Movable type before Gutenberg
July 9, 2019 2:43 PM   Subscribe

 
If Gutenberg didn't know about the Korean use of movable type, then it would be reasonable to say that he independently invented the idea (in the way that Newton and Leibniz both independently discovered calculus). And while the article says that it is possible that the idea made its way to Mainz through the Mongol empire, it appears too tenuous to take for granted. So we don't know whether Gutenberg independently invented movable type in a burst of inspiration or picked up the idea from an Uyghur artefact he may have seen somewhere.
posted by acb at 3:07 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


This is my favorite printing fact. "Gutenberg, 1439, movable type" was drilled into a lot of students, and for a certain type of person bringing that into question is a nice shortcut to questioning other things.

Every time I see an article like this I wish they talked more about the impacts and response in Korea and China. I want a source book. Moments of technological change like this provide such great insight.

I'm not super convinced by the Mongol theory. It sounds like an interesting theory but one where the evidence is that the theory is interesting. Gutenberg having the right skills and an inventive nature is another good theory. The Uyghur having movable type is not something I knew, but then again wikipedia is saying something about interstitial Chinese characters pointing towards it being printed in China (whatever "China" means at that point, IDK).
posted by tychotesla at 3:21 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


"Independently invented multiple times" seems like the mostly likely true version.
posted by Chrysostom at 3:32 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Printing press and movable type are distinct things. Type generally requires a press but the press can exist in a variety of forms and uses. I've done hell of a lot of both.
posted by blaneyphoto at 3:45 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


This is a combination of a much-needed correction to the default way of thinking about the history of printing, and some pretty tendentious handwaving about a Chinese influence on Gutenberg. The Mongols didn’t invade Mainz, and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that this wasn’t a case of independent discovery. I think there’s a very strong argument that movable type printing in Asia did not have the same impact on culture and circulation of knowledge that it did in Europe and that it’s not at all unreasonable to link that impact to Gutenberg, even though his implementation of it was later.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:47 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


The article mentions that, you know, being at war for a generation definitely hindered the spread of the Korean movable-metal type invention.

The other hitch in their giddyup was arguably that the Korean writing system of hangul was only invented a couple of centuries later. You need thousands of unique pieces of type for Chinese (whose writing system the Koreans used), whereas hangul (like other alphabetic writing systems, like the one we're using right now) really only needs a few dozen pieces of type that can get recombined in oodles of ways. (And, okay, STILL a bunch of Chinese characters for historical reasons I'm not qualified to go into, but not thousands).
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 4:03 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Maybe someone here knows: were there any Chinese-character movable type systems where you could construct a complex character out of its individual elements?
posted by trig at 4:29 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I forget the context, but remember stumbling across the story of Bi Sheng, who invented porcelain movable type about 1000 years ago.

In general, I'm kind of fascinated by such "older than you think" historical facts, like the fax machine (early version in commercial use in 1865, etc.). I read a trade paperback listing several of these about 15 years ago (or maybe earlier than that? :-) but can't find it online.
posted by kurumi at 4:38 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Really tired of this score-card, national one-upmanship version of history, and the profound misunderstanding of the nature of invention that goes with it.

Reminds me of (I think Douglas Adams?): "Lord, Lord, Lord, what have you done for me recently?" ... And of course, that's not even the point. Invention is a gift to all of humanity, it's the positive change that follows, or it's nothing.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 4:53 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Inventions are named after (or credited to) the last person who invents them, not the first.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:06 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Gutenberg, 1439, movable type
Gutenberg's apprentice, 1439¼, first printing of “𝕭𝖚𝖙𝖙𝖘 𝖑𝖔𝖑” while undersupervised.
posted by scruss at 5:19 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Gutenberg had to invent a lot of things to produce movable type printing at a productive scale, but he also had two decades between his first recorded mention of his idea and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, as well as contemporaries also developing movable type. Gutenberg was unlikely to have worked in isolation, and he had resources nearer to him, and more plausibly had access to those and than to artifacts from an invasion that had ended over a century before he was born.

