The invention of movable metal type: Goryeo technology and wisdom

By Cheongju Early Printing Museum

Cheongju Early Printing Museum

The invention of movable metal type is regarded as a technological revolution that contributed to the civilization of humanity. It was invented during Korea's thirteenth-century Goryeo dynasty. Find out how it was invented, and see the oldest book printed with movable metal type.

Beeswax casting, finished movable type piecesCheongju Early Printing Museum

Before printing was invented, mankind recorded and shared information by way of transcribing.

But errors were commonplace, and reproduction was slow.

As the demand for books increased, the need for printing technology emerged as a solution to these problems.

Printing began with woodblocks. They made reprinting easy, but the carving part was time-consuming, and the woodblocks would weather quickly.

During the Goryeo dynasty, a new method arrived: metal type casting.

While more complicated, the new method was also more efficient and helped scale up publishing, which had a huge impact on government policy.

Jikji geumsok hwalja inpan (Jikji Printing Blocks with Movable Metal Types) by Yim In-ho, Master Typefounder, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 101Cheongju Early Printing Museum

Movable metal type also had a profound impact on our ability to record and transmit information.

Knowledge that was previously exclusive began to spread more easily, leading to the reform of religion and and civil revolutions.

Books on history, medicine, astronomy, language, and law, as well as Buddhist scriptures and the Four Books and Three Classics of Confucianism were printed using movable metal type, and government-published books helped unify society.

Jikji geumsok hwalja inpan (Jikji Printing Blocks with Movable Metal Types) by Yim In-ho, Master Typefounder, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 101Cheongju Early Printing Museum

The advent of movable metal type

Movable metal type printing became popular in early thirteenth-century Goryeo as evidenced by books printed with woodblock from that period. These books demonstrate the development of Korean society at the time. Interestingly, the amount of metal used for typesetting meant that there would not have been enough left over for weapon manufacture, during a particularly turbulent period. 

Dongguk Yi Sangguk jip (Collected Works of Minister Yi Gyu-bo of Korea) by Yi Gyu-boCheongju Early Printing Museum

This is the first record on movable metal type, and it reveals that Goryeo was already printing books with movable metal type in the early thirteenth century.

Nammyeong Cheon Hwasang song jeungdoga (Song of Enlightenment with Commentaries by Buddhist Monk Nammyeong)Cheongju Early Printing Museum

Thirteenth-century was a chaotic period in Goryeo history due to the Mongolian invasions.

Movable metal printing was already a popular printing method in Goryeo - the people of Goryeo printed books with movable metal type even during such trying circumstances.

復 (bok) Type from Goryeo Dynasty, From the collection of: Cheongju Early Printing Museum
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This Bok type is said to have been excavated from a private grave in North Korea.

Other metal types include the Jun type which is housed by the Koryo Museum in Kaesong, North Korea.

5 additional types were recently discovered at the excavation site of the Manwoldae Palace in Kaesong.

jabi doryang chambeop jiphae (A Collection of Commentaries on the Repentance Ritual of Great Compassion)Cheongju Early Printing Museum

This book, looked after by Cheongju Early Printing Museum, is an important source that tells us of the existence of the movable type font called Heungdeoksa font, which was used to print Jikji in 1377.

Cover of JikjiCheongju Early Printing Museum

The oldest movable metal type book 

Jikji contains essential teachings of the Buddhas and patriarchs about the essence of the mind. It is regarded as the best textbook of Seon Buddhism. After teacher Baegun passed away in 1374, his disciples Seokchan and Daljam published this book in 1377 with movable metal type at Heungdeoksa Temple, Cheongju, with a donation from nun Myodeok. The book was listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World on September 4, 2001.

JikjiCheongju Early Printing Museum

When first published, a set was comprised of two volumes, but the volumes were later separated when they were put in Buddha statues.

The year of publication (1377) and its printing method (printed with movable metal type) are recorded at the end of this volume.

“Heungdeoksa, Cheongju-mok” is written at the end of this volume as the publishing location of Jikji.

日 (il) printed upside downCheongju Early Printing Museum

An examination of the characters of the main body of Jikji will confirm that it was printed with movable metal type.

日 (il) printed upside down

Omission of 動 (dong) CharacterCheongju Early Printing Museum

Sign of the character 動 (dong) missing between the characters 不 (bul) and 之 (ji)

Tilted 人 (in) CharacterCheongju Early Printing Museum

Character 人 (in) tilted to the right

Character 峯 (bong) printed with small type

Woodblock of Jikji by Kim Gak-han, Mater Woodblock Carver, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 106Cheongju Early Printing Museum

Jikji was also printed with woodblock in 1378 at Chwiamsa Temple in Yeoju where monk Baejun passed away.

