Some say China invented the printing press.

However, another says that Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Nevertheless, Western printing press is superior for 2 reasons

  1. We know Gutenberg's name. This is a civilization that remember their inventor. The name of "some Chinese" that invent printing press is much less known.
  2. Gutenberg printing press is faster.

So, how much faster?

Is this mainly due to alphabets or different techniques?

By how much both printing press improve economy?

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    While the answers are all good, I am trying to fine one more directly compare European vs Chinese printing. Not before and after Gutenberg.
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 5:38
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    Extensive rework of a question's existing text is discouraged, as it invalidates answers already submitted in good faith. However, the addition of clarification underneath an Update line is always acceptable, and preferred to clarifying the question in comments. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 5:55
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    @JimThio: Well, Pre-Gutenberg printing is Chinese printing. And that means wood-block printing. The East-Asian movable type technology never reached Europe, and wasn't even widespread in East-Asia. So they can't practically be compared. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 9:08
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    -1 Regarding point 1. My disagreement is that nothing is superior just because we know a name!
    – nilon
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 18:31

4 Answers 4


Although Gutenberg is justly famous for being the inventor of the Printing Press, