By Yiao Zhang
Letterpress printing could simply described as " Pressing paper onto wood and metal letters and hand-carved images, with ink in between." , according to <HISTORY OF LETTERPRESS PRINTING>. After a German named Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, became the first one to invent a metal movable-type printing system in Europe. At middle of 1400's, Letterpress revolutionized printing and possible mass communication in the western world. Get back to Far-East, a Chinese called Bi Sheng from Northern Song Dynasty used baked clay to create the earliest movable type printing It is about 400 years earlier than European.
About 202 BC, a people called Cai Lun from Western Han Dynasty, created one of the most important materials for printing---Paper, people in China started to use paper to replace the bamboos. After Cai Lun, at the end of Eastern Han Dynasty, a writer named Zuo Bo improved the way to make paper and about 751 AD, paper had been introduced to Korea. After People in China and Korea got their new Invention --- Paper, they found out the way to achieve the massive production of books, paper money and something else.
In China, after Sheng Bi created the clay movable types. At Yuan Dynasty, Wang zhen---an official, invented the wooden type to replace the clay type in 1297. Also, Chinese attempted to use tin to create the type, but chinese water-based ink is very hard to be griped on tin character. Because of this, tin characters only appeared for a very short time.
In Korea, Dharani sutra was the oldest surviving wood block-printed text. Koreans first began to work with movable type was at Goryeo Dynasty. During that time the text called Tripitaka---the Buddhist religious text, which included sutras, treatises and law. By printing two complete sets, it required more than 8,000 different wood blocks.
During the time, when Mongolian forces invaded Korea, many Korean documents were destroyed by war. Lucky, about four decades ago, Korea already used bronze types to replace the wooden types. That allowed types surviving from the war and allowed Koreans to replace their documents.
Present Facts for Chinese Movable Type
Now, Movable types in Asian countries are slowly disappearing. It is not only because Asian type characters are hard to make. but also because most Asian countries' languages have over thousands characters. They are hard to analyze and collect. For example, in China, not like in English, it only need 26 letters. If people want to have just a single font with all characters in Chinese. It will need over 80,000 unique types, even if people only need the most commonly used characters, people will still need 3500 types. Those will still be very huge collections. Also, there will have at least 8 commonly font in Chinese. Just according to this, Chinese movable types will be have to survive from the modern life, As the video shows, the ways to create the wooden movable types are very complex that makes young people very hard to learn from the elders.
Some Same Facts with English Movable Type
Not only the Asian movable type suffering the similar problem with Chinese, English movable type also have the same trouble. Such as more and more letterpress companies closed because the hi-tech products. Digital prints are much faster than letterpress, online newspaper are much easier to carry than paper-based news,
Here is the video about Helvetica. Hope this will bring you some more interests about letterpress.
Asia for Educators. “The Song Dynasty in China.” Columbia University. 2008. Web. Accessed 23 July 2012.
Christensen, Thomas. “Gutenberg and the Koreans: Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?” 2006. Web. Accessed 23 July 2012.
Steins, John. “Wood Block Printing.” John Steins Printmaking Journal. 19 Jan 2010. Web. Accessed 23 July 2012.
Elation Press Co. "Short History of Asia’s Influence on Type and Printing".
HISTORY OF LETTERPRESS PRINTING. "What is letterpress printing?".
Wai Che Printing Company
One of the Last Remaining Letterpress Shop in Hong Kong
By Jessica Chhou
As trends tend to resurface ever so few years, it appears letterpress printing has made its comeback within the art and design community. While the Western letterpress printing has made a revival, what was once considered one of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China is no longer a sustainable practice.
Although many are unaware, the earliest origins of letterpress were actually conducted in the land of the Far East. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Bi Sheng invented the Movable Type. He carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay that would eventually be fired to be durable for printing. This concept of mass-producing literature developed very quickly. The introduction of printing in China dramatically lowered the price of books, thus aiding the spread of literacy. It also gave a boost to the development of drama and other forms of popular culture as the scripts became inexpensive to produce. Eventually, the art became popular, and advancements lead movable type to being composed from wood, lead, tin, and copper. From copper type, became a very influencing concept to the great Johannes Gutenberg..
As Movable Type was one of the greatest technological advances defining typography, it is upsetting to see Wai Che Printing Company being the last remaining letterpress shop in Hong Kong in 2012. From Central to Sheung Wan, the streets used to be filled with printers, print shops, and other paper-related storefronts. The shop’s 81-year old owner Lee Chak Yu has preserved its bilingual lead type collection and original Heidelberg Cylinder machine for over 50 years.
Upon entering the Chinese letterpress shop, there are rows of shelves of type. Instead of using a type drawer, the Chinese characters were typically stored in cube shelving with the type stacked into a column. They face outward for easy identification and access. However, with the vast language, it became very difficult to create a system to categorize the type. They had no alphabet, and with new words evolving, there were endless Chinese characters. In practice, it would be difficult to work with more than 45,000 unique characters. Typesetting in Chinese was a challenge and the accuracy needed was on a whole different level especially when the characters were made of many radicals and ideograms. Running a Chinese letterpress shop would require an enormous storage space and at least 4,000 commonly used characters. Many businesses were affected when they were unable to source new characters when needed. Little by little, the print shops in Hong Kong shut down, including the last one standing, Wai Che Printing Company.
The space where Wai Che lies was under high demand due to development and gentrification. Similar to the shops around, the government wanted to take over to use it for redevelopment. However, the owner wanted to turn his shop into a museum. Lee Chak Yu wanted to spread the knowledge of movable type and engage the visitors into hands-on activities of letterpress. He wanted to show the visitors the history of the neighborhood of Sheung Wan and educate the ways things were before the digital age.
Sadly, his idea did not catch on and on one winter day, the shop was all packed up and moved to a different location. It appears Lee Chak Yu would not have his shop as a historic museum. He left with optimism as one day he can share his stories of the past.