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In order for printing to be developed, there were two prerequisites which had to be in place: something to print on, and something to say. By the third century C.E. these prerequisites were present in China.

When writing developed in Mesopotamia, it was done on clay tablets. In China, the first evidence of writing is on oracle bones. However, neither clay nor animal bones are good surfaces for printing.

Paper, the material most frequently identified with printing today, is made from fibrous materials—such as linen, wood, cotton, straw—which are beaten into a pulp, then boiled with wood ash to soften the fibers. Finally, the pulp is washed and then spread on porous screens to dry.  

The process of making paper was first developed in China during the first century. However, paper was not initially viewed as a writing surface: it was initially used for clothing, for making small domestic objects, and as a wrapping material.  In 105 C.E., a scholar in the emperor’s court began to advocate that books be written on paper rather than on bamboo tablets or silk. With this, paper began to be used as a writing surface.

Books and other written materials can be produced without printing. However, when there is demand for multiple copies of written material, then printing is the logical solution. In China, this demand came from two primary sources.

In China, government officials were selected through an examination process. The exams were based on a series of books dealing with the teachings of Confucius. The exams were open to all who had the time and money to read and study. The Chinese government felt that copies of the Confucian texts should be made available to all who wished to study them. Thus there was a demand for multiple copies.

In addition to making copies of the Confucian works, the Chinese government also wanted to keep its bureaucrats informed about new discoveries and techniques in agriculture, engineering, and military science. Printing would make this possible.

At this same time, Buddhism was entering China and Buddhists felt that it was important to make copies of prayers and sacred texts available so that people could learn about this new religion. Printing was the key to the spread of Buddhism.

By 200 C.E., the Chinese were carving letters and images into wooden blocks. These would then be covered with ink and pressed against sheets of paper. This block printing process worked well and the blocks for a book would be retained in a printing family for several generations, with new copies being printed whenever there was a demand. It was not uncommon for tens of thousands of copies of a book to be produced in this manner.

In addition to government books and Buddhist texts, private printers produced many volumes of alchemy, poetry, and biographies. They also printed playing cards. There were also some experiments with incorporating color into the printing process.

Sometime between 1041 and 1048, the Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng (畢昇) developed the concept of moveable type. Pi Sheng mixed clay with glue to form moveable type. This was then hardened by baking it. The scientist Shen Kua (沈括) in his book Writings Beside the Meng Creek (夢溪筆談) describes the process:

His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.
While moveable type was an interesting innovation, the clay type was fragile and not suitable for large press runs. The moveable type, however, made the typesetting process much faster.

In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Wang Zhen (王禎), an official of the Yuan Dynasty, developed moveable type using wooden blocks instead of the clay. This improved the speed of typesetting and made larger press runs possible. To organize the typesetting process, the Chinese characters were organized by five different tones and according to rhyming (a standard official book of Chinese rhymes was used for this). Each character was also assigned a different number so that the typesetter could call out the number and an assistant would quickly select the correct type block. For rare and unusual characters, wood-cutters would simply make them on the spot.

In 1490, Hua Sui (華燧) created China’s first metal moveable type. Hua Sui had accumulated a fortune and decided to become a printer. He established bronze-type printing. Over a period of 20 years, he produced 15 different titles with this process. The process spread throughout China and was used by many different printers.

While moveable type made printing easier, the fact that the written Chinese language requires 40,000 separate characters tended to restrict its utility. While moveable type created a revolution when introduced in Europe, this was not the case in China.

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