It seems there was a shortage of the Heungdeoksa Temple copies of Jikji printed with movable metal type in 1377, and it was also necessary to print Jikji at Chwiamsa Temple.

Because of the existence of woodblock copies, it is now possible to verify all aspects of the Heungdeoksa Temple copy of Jikji of which only the second volume exists.

Cover of JikjiCheongju Early Printing Museum

Jikji’s journey to France

Only the second volume of the two-volume Jikji, the oldest movable metal type copy in existence, is currently part of the collection of the National Library of France.

Collin de PlancyCheongju Early Printing Museum

It was through Victor Collin de Plancy, a French minister to Korea in the late 19th century, that Jikji went to France.

Collin de Plancy initially came to Korea in 1888 as France’s first minister to Korea and held the position until 1891.

He was later reappointed to the same position and his second term began in April 1896.

During this period, Collin de Plancy collected various artworks such as old Korean books and sent them to France, Jikji included among them.

It is estimated that Collin de Plancy collected Jikji between 1896, when he began his second term, and 1899 before Jikji was exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Korean Pavilion, 1900 Paris ExpositionCheongju Early Printing Museum

Jikji was first shown to the public at the 1900 Paris Exposition in France.

Henri VeverCheongju Early Printing Museum

Collin de Plancy donated most of the items he collected during his diplomatic life in China, Korea, Japan, and Bangkok to his alma mater, the School of Living Oriental Languages, and the rest he kept.

He put 883 pieces up for auction at the Drouot's Auction House for four days from March 27 to March 30, 1911.

Among these were about 700 pieces from Korea.

Most of the books from this auction were purchased by the National Library of France, but Jikji was purchased by Henri Vever for 180 francs.

He later donated it to the National Library of France in his will, and it has been stored there since.

“Le Livre” Catalogue of ExhibitionCheongju Early Printing Museum

Jikji was exhibited at the “Le Livre” exhibition that commemorated the World Book Year in 1972, an event sponsored by UNESCO.

It was this exhibit that let the world know movable metal printing had been invented by Korea, not Germany with the printing of the “Forty-two-line Bible.”

Dr. Byeong-sen ParkCheongju Early Printing Museum

Dr Park Byeong-sen, a librarian at the National Library of France, played a critical part in displaying Jikji at the “Le Livre” exhibition.

Dr. Park brought photographs of Jikji to Korea and promoted active research on Jikji.

She also played an important role in the return of the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty in the Oegyujanggak Archives, which was looted by the French during the French Disturbance of 1866.

Cover of JikjiCheongju Early Printing Museum

Jikji’s journey to France is maintained as a record of ownership within the cover and the body of the book.

Collin de Plancy, the first collector of Jikji, wrote on its cover, “The oldest Korean book known to be printed with casted characters, date = 1377.”

Catalogue number 109, National Library of France

JikjiCheongju Early Printing Museum

The character “葛” (gal) is a symbol of Collin de Plancy’s collection.

It is the first character of his name in Chinese characters, Gal Im-deok (葛林德).

On top of this character is a writing in pencil: “The oldest printed Korean book ever known, date = 1377.”

This is a symbol of Henri Vever’s collection. This book was in Vever’s possession from 1911 to 1945, according to the record.

Heungdeoksa Temple SiteCheongju Early Printing Museum

Heungdeoksa Temple, where Jikji was p[ublished

This is the old site of Heungdeoksa Temple in Uncheong-dong, Heungdeok-gu, Cheongju-si, Chungcheongbuk-do. Jikji was published here in 1377. It was built before 849, but it is thought to have been destroyed by a fire immediately after Jikji was published. The location of Heungdeoksa Temple was confirmed in 1985 when a “bronze gong” with “Heungdeoksa  (興德寺)” engraved on it and a “bronze bowl” were excavated from there. Only the Buddha Hall in the center of the temple site has been restored thus far.

Bronze gongCheongju Early Printing Museum

 This is a bronze gong engraved with the words “Heungdeoksa, Seowon-bu.” 

It was found during a housing development construction in 1985.

Along with a bronze bowl, it confirmed the location of Heungdeoksa Temple recorded at the end of Jikji.

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