There are many definitions of printing. The one I have adopted is “a process in which ink is set on paper by physical or chemical means.” There are four principal methods by which this may be achieved: copper plate, in which the words are engraved on the metal and filled with ink; lithography, a chemical method using the repulsion between grease and water; xylography, or block printing, in which the subject is first carved on a wooden block, which is then coated with ink; and typography, or moveable type printing, in which a separate wooden block is carved for each character or letter.1

There is no dispute that block and moveable type printing were invented in China. The Cultural China Series, Ancient Chinese Inventions, explains its evolution:

Block printing was probably invented between the Sui and Tang dynasties, based on the technique of transferring texts and pictures cut in relief on seals and stone pillars to other surfaces that was developed in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. The invention of paper and improvement of ink led to the advance of block printing….

Movable type printing was then invented [by] Bi Sheng (c. 1051)…In his Mengxi Bitan (Dream Pool Essays), Shen Kuo writes about Bi’s moveable type printing…made of a mixture of clay and glue hardened by baking. He composed texts by placing the types side by side on an iron plate coated with a mixture of resin, wax, and paper ash. Gently heating this plate and pressing the types with a smooth plate to ensure they are on the same level, and then letting the plate cool, and the type was solidified. Once the impression had been made, the type could be detached by reheating the plate. Bi prepared two iron plates to be used in turn to speed up the whole printing process. He also prepared different numbers of types for characters according to their frequency of use in texts, and arranged them in an orderly way to facilitate composing. Shen noted that this technique was most efficient in printing several hundred or several thousand copies.

After Bi Sheng, other people invented types cut out of wood. In about 1313 Wang Zhen, an agronomist of the Yuan Dynasty, printed his work Nung Shu (Treatise on Agriculture) with movable wood types, and wrote about his innovation in an appendix to the treatise. He also invented horizontal compartmented cases that revolved about a vertical axis to permit easier handling of the type. Wang tested his technique, and printed in a month one hundred copies of the 60,000-character Jing doe Xianzhi (Jingde County Annals), which was quite a remarkable achievement at that time.2

The Development of Printing in the Early Ming Dynasty

According to Joseph Needham:

Ming printing was distinguished by the extended scope of its subject matter and by its technical innovations and artistic refinement. In contrast to that of previous periods, the printing under the Ming included not only the traditional works in classics, history, religion and literary collections but also such new subjects or fields as popular novels, music, industrial arts, accounts of ocean voyages, shipbuilding and scientific treatises from the West, which had never before been seen in print in China….

Ming printers introduced metal typography, improved the multicolour process of block printing, refined the woodcut for book illustrations and used xylography for facsimile reproductions of old editions.3

Needham also registered the monumental contributions of Zhu Di. Between 1405 and 1431, Zhu Di assembled a team of three thousand scholars to compile the Yongle Dadian, an encyclopedia of a scale and scope unparalleled in history. This gigantic work included a huge amount of information garnered from Zheng He’s voyages and included a total of 22,937 passages extracted from more than 7,000 titles from classics, history, philosophy, literature, religion, drama, industrial arts, and agriculture. It was a work of 50 million characters bound in 11,095 volumes, each sixteen inches high and ten inches wide. This massive endeavor was deposited in the Imperial Library in the Forbidden City when it was inaugurated in 1421.

It is generally accepted that moveable block printing reached Europe from China at about the same time that Zheng He’s ambassador reached Florence in 1434. There seem to be three principal contenders for the distinction of being the first European to use moveable block printing, the claimants being Laurens Janszoon Coster, Johannes Gutenberg, and an unknown printer in Venice or Florence.

Laurens Jonszoon Coster’s Claim

In the center of old Haarlem on the North Sea coast of Holland stands a substantial house just across the square from the Great Church. On its walls the curious may view this inscription:







(In sacred memory of typography, the preserver of all other arts, first invented here about the year 1440).4

The adherents of Coster, the subject of this inscription, say that he was walking in the woods between 1420 and 1440 when he cut bark from a tree and formed it into mirror images of letters, which he pinned together to print words on paper. His son-in-law helped him to experiment with different inks to improve the quality of the print. Next he carved out pictures and explained them in words. His first printed book was said to be Spieghel onzer Behoudenisse (Mirror of our salvation). The papers were printed on one side, and the blank sides were pasted together to form the page. Junius, centuries later, recounts what happened next: “The new invention thrived because of the readiness with which the people bought the novel product. Apprentices were taken on—the beginning of misfortune, for amongst them was a certain Johann…. This Johann, after he had learned the art of casting types and combining them—in fact the whole trade—took the first available opportunity of Christmas Eve, when everyone was in Church, to steal the whole type supply with the tools and all the equipment of his master.”5

The story continues that Johann went first to Amsterdam, then to Cologne, and finally to Mainz, where he opened a printing establishment. Gutenberg financed Johann and eventually acquired his business.

