If there was any con­nec­tion,” wrote Joseph Need­ham in Sci­ence and Civ­i­liza­tion in Chi­na, “in the spread of print­ing between Asia and the West, the Uyghurs, who used both block print­ing and mov­able type, had good oppor­tu­ni­ties to play an impor­tant role in this intro­duc­tion.”

With­out sur­viv­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, this ear­ly his­to­ry of print­ing in Asia relies on sec­ondary sources. But “the entire his­to­ry of the print­ing press” in Europe” is like­wise “rid­dled with gaps,” New­man writes. What we do know is that Jikji, a col­lec­tion of Kore­an Zen Bud­dhist teach­ings, is the world’s old­est extant book print­ed with mov­able type. The myth of Johannes Guten­berg as “a lone genius who trans­formed human cul­ture,” as Davis writes, “endures because the sweep of what fol­lowed is so vast that it feels almost myth­ic and needs an ori­gin sto­ry to match.” But this is one inven­tive indi­vid­ual in the his­to­ry of print­ing, not the orig­i­nal, god­like source of mov­able type.

Guten­berg makes sense as a con­ve­nient start­ing point for the growth and world­wide spread of cap­i­tal­ism and Euro­pean Chris­tian­i­ty. His inno­va­tion worked much faster than ear­li­er sys­tems, and oth­ers that devel­oped around the same time, in which frames were pressed by hand against the paper. Flows of new cap­i­tal enabled the rapid spread of his machine across Europe. The achieve­ment of the Guten­berg Bible is not dimin­ished by a fuller his­to­ry. But “what gets left out” of the usu­al sto­ry, as New­man tells us in great detail, “is star­tling­ly rich.”

“Only very recent­ly, most­ly in the last decade” has the long his­to­ry of print­ing in Asia been “acknowl­edged at all” in pop­u­lar cul­ture, though schol­ars in both the East and West have long known it. Korea has regard­ed Jikji “and oth­er ancient vol­umes as nation­al points of pride that rank among the most impor­tant of books.” Yet UNESCO only cer­ti­fied Jikji as the “old­est mov­able met­al type print­ing evi­dence” in 2001. The recog­ni­tion may be late in com­ing, but it mat­ters a great deal, nonethe­less. Learn much more about the his­to­ry, con­tent, and prove­nance of Jikji at this site cre­at­ed by “cyber diplo­mats” in Korea after UNESCO bestowed World Her­itage sta­tus on the book. And see a ful­ly dig­i­tized copy of the book here.

via Lithub

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The World’s Old­est Mul­ti­col­or Book, a 1633 Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy & Paint­ing Man­u­al, Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online

1,000+ His­toric Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books Dig­i­tized & Put Online by the Smith­son­ian: From the Edo & Meji Eras (1600–1912)

See How The Guten­berg Press Worked: Demon­stra­tion Shows the Old­est Func­tion­ing Guten­berg Press in Action

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • MrPete says:

    So,this arti­cle destroys a straw­man, and admits as much near the end.

    What Guten­berg actu­al­ly invent­ed with his press was
    * an effi­cient and effec­tive type­cast­ing sys­tem
    * a print­ng *machine* using his type sys­tem

    And yes, it used mov­able type.

    There are sol­id rea­sons his sys­tem rapid­ly led to a pro­lif­er­a­tion of print­ed books, while the ear­li­er Asian inven­tions did not.

  • Christer Volk says:

    It is worth not­ing, I think, that Gut­ten­berg then must have been a great inno­va­tor. An inven­tion becomes an innno­va­tion when suc­cess­ful­ly intro­duced to the mar­ket. And that sure­ly is no small achieve­ment for such a dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy!

  • Mike says:

    I think that was not the point of this arti­cle.

    The point is that type­cast­ing sys­tem PREDATES Guten­berg, and was wide­ly used in Asia. There are just no sur­viv­ing books from that peri­od.

    Guten­berg, on the oth­er hand holds full cred­it for being first that used type­cast print­ing in Europe, and start­ed print­ing books when time was ripe for their pro­lif­er­a­tion. I think that is an exam­ple of right tech­nol­o­gy applied under right cul­tur­al cir­cum­stances.

    Don’t be afraid to admit that some­body on the oth­er side of the world already knew about stuff Europe found out about much lat­er… Who took cred­it for their inven­tion is dif­fer­ent can of worms…

  • Veritas says:

    It’s so telling that you promi­nent­ly fea­tured a link to the pro­pogan­da web site for North Korea, where they pro­claim in a video that Guten­berg was a “mere met­al­work­er” who could not pos­si­bly have devel­oped a print­ing press by him­self. When your sources are not cred­i­ble that reflects very poor­ly on yours.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Good for you for read­ing crit­i­cal­ly. There are no such things as unbi­ased sources, as the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of print­ing his­to­ry in Asia shows. The infor­ma­tion in this arti­cle comes from the many oth­er oth­er sources quot­ed and linked in the text. Con­sult those too, and make up your own mind.

  • Jung says:

    Now, this is a very well his­tor­i­cal­ly known fact. There is a book that exists; why do you still not believe it? Look at the Tripika­ta Kore­ana, it was des­ig­nat­ed a UNESCO world her­itage. Asia was not a sav­age coun­try in the past as most peo­ple think. They had a very high stan­dard of liv­ing, made rock­et-pro­pelled arrows, and had oth­er great inno­va­tions. This is not North Kore­an pro­pa­gan­da. It is slow­ly being accept­ed by inter­na­tion­al soci­ety.

  • Adel Helvetia says:

    This is a rare and nice arti­cle which can prove forgery itself.

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