This was too interesting to pass up.  From an article in io9:

After centuries of woodblock printing, a humble man named Bi Sheng invented movable type in the 1000s. Movable type is a system where each character (or letter, if you’re in a Western context) is carved or cast into a separate piece of material. These characters are then arranged on a block, inked, and pressed against paper. The characters can be rearranged as much as you like and reused — hence, the term “movable type.” 

We don’t have any examples of the books he produced, but we do have a remarkable description of the mechanism he invented, from a contemporary of Bi’s named Shen Kua:

 During the reign of Chingli, [1041–1048] Bi Sheng, a man of unofficial position, made movable type. His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.

Over 350 years before Gutenberg was even born, the Chinese were experimenting with the technology that the German would later turn into a publishing empire.

More in the article.


  1. I never personally heard anyone express the belief that Gutenberg invented movable type … only that he invented the printing press and mechanised the process. Where are all these people who though he invented it ?

  2. There is no actual real plates, books, or even block types of Bi Sheng’s there is only
    a 1986 communist printed book *Meng Xi Bi Tan* (*Dream Stream Essays*) by Shen Kuo, an eminent scientist of the Song Dynasty, who writes of Bi Sheng’s feat.
    ANCIENT CHINA’S TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE, Compiled by the Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
    First Edition 1983. Published by the Foreign Languages Press, 24 Baiwanzhuang Road, Beijing, China.
    ISBN 0-8351-1001-X.
    Even about this time there were Koreans who had wooden type face as well.

    as Howard above said, no one said Gutenberg invented movable type. It is reported that about 150 years before Bi Sheng, there were Buddhist Monks who had movable type. But no one is saying this. yet there are some evidence of this. Also in practice Ancient stone tablets 5,000 years before Bi Sheng some say had a form of type face.
    Before you take things a face value maybe you should be a little more careful of your research and who is reporting this research.

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