Books were of course being printed in Korea centuries long before the invention of the hangul script in 1443. The world’s earliest known printed document is a sutra printed on a single sheet in Korea in 750. Much Korean book production was motivated by a need for Buddhist and Confucian texts, and looked intently towards China. By 1123 a Chinese envoy reported that there were tens of thousands of books in the Korean royal library. Of course many of these were doubtless manuscript volumes. Books were mainly printed from wood blocks. Carving text and illustrations into a block of wood is clearly a skilled and time-consuming business, and this makes it more suited to long-run work: the move to movable metal types was, paradoxically from a modern Western point of view, motivated by a need to print shorter runs of many books. For years books tended to be restricted to an elite distribution. Helpfully the books often included a colophon enabling precise dating. The earliest surviving evidence of Korean printing from movable metal type is a collection of Buddhist sermons printed on Kanghwa Island in 1239 using blocks cut from a (lost) text originally printed from cast moveable types. The colophon reads
It is impossible to advance to the core of Buddhism without having understood this book. Is it possible for this book to go out of print? Therefore we employ workmen to re-cut the cast-type edition to continue its circulation. Postface written with reverence by Ch’oe I in the 9th moon [of 1239].
Sounds just like modern publishing puffery! It’s also rather reminiscent of a modern note “apologizing” for reprinting a book digitally — something that some crazy fastidious publishers still insist on doing.
The world’s earliest surviving dated book printed from metal movable types is Essentials of Buddha’s Teachings Recorded by the Monk Paegun. This 2-volume work (the first volume is now lost) was, according to its colophon, printed using movable types in the seventh moon of 1377, at Hungdoksa, a temple in Ch’ongju, North Korea. It is now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. King T’aejong who reigned from 1400 to 1418 is recorded as saying “Because our country is located east of China beyond the sea, not many books from China are readily available. Moreover, woodblock imprints are easily defaced, and it is impossible to print all the books in the world using the woodblock method. It is my desire to cast bronze type so that we can print as many books as possible and have them made available widely.”* When last could someone have expressed a desire to print “all the books in the world”? T’aejong’s successor, Sejong (1418-1450) the hangul inventor, continued this royal concern with print. “To print books, type used to be placed on copper plates, molten beeswax would be poured on the plates to solidify the type alignments and thereafter a print was made. This required an excessive amount of beeswax and allowed printing of only a few sheets a day. Whereupon His Majesty personally directed the work and ordered Yi Ch’ôn and Nam Kup to improve the casting of copper plates to match the shape of the type. With this improvement the type remained firmly on the plates without using beeswax and the print became more square and correct. It allowed the printing of several sheets a day. Mindful of the Typecasting Foundry’s hard and meritorious work, His Majesty granted wine and food on several occasions.”*
Here’s a nice contemporary description of production workflow by Song Hyon (1439-1504): “The person who engraves on wood is called the engraver and the person who casts is called the casting artisan. The finished graphs are stored in boxes and the person responsible for storing type is called typekeeper. These men were selected from the young servants working in the government. A person who reads manuscript is called the manuscript reader. These people are all literate. The typekeeper lines up the graphs on the manuscript papers and then places them on a plate called the upper plate. The graph levelling artisan fills in all the empty spaces between type on the upper plate with bamboo and torn cloth, and tightens it so that the type cannot be moved. The plate is then handed over to the printing artisan to print. The entire process of printing is supervised by members of the office of editorial review selected from among graduates of the civil service examination. At first no-one knew how to tighten up the type on a printing plate, and beeswax was used to fix type on the plate. As a result each logograph had an awl-like tail, as in the kyongja type. Only after the technique of filling empty space with bamboo was developed was there no longer a need to use wax. Boundless indeed is the ingenuity of men’s intelligence.”
* Lee: Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, 2 volumes, 1993-6