None of this discredits the printers in Korea and China, whose work deserves more recognition in the west (I'm currently falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, thanks to this). The problem here is the link between them and European inventors, which needs something better than this essay that uses the words "could" and "might" quite a bit (my absence of evidence proves nothing; the essay might be right despite itself, but the essay doesn't make the case it needs to). The technology of movable type did not replace carved block printing in East Asia in the way that it did in Europe, so Gutenberg won his place in history not necessarily by being the first to invent something (regardless of whether he did it all himself) but by being the person whose work had the greatest effect.
posted by ardgedee at 5:24 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


The author doesn't seem to realise that transfer of technology doesn't imply that an engineer familiar with the technique travelled somewhere and said "Look, this is how it's done". Someone already familiar with the idea of printing woodblocks could just look at a typeset page and go "Oh, look, they did this with lots of little woodblocks." It's much more likely that a printed page was brought as a souvenir or novelty to Europe than that printing was brought by an underground confederacy of Mongol printers anxious to disseminate their craft.

Once the idea was there - either because Gutenberg dreamed it up or because he knew of a printed page - it still took years for him to develop an appropriate printing ink and printing mechanism. Movable type sounds like a cleverer idea, but that's because the hard work required for implementing the idea can't be reduced to a couple of words.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:46 PM on July 9


Stigler's Law strikes again?
posted by pompomtom at 6:10 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


It's not unlikely that they both invented it. After all the automobile, the electronic television, and even USB were all invented in unison.
posted by dances with hamsters at 6:55 PM on July 9


Movable type without reliable paper isn't much use. Gutenberg just happened to be around when paper mills were establishing in Europe.
posted by scruss at 7:30 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


For the printing press, it was steam engine time.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:22 AM on July 10


It's not really who invented what first - and it's a rare invention that just happens out of the blue in just one place - but what happens next and why that's really interesting. Lockheed Martin invented modern stealth technology - but it was based on a Russian mathematical paper published openly because it was seen as purely theoretical and not capable of practical realisation. Ditto the cavity magnetron invented by Randall and Boot in the UK which revolutionised radar in WWII - and it did give the Allies a huge advantage - but magnetrons had been known in Germany and elsewhere since before the war, with a lineage going back to the early 1900s. They were just developed in different ways for different purposes - test equipment, etc - and the dice could have fallen in very different ways.

Would the moveable type printing press have had the impact it did in the West if it didn't coincide with the advent of Protestantism? What would have happened if it had been taken up with similar alacrity in the Islamic world, instead of being marginalised? What if the Soviet Internet, planned since the 1950s, had happened instead of being deemed incompatible with centralised control?

This is what matters, what's much more interesting, not the creation myths that are so often subsumed into a Who's The Cleverest Nation subtext.
posted by Devonian at 1:08 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I haven’t hit upon the correct search terms to google, but if I recall correctly, there were descriptions of Chinese printing techniques in travel accounts by medieval European travelers to China. Ideas are easy to carry long distances.

Incredibly little is known about Gutenberg and his technique. That the idea or inspiration or even the technique itself derives ultimately from East Asia is more plausible than many hypotheses (e.g. the theory of the Dutch origin of movable type).
posted by Kattullus at 2:48 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


