Printing in China

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Woodblock printing is believed to have been invented in China in the 8th century.

While books were continuously printed in China from the mid-Ming Dynasty onwards, in great volume, and widely circulated, China's publishing was overtaken by that of Japan from the 17th century onwards, in both the number of distinct titles being published annually, and in the technical skill and innovation of Japanese print designers and publishers (see Printing and Publishing).


It is believed that woodblock printing was first developed in China in the 8th century, being transmitted to Japan within the same century. The earliest extant example of Chinese woodblock printing is a handscroll copy of the Diamond Sutra today held by the British Library and dated to 868.

In the 9th century, printing was already a bustling industry in China; religious texts such as Buddhist sutras dominated, but a variety of gazetteers and almanacs, and collections of poetry were also published in significant numbers.

Song Dynasty

Beginning in the 970s, the Song Dynasty Imperial court organized the establishment of government workshops dedicated to the production of dictionaries, encyclopedias, official histories, literary anthologies, and copies of the Confucian classics. One particularly notable project was the publication of an official and complete copy of the Buddhist canon, 1,076 volumes in total, completed in 983; the project completed over the course of a twelve-year period, involved the production of 130,000 woodblocks.

Moveable type was developed in China in the 11th century,[1] but never caught on, largely it is said due to the vast number of different characters for which one would need to maintain type blocks. The first metal moveable type in the world was then developed in the early 13th century in Korea.[2] A style of moveable type developed in 1434 called gabinja was later recast six times and remained the most popular typeface in Korea throughout much of the Joseon period.[3]

From that time until sometime in the 12th century, publishing in China was dominated by the Court. Government workshops produced books of laws, statutes and procedures; literary anthologies, classics and histories; and works on astronomy, natural history, and medicine, donating the works to state-sponsored schools, or selling them through private booksellers. In the 12th century, the volume of publications produced by private publishers, and by private academies, surpassed that of the government. Private publishers published a great variety of relatively inexpensive, and popularly available, works aimed at helping students prepare for the civil examinations, ranging from copies of the classics to essays by famous scholars, dictionaries, writing manuals, and cheat sheets called "kerchief albums," which could be snuck into the exams themselves. Other works published commercially at this time included works of fiction, poetry and essays, as well as works on medicine and divination.

It was only in the 15th or 16th century that multi-color printing of secular materials, including popular publications, took off.

Spread of Technology

Woodblock printing spread to Japan in the 8th century, only shortly after it took off in China, and numerous examples of the hyakumantô darani, small woodblock-printed scrolls produced by the Japanese Imperial Court in 764-770, remain extant.

Paper, first invented in China in the 1st century BCE,[4] was first introduced to the Islamic world also around the 8th century CE, via the Silk Road. Printing was introduced to the Muslim world in the same manner, in or around the 11th century, but Islam rejected the mechanical reproduction of sacred texts; the Quran and other holy texts continued to be produced by hand, and the printing press began to be used in the Arab world only in the 18th century.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz developed a printing press method in the 1440s that scholars believe was invented independently of Chinese techniques.

Ming Dynasty

The first full-color woodblock printing was developed in China in the late Yuan Dynasty, with the earliest extant example being the frontispiece of a Buddhist sutra, dating to 1346.[5]

By the end of the Ming Dynasty, however, in the early 17th century, full-color erotic prints produced with a high degree of artistry were quite popular in China, some 150-200 years before Japanese shunga reached its heights.[5] These employed systems very similar to what the Japanese would develop centuries later, including the use of multiple blocks for multiple colors, registration marks to keep each subsequent impression properly lined up with the image elements already on the page, and so forth. Some features which separated Chinese practice from the later Japanese practice were the use of different colors for punctuation & commentary in a text, and the practice known as dòubǎn (餖版) "assembled block printing," in which multiple smaller woodblocks would be assembled on a page and printed simultaneously, rather than only using a single full-page block.[6]

These techniques were initially used for single-sheet prints. The first book to make use of more than two colors was the Chengshi Moyuan, printed in 1604. This volume contained reproductions of European artworks, as well as an essay by Matteo Ricci, the earliest extant example ever of printed, published romanization for Chinese. Multi-colored books began to be published in significant numbers from the 1620s onward.[6]

Many examples of Ming color-printed erotica believed to be no longer extant, or simply unknown, have emerged in the early 21st century, in the collection of a Japanese collector, Shibui Kiyoshi (d. 1992), whose collection may be the greatest collection of such materials in the world.[6]


  • Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins (2012), 432-433.
  1. Traditionally said to have been developed by a man named Bi Sheng around 1045. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.[1]
  2. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.[2]
  3. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.[3]
  4. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.[4]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 252.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Soren Edgren, presentation, Chinese & Japanese Woodblock Books symposium, Freer Gallery of Art, July 2011.