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The Origin of Chinese Books and Printing

Western bibliophiles might have heard of the clay tablets of the Sumerians, the papyrus scrolls of the Egyptians, and the parchment texts of the Greeks, but they probably have not heard of the bamboo or silk books of the Chinese. Many westerners will be surprised to know that Chinese people invented both paper and printing and that Gutenburg and his bibles are latecomers in the Chinese view of things.

At first, Chinese wrote on natural objects such as stones, bark, leaves, animal hides and bones, and even tortoise shells. But each of these natural objects had some disadvantages which hampered the recording function of written language. In the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) and the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) knowledge spread throughout China; many books were written; and many contending schools of thought were established. To meet the needs of the times, Chinese literati invented slip fascicles and silk books.

Slip fascicles were books made of bamboo or wooden slips. Chinese characters were written vertically from top to bottom on one side of the slips which were then arranged right to left and bound together with cord. The slips could then be rolled up into a fascicle. Silk, unlike the clumsy slip fascicles, was a much better material to be written on. Silk books were soft, light, and portable, but much more expensive than slip fascicles. In the end, neither slip fascicles nor silk books proved to be very suitable materials for the spread of knowledge or the long-term development of books. Both were soon replaced by books of paper.

Writing paper was first invented by Tsai Lun, an official of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220A.D). The use of paper for writing is recorded in Chinese histories as early as 105 A.D. Because of paper's suppleness and low cost, it soon became the predominant material used for making books. Although paper solved many problems previously encountered in the manufacture of books, Chinese scribes still had to painstakingly transcribe books by hand. The process was infinitely time-consuming and inconvenient.

The search for an alternative to transcription led to the next innovation in the history of Chinese books: printing. Chinese people began to use the techniques previously used for carving stone chops and steles to engrave wooden printing blocks. Block printing, which allowed for mass production of books, first appeared in the early years of the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and by the Sung dynasty (960-1280 A.D.) had completely transformed the publishing industry of China.

Then, sometime between 1041 A.D. and 1048 A.D., a Chinese craftsman named Pi Sheng invented movable type as a way to speed up the printing process and to allow for better artistic results. The subsequent invention of polychromatic printing towards the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368 A.D.) represented another quantum leap in printing technique. Thereafter, Chinese books were more visually striking than ever before.

Even with the invention of written characters, paper, and printing, the Chinese book would not be the same without the distinctive art of Chinese binding. Naturally, Chinese binding has itself evolved a great deal since the times when hemp strings were used to tie slip fascicles. Simplicity, convenience and practicality were above all the driving forces behind the evolution of a variety of Chinese binding styles: the scroll style, the sutra style, the butterfly style, the wrapped back style, and the stitched thread style. While most books in the Republic of China are now mechanically-bound paperback or hard cover editions, some photocopies of classical titles are still being bound in the old stitched thread style, which adds to their nostalgic appeal.

Today, the publishing process in the Republic of China, influenced by technology from Europe and the United States, is completely mechanized. Yet no matter how much the publishing technology changes, it is still based on the printing principles developed in China over thousands of years: making paper, setting the type, and applying ink to paper.

A tray of movable type.


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