Gutenberg’s Claim

Gutenberg was some thirty years younger than Coster. He was born in 1398, of Frielo Gensfleisch (gooseflesh) and Elsa Gutenberg (good hill). In those days, sons could take their mother’s maiden name if there was a possibility of the name dying out.6

Gutenberg’s claim to primacy was carefully examined by Blaise Agüera y Arcas and Paul Needham of Princeton University. They have found by computer analysis that the Gutenberg Bible was not set from moveable type, nor were a dozen of Gutenberg’s other early books. If these scholars are correct, Gutenberg’s claim is demolished.7

The Venetian Claim

Here is a translation of the Venetian Senate decree of October 11, 1441 (prior to Gutenberg):

Whereas, the art and mystery of making cards and printed figures, which is in use at Venice has fallen to decay, and this is in consequence of the great quantity of printed playing cards and coloured figures, which are made outside Venice, to which evil it is necessary to apply some remedy in order that the said artists who are a great many in family, may find encouragement rather than foreigners: let it be ordained and established according to the petition that the said Masters have sought, that from this time on, no work of the said art that is printed or painted on cloth or paper—that is to say, altar pieces, or images, or playing cards or any other thing that may be made by the said art, either by painting or by printing—shall be allowed to be brought or imported…and [if so a fine of] thirty livres and twelve soldi, of which fine one third shall go to the State, one third to Giustizieri Vecci, to whom this affair is commited and one third to the accuser.8

The references above suggest that Venetians had, prior to 1441, been applying the art of printing and colored stenciling for many purposes. After 1441 Venice rapidly became Europe’s center of printing. By 1469, the German printer Johann von Speyer had printed an edition of 100 copies of Cicero’s Epistolae ad Familiares. By 1478, there were twenty-two printing firms operating in Venice, which had printed 72 editions. By 1518, more than 600 editions had been produced. By the turn of the century, this had expanded to 150 presses and 4,000 editions. At this time, books were being published in Latin, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, and Armenian. Venice’s low tax rates for foreign firms and the opportunities for profit offered by this great trading city contributed to Venice’s rise as printing capital of Europe.9

It stands to reason that Zheng He’s ambassadors would have made considerable efforts to impart knowledge of printing to Venice. Without printing, the Xuan De astronomical calendar would have had to be copied by hand. The stupid barbarians would inevitably have made mistakes, and those mistakes would have multiplied as copy succeeded copy. Not only would they mess up the calculations of latitude and longitude, but their copies of Chinese maps of the world would grow progressively more inaccurate. To avoid such confusion, it made sense to give the barbarians the knowledge of moveable type printing, along with the astronomical tables and maps. The Chinese could then be confident that Europeans could reach the Middle Kingdom to pay tribute—no further excuses!

The gift of moveable type proved to be of inestimable value apart from its use in cartography and ocean navigation. Printing helped Europeans control the spread of plague by disseminating instructions for combating it. Venice printed edicts in 1456 and 1457, Genoa in 1467, Milan in 1468. Others followed in Siena, Parma, Udine, and Cremona.10 Plague legislation for the poor came next. Prostitutes were outlawed in Perugia and Siena in 1485, and plague hospitals were set up. Printing was critical to public health.

The Renaissance was not only a revolution in art. It altered European man’s idea of his place in the universe, in astronomy, logic, geometry, architecture, engineering, mechanics, anatomy, philosophy, politics, warfare, and music. The printing of books did not produce new ideas. But the introduction of moveable type enabled revolutionary ideas to be spread the length and breadth of Europe.

Printing revolutionized the development of music, too. Musicians could now play together reading from the same score—precisely what the composer had written. The complex music pioneered by the Englishman Dunstable was made possible by the score he wrote for multiple voices. Copying such a score by hand would have been a nightmare. Johann Sebastian Bach completed Dunstable’s revolution.

Printing also advanced the voyages of discovery. Knowledge, including Chinese knowledge, could now be made available to numerous explorers. Subsequent explorers’ discoveries and exploits could in turn be publicized far and wide. And the romance of exploration fired the imaginations of the people. The Amadis of Gaul, relating the imagined adventures of the conquistadores of the New World, gripped public imagination with its tales of flaxen-haired, white-skinned virgins, rubies the size of pigeon’s eggs, and men sheathed from head to toe in gold.

Thanks to printing, shipwrights could build to a standard, proven design. Before printing, each ship had been constructed as a copy—a one-off experimental vessel dependent in part on the skill of the copier, a scribe. The firearms and cannons that armed the vessels could now also be made from printed designs that had been tried and tested—a ship master no longer needed to worry whether the barrels of his cannon were sufficiently thick and of suitable iron to avoid an explosion that would kill his own crew. Gun makers could now sell their designs. Ships’ captains could sail with printed ephemeris tables enabling them to determine latitude and longitude and their progress to the New World using up-to-date, standardized charts.

The skills of medieval Arab and Chinese doctors could now be disseminated worldwide. For example, by the eleventh century, Chinese doctors understood how to inoculate patients against smallpox. The first Chinese book on forensic medicine, including plague control, was published in 1247.

The extraordinary magnitude and generosity of Chinese gifts to the West made sense from the Chinese emperor’s viewpoint. If China was to remain a colossus on the world stage, the barbarians must be bribed and educated to continually render tribute. This voyage, however, proved to be the last. After that, China withdrew into self-imposed isolation. Europe, left to exploit China’s lavish gifts, soon became mistress of the world.

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