An Obsolete Practice
July 3, 2010 4:48 PM   Subscribe

The use of movable type in China is now a rare business. Invented in China by Bi Sheng during the Song Dynasty, movable type was created as a system to print lengthy Buddhist scripture. This traditional method has mostly been replaced by offset and digital printing, but lately, there has been discussion about collecting these existing artifacts and setting up printing museums or digitizing the complete fonts.
posted by netbros (10 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Heh! from the typo in the first paragraph in the People's Daily, "could never have expected the Beijing Olympics to have brought so much toit" - is that what Chinese woodblock movable type looks like?
posted by unliteral at 5:14 PM on July 3, 2010

Well there's always Wordpress?
posted by slater at 6:20 PM on July 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Oldest Printed Text in the World - The Diamond Sutra

(This was actually an earlier product of woodblock printing.)
posted by homunculus at 7:07 PM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am crestfallen. I have been looking for a subject for my first FPP and this topic never occurred to me, even though CJKV typesetting is my specialty.

There is considerable dispute between China, Korea, and Japan about who invented movable type (which is not surprising since they basically argue over who invented everything). And they all have an arguable claim, depending on how you look at it. The Chinese invented paper and woodblock printing. The Japanese have a convincing claim of having invented movable type. The Koreans invented metal movable type.

A few years back, I visited the Toppan Printing Museum in Japan, oh it is a wonderland for a printing geek like me. Toppan Printing owns a Japanese "Important Cultural Property," a set of "Suruga-ban" copper type of dating back to about the 13th Century, modeled after Korean metal type. But the museum also showed a collection of lengthy scrolls printed with movable wooden blocks, dated to about the 8th century. These blocks had words and sutra passages as well as images, stamped over and over again, as a mantra-like repetitive religious practice, they produced a million printed impressions. These were not quite the fully movable type pieces of a single kanji character, but larger semantic units, but I think I can accept their claim as being movable type, since the words and phrases were moved around to form different texts. I thought these scrolls were rather amusing as they kind of looked like rubber stamp artworks. And you could see that throughout the very lengthy scrolls, at some times the printers were bored and did a poor job, and other times the printing was quite good.

But the thing I was most amused by at the Printing Museum was their workshop. Next to the museum, a wall of glass windows allowed visitors to view students taking letterpress workshops. They had a set of beautiful Kelsey Excelsior 5x8 letterpresses, which I thought was terribly amusing since I own one too. Oh I wanted so badly to take their workshop, and have access to their huge cabinets full of Japanese type, but I had to return to the US.

Ah, well, letterpress is a dying art. I remember back around 1985 when I lived next to Little Tokyo in LA, the last Asian Letterpress shop in the US closed. The equipment was originally used to print a daily newspaper, but business had dwindled down to nothing. So the equipment was sold and the type was sold, a piece at a time, as curios. That just irritated the hell out of me, but nobody could afford to rescue the type as a collection. This is often the fate of letterpress equipment. People like to display the large wood blocks as curios, and to my horror, many antique dealers will buy a California Job Case full of lead type, throw away the type, and sell the case as a curio cabinet. The case is worth more than the type to antique dealers. I have a few of them myself, that I rescued from antique dealers. Perhaps someday I'll sort out my unopened, never-used type fonts, get them all in the drawers, and start printing.

Fortunately, letterpress has been in somewhat of a revival due to the retro look and feel. Back in the 80s, I had a friend who equipped an entire letterpress shop from equipment he scavenged from print shops that switched to offset printing. They would usually offer these massive presses free if he'd haul them away. And that was sort of the start of the retro letterpress revival. One day he showed me something I will never forget, in an abandoned industrial building near Little Tokyo. I peeked between the cracks of the boarded up windows and saw a complete broadsheet-size letterpress, abandoned for many years and decayed beyond repair. Perhaps this was even the letterpresses that produced the Little Tokyo newspaper, but I had no way to find out. I estimated the machinery must have weighed at least 20 tons. I would have liked to have seen that in operation, way back when it was state of the art. Oh those were the days.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:13 PM on July 3, 2010 [23 favorites]

I love letterpress. It turns the fairly dull event of looking at a low-run amateur poetry collection into a gorgeous sensory experience. charlie don't surf, I'd be fascinated to read a front page post about letterpress, but I regret to say it would be nothing like experiencing it firsthand.
posted by shii at 7:33 PM on July 3, 2010

I am probably not the person to write the ultimate letterpress FPP. I'm more of a digital printing geek, and I never have gotten the letterpress I inherited from my grandfather back into operating condition. There are some really great letterpress people in my town, I am trying to figure out whether I should go back to school to study with them.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:55 PM on July 3, 2010

A co-inventor of phototypesetting died this week at 96.
posted by longsleeves at 7:57 PM on July 3, 2010

I had no idea. My grandparents started one of the first (if not the first) Chinese letterpress printing shop in Southeast Asia, with a Heidelberg and cases of Chinese lead type.
posted by hellopanda at 8:45 PM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love letterpress cards and other things. It's like putting the perfect touch on a letter or card that you're sending someone. It creates a textile warmth that other printing methods cannot come close to generating. Letterpress, I <3 you.
posted by msbutah at 9:55 PM on July 3, 2010

On the other hand, I remember the catharsis that using my high school library's laser printer for the first time brought, coming from an Atari ST + dot matrix printer home, realizing that pretty much anybody could now print professional quality text for cheap. There's a reason "nobody could afford to rescue the type as a collection," and that reason ($$$) kept publishing out the hands of ordinary people for centuries. Movable type may have been a driver for revolutions, but the ink-jet printer is part of an even greater empowering process.
posted by msittig at 8:36 AM on July 4, 2010

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