The Uyghur connection is interesting, because Uyghur writing was alphabetic and thus more compatible with movable-type printing. For illustrations of dug-up type fragments, see Shi Jinbo 史金波 and Yasen Wushou’er 雅森吾守爾, Zhongguo huozi yinshuashu de faming he zaoqi chuanbo— Xixia he huihuer huozi yinshuashu yanjiu 中國活字印刷術的發明和早期傳播 一一 西夏和回鶻活字印刷術研究 (On the invention and early transmission of movable type printing in China: Researches into Tangut and Uyghur movable type printing) . Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2000. Economic and mathematical reasons deferred the use of movable type, especially in metal, in China until the age of coal and steam.
But most of all, a technology will be adopted or not because of social conditions. Here's a comparison made on that basis. A Chinese scholar in contact with Jesuit missionaries argued that the disadvantages of woodblock printing were precisely that it was cheap, low-tech, decentralized, and impossible to control. A printing press was expensive and required specialized labor. It tied up a lot of capital and centralized production in a few sites, making it more amenable to control by political authorities. Yang saw in this a far more effective means of controlling the diffusion of ideas than the hopeless game of catch-up between decentralized or anonymous woodblock printers and the Ming censors. That is why, said Yang, in Europe you don't have the differences of opinion that plague China; we should change to their system and quell dissent at the source. (Ha ha, Protestant printing revolution.) See Yang Tingyun 楊廷筠, Dai yi pian 代疑篇 (A treatise for removing doubts, 1621).
posted by homerica at 5:06 AM on July 10 [6 favorites]


I don't have my bibliography to hand, but I remember reading that Gutenberg's derived his special from his trade as a goldsmith. The printing press was already known in Europe: playing cards were being mass produced from woodcuts since the early 15th century. This allowed the printing press to be already a profitable busines by the time moveable type arrived.

What Gutenberg developed and perfected was a type production workflow comprised of punches and counterpunches with, together with the variable width mold, allowed him to cast a high number of sorts (each mirror-negative letterform in lead type printing) efficiently. His invention of moveable type may or may not have been a parallel discovery, but the industrial process he developed was as much Gutenberg's own as any technical innovation can be anyone's.
posted by kandinski at 6:09 AM on July 10


If anyone’s ever interested, there’s a museum in Cheongju (~45m SE of Seoul by KTX, then ~30m by car from the Cheongju/Osong station to the museum) called the Cheongju Early Printing Museum that’s about the movable metal type that printed the Jikji books.
posted by anem0ne at 6:42 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


As far as whether this is about the “cleverest nation” title or what makes an invention really important and that discussion, I’d like to point out that part of what makes those arguments feel a bit self-serving is just how much of modern history in the West is really about things done in the West, to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

So, like, it’s not wrong to say that what happens after the invention is also important, or the circumstances around it helping it flourish or wither are important, but it is something to keep in mind.

It’s not like most people know where the oldest surviving astronomical observatory is located if it’s not in Europe, or the wealthiest ruler of an empire if they weren’t in Europe, particularly if they were taught history like most Americans, which is to spend 33% of the time on the Revolution, 33% of the time on the Civil War, 25% of the time on WW2, and then the rest split between “this stuff happened in Western Europe” and “there’s the rest of the world but it’s not like anything important happened there.”
posted by anem0ne at 6:53 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


There's also this Enlightenment thing, which inter alia set up the framework for integrating inventions into a larger framework that encouraged the testing, development and spread of knowledge. About the only significant non-Western period I can think of is the Islamic Golden Age, which also kicked off through the written word (not printed, but with a simplified writing system and the introduction of paper from China) and lasted six hundred years or so. Science and other intellectual pursuits were highly prized as part of culture... but there wasn't any hint of an industrial revolution. Not knowing about the great intellectual traditions of the time is nothing to be proud of, and the way it bridged the knowledge of the classical world to the beginnings of the Renaissance in the West is a very important part of history, but it collapsed and went away and lost its own continuity.

Perhaps Gutenberg did get some ideas from Uyghur sources - it's cerainly a fascinating idea - but as Kandinski says there were other technologies in the field already; it was the industrialisation of the printing process that made his invention so significant. And I think that's important - a society, economy and culture that encourages industrialisation is going to be a very different environment for inventors to any other. Classical Greece had the metallurgy, mathematics and techniques to produce the Antikythera mechanism, and you can watch (sorry) medieval Europe struggling to get back there through the slow development of clockwork - but once industrialisation set in, the soil for invention became massively more fertile. We quickly achieved a precision and widespread adoption of clockwork unmatched previously. And that process is, I think, uniquely Western. and why we think that 'invention' (which can be hard to define if you look at it too closely) is something the West does much better than anyone else.
posted by Devonian at 8:46 AM on July 10


and why we think that 'invention' (which can be hard to define if you look at it too closely) is something the West does much better than anyone else.

who is "we"?
posted by anem0ne at 8:53 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


The Western culture of which I am a member. This is my observation of the default position on this point.
posted by Devonian at 9:19 AM on July 10


And that process is, I think, uniquely Western. and why we think that 'invention' (which can be hard to define if you look at it too closely) is something the West does much better than anyone else.

Well, there's a lot to unpack there, but I'm not 100% sure that you can characterize a culture which invented paper, gunpowder, cannon, the crossbow, the compass, matches, rockets, porcelain, the rudder, the stirrup, the suspension bridge, toilet paper, the umbrella, bells, watertight compartments, the wheelbarrow, cannon, the hydraulically powered armillary sphere, paper money, the belt drive, exploding shells, brandy, the bristle toothbrush, the fishing reel, the flare, the gimbal, the hand grenade, &c. as being so much worse at inventing things.

(Other inventions include cutting off the only the crispy parts of a roasted duck and eating that in a bun.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:05 PM on July 10 [6 favorites]


[Hey Devonian and others, this is a topic where it should be obvious how broad cultural comparisons would strike on some sore spots, such as seeming to prioritize European inventiveness etc over Asian inventiveness. Please if you're making a point about that, take extreme extra care to be very clear what you are and aren't claiming, and bear in mind you may be talking with people who've been burned by discriminatory or racist comments on this subject before.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:41 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


This whole question of what qualifies as an invention was on my mind recently when Google had a doodle honouring Willem Einthoven as the "father of modern electrocardiography", which I always thought was invented by Augustus Desiré Waller. But there's a difference between demonstrating a proof of concept, realizing its potential applications, making a practical version of the thing, and popularizing it. Sometimes the lines are pretty blurred. Einthoven won a Nobel Prize for it in 1924 (when Waller was dead and therefore ineligible), if Waller was alive maybe it should have been shared?

There's also the arbitrariness of classifying a given artifact as a type of thing, for example is the Antikythera mechanism or even an abacus a "computer"? It's tempting to say an invention doesn't "count" if it never goes beyond the curiosity-demonstrated-at-the-royal-court stage, but the skills involved in invention and dissemination are so different that why should people who are basically marketers get the credit for others' inventions?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 4:31 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


J hope it's clear that I'm saying that making comparisons of inventiveness between cultures is something that many people do without thinking, and that such comparisons are likely to be wrong at best and damaging shortly after that. But nevertheless, people do it and examining what they think they're doing when they do may be enlightening.

In some cases, though, the question's a good 'un. Asking why there were no inventions at all for the vast majority of the history of homo sapiens, and why I'm sitting at home surrounded by uncountable, ineffably complex invented products (I'm including software here) when my parents didn't even get a colour television until their 30s - yeah, why not.
posted by Devonian at 5:28 PM on July 10


Funny, I grew up partially in Korea and always remember knowing this.

When I got to the US, I thought it was incredibly strange that the West was claiming that Gutenberg invented something that was actually made two centuries later. A kind of petty historical revisionism.

I do suppose that "we were here first" is a claim that the West seems incapable of not making. You know, inventions, 'land discovery', colonization, etc.
posted by suedehead at 10:30 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


"Independently invented multiple times" seems like the mostly likely true version.

It's a little difficult to claim 'independently invented' when one was invented 200 years earlier than the other.
posted by suedehead at 10:34 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I'm really struggling to articulate my feelings on the framing choices of the article. On the one hand there's no question that the Eurocentric approach to researching and teaching history is ancient and not behind us. On the other hand the number of great inventions that China produced is not exactly secret, and the Gutenberg Museum itself actually traces the history of printing in the east further back than the article does. Picking a quote from noted non-historian Mark Twain to establish that Gutenberg is "universally" hailed as the lone inventor is straw mannish. (Personally I'm pretty sure I happened to learn who Gutenberg was at exactly the same time I read Mongol-accompanying Chinese traders printed Bibles before Gutenberg, in the history The Devil's Horsemen.)

This interesting article I found trying to figure the Mongol Bible-printing story was well attested points out that writing about the printing press was fairly rare, both in the east and in the west until well after Gutenberg. In many ways it wasn't a major invention in the west until the 16th century, a century later.

It's a little difficult to claim 'independently invented' when one was invented 200 years earlier than the other.

Why? I mean, sometimes inventions travel around the world and we can document the spread (paper, gunpowder) and sometimes good ideas just get independently invented decades, centuries, even thousands of years apart (writing, bronze working, genetics.)
posted by mark k at 11:00 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


For clarification, in my "this was what was unique and uniquely Gutenberg's about Gutenberg's printing press" comment I didn't mean to imply anything against prior Asian practices in printing, about which I know precious little.

I definitely wasn't making any claim about European supremacy or cultural essentialism, because, tempting as it is to say things as apparently 'evident' as "surely having fewer individual letterforms to deal with helped with the industrialisation of printing", this type of reasoning can too easily fall into post-hoc just-so storytelling. "I'm Jared Gladwell, welcome to my TED talk", etc.

My points, as far as are relevant to this discussion, were that:

- it's known that both the printing press and moveable type existed before Gutenberg, and that his claims to innovation are much, much narrower than that;
- this is something well discussed in typographical circles, to the point where I, an amateur, have read about it in books (I don't read academic papers on the topic).

The pseudo-erudite digression about variable width molds was just the outpour of a nerd nerding out.
posted by kandinski at 11:10 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


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posted by The Outsider at 4:04 AM on July 11


J hope it's clear that I'm saying that making comparisons of inventiveness between cultures is something that many people do without thinking, and that such comparisons are likely to be wrong at best and damaging shortly after that.

So ... you shouldn't do it?

In some cases, though, the question's a good 'un

Ah, so "It's usually terrible, but not when it's me who's doing it." I see we have proceeded to the "Just asking the tough questions about why my culture seems to be so superior!" portion of the evening.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:15 AM on July 11


Ah, so "It's usually terrible, but not when it's me who's doing it." I see we have proceeded to the "Just asking the tough questions about why my culture seems to be so superior!" portion of the evening.

That's a very... stretchy reading of my argument, Comrade_robot. The two comparisons I made, and I made them with considerable care to illustrate my point, were between the distant past and today -culturally agnostic - and between my parents' experience and mine. That's entirely within my culture, and in terms of the nature and speed of inventiveness within society both examples are entirely in keeping with the discussion.

I am very careful about making observations about other cultures, especially on Metafilter, because there is a strong strand of opinion here that I am ipso facto unqualified to do so by not being a member of those cultures. If that has to be extended to observations entirely within my culture, or on the very broad sweeps of human social evolution over geologic time, then I'm left with nothing. I can't talk about my culture, I can't talk about other cultures, I can't talk about humanity as a whole, because to do so is to assert my cultural superiority.
posted by Devonian at 9:30 AM on July 11


Not to pile on, but the irksome comment literally ended with "why we think that 'invention' . . . is something the West does much better than anyone else."

That's not a careful observation about other cultures, that's a borderline jingoistic value statement about "the West" that would fit right in with civilization rhetoric from the colonial era.

I can't talk about my culture, I can't talk about other cultures, I can't talk about humanity as a whole
And yet.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:43 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


That's not a careful observation about other cultures, that's a borderline jingoistic value statement about "the West" that would fit right in with civilization rhetoric from the colonial era.

And if you read what I go on to say, I'm making the exact same point you are. People of my culture do think this and that is wrong and damaging. Which does not mean that thinking about this is always wrong and damaging - in fact, it has to be considered if it is to be understood and progress made - but I'll freely admit that the former is the common, unconsidered default in the culture I'm mostly made of.

I am actively working against this here, as much to help me understand the social context of invention (which fascinates me) as anything else. Why is invention seen as proof of Western exceptionalism? I think it's because the unique environment that fosters this as a cultural norm is the industrialisation that promotes invention as a social good (and boy, does that have light and shade). I don't think that exceptionalism under any circumstances is right, I don't think that using invention as part of exceptionalism is right - in fact I particularly resent that - and I don't pretend that this doesn't happen. But I am trying to understand the mechanism.

I'm stymied. I'm attempting a critical appraisal of the cultural apparatus around the notion of invention, but to even state the problem is being cast as to applaud it.

That is 180% out of phase with my intention, and I'm open as to how | should approach the issue otherwise, but I can assure you of my bona fides here. The interaction between technology and people is literally my life's work.

And yet.

And yet?
posted by Devonian at 8:41 AM on July 12


That is 180% out of phase with my intention, and I'm open as to how | should approach the issue otherwise, but I can assure you of my bona fides here. The interaction between technology and people is literally my life's work.

Honestly, what raised my eyebrow was the initial phrasing/reply to me? If the way you were read was 180° out of phase with the intent of what you wrote, what you wrote didn't really come across all that well.

You are 100% correct in that the environment for an invention is critical to whether the seeds are planted for something greater; for instance, the invention of hangul in the 1400s did jack squat for the majority of Koreans until the late 19th century precisely because of the environment; it wasn't until nationalism and attempts at Western-style modernization arrived, along with the starkly weakened power of the aristocracy/class-based society, that it became not just the common people's writing, but the nation's writing.

That said, the way history is written, taught, and discussed, particularly in the Western-dominated world, is enormously self-serving; there are entire sections and time periods of the world that remain mysterious, dragon-filled voids to so many people. Who is to say that industrialization wouldn't have happened elsewhere? The conditions were right for it to occur in Europe first, and that first-mover advantage rewrote the globe, in some cases, quite literally, to fit Western, European notions.

So when you write things like
We quickly achieved a precision and widespread adoption of clockwork unmatched previously. And that process is, I think, uniquely Western. and why we think that 'invention' (which can be hard to define if you look at it too closely) is something the West does much better than anyone else.
it doesn't read like you're making a "critical appraisal of the cultural apparatus around the notion of invention" but rather reads like you're "assert[ing your] cultural superiority."

I'm not sure how you aren't seeing how your phrasing led to that conclusion--particularly since it's not just myself who had raised eyebrows, with my concise "who's we?" question, but everyone else, including a mod pointing out that how you're writing it is critically important.
posted by anem0ne at 9:18 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Why is invention seen as proof of Western exceptionalism?

Is it? I don’t think it is - citation needed. I think the first step would be to unpack this statement that you take as axiomatic and figure out why exactly you think that is the case, who continues to repeat this idea, and who benefits when you believe that “invention = western exceptionalism”.
posted by suedehead at 9:37 AM on July 12


People of my culture do think this and that is wrong and damaging. Which does not mean that thinking about this is always wrong and damaging - in fact, it has to be considered if it is to be understood and progress made - but I'll freely admit that the former is the common, unconsidered default in the culture I'm mostly made of.

Why is invention seen as proof of Western exceptionalism? I think it's because the unique environment that fosters this as a cultural norm is the industrialisation that promotes invention as a social good (and boy, does that have light and shade). I don't think that exceptionalism under any circumstances is right, I don't think that using invention as part of exceptionalism is right - in fact I particularly resent that - and I don't pretend that this doesn't happen. But I am trying to understand the mechanism.
When you write this, your intent is far more clear. But that's not what people are reacting to. None of this is apparent in the comment that touched all of this off! Instead, that comment, while you're aware enough to say that it's shameful to not know of other great periods in history other than being familiar with the Islamic Golden Age (but in self-serving terms for the West, in that it preserved the knowledge of Western Antiquity), you focus on industrialization (which, again, happened in the west first due to a lucky confluence of circumstances) but then seemingly uncritically speak in terms of that same Western exceptionalism you decry:
We quickly achieved a precision and widespread adoption of clockwork unmatched previously. And that process is, I think, uniquely Western. and why we think that 'invention' (which can be hard to define if you look at it too closely) is something the West does much better than anyone else.
In the light of what you write most recently, I can definitely, maybe see how you're trying to be critical, but I definitely, definitely have to turn my head and look at it with different lenses to get there; imagine not having the subsequent context, and seeing it, coming fresh off circumstances that are long described in the PoC thread, and seeing how comments for a lot of threads re: non-Western things aren't... well, they're not viewed with the same sort of respect, on top of just Western societal background radiation...

I'm sorry you feel attacked and defensive, but when all most of us have to go on are the words you initially write... It sucks to be misread.
posted by anem0ne at 9:41 AM on July 12


I have nothing to say about which culture came first, because who cares? Question is, now you can mass print books, what are you gonna do with it?

And that is the gaping hole in my knowledge of world literature. I've always been curious about how printing technology changed/enabled literacy and storytelling within cultures. We have pretty good records for how it happened in East Asia & Western Europe. Buuuuut...

Uighurs having movable type is new to me too. How did I not hear about that??? I'd love to learn more about the novels and literature that enabled. I'm also very, very curious about India, the post-Arabic-speaking Middle East, and Central American cultures. I kinda know that from the Sumerian-Egyptian-Roman times, they had stamping technology and used it lots, and I know shorthand was used extensively until our modern computerized times in many places, but apparently paper supply was a major issue.

I'd love to learn more non-nationalistic about literacy rates, the storytelling industry, and printing tech in various cultures throughout history. Were there bookshops in Ashoka-era India? Did 10th-century Arabic print/stamp, or was that all scribes?
posted by saysthis at 9:42 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


>>Why is invention seen as proof of Western exceptionalism?
>Is it? I don’t think it is - citation needed.


Pretty much every nationalist / "populist" / hard right figure in the last 30 years has said this, from Victor Orban to Pat Buchanan to Trump to the Proud Boys to Richard Spencer. Which may be why some of us are less than comfortable with these generalizations.
posted by msalt at 1:06 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Holy crap, homerica, someone else who's heard of Yang Tingyun and Dai yi pian! We should be friends.

The thing about movable type is that for most applications, it was considerably *worse* for printing than woodblocks from the perspective of the literate Sinosphere (i.e. China and other countries that used Chinese characters to write their own languages). The predominance of woodblock printing in almost all cases doesn't reflect some sort of technological backwardness; it reflects entirely reasonable economic and aesthetic considerations.

Movable type requires each page to be set up and broken down individually. If you end up with a best-seller and need a second print run, congratulations: you get to do it all over again. And you'll need a literate typesetter. And good luck if your layout is any more complicated than "rectangular block of text." On the plus side, you'll be dealing with multiple copies of fewer than 100 characters, so even if the metal slugs get heavy, at least you'll still have a relatively portable operation.
It's a very different picture with woodblocks. China's commercial printing industry got its start with (basically) test prep materials -- commentated editions of canonical texts that would be used by the sons of families with sufficient wealth and education to send their kids to take the exams. These required printers to distinguish between main text -- i.e., the original words of Confucius and Mencius -- and commentarial text, which meant that from a very early stage, pretty much everything that got printed was going to be dealing with characters in different sizes and (sometimes) different fonts. On every page. When Matteo Ricci arrived in China at the end of the 16th century, he remarked upon the speed of woodblock carvers, who he said could carve a block in slightly less time than was necessary to set up a movable type matrix -- and once those blocks were carved, they were durable and relatively easy to store, and could be used to strike off new copies of texts for decades afterwards.
posted by bokane at 1:08 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


 That's not a careful observation about other cultures, that's a borderline jingoistic value statement about "the West" that would fit right in with civilization rhetoric from the colonial era.

posted by aspersioncast at 22:43 on July 11


eponysterical!
posted by scruss at 2:31 PM on July 12


We should be friends.

Def'ly! Let me know if anything brings you to Chicago.
posted by homerica at 12:57 PM on July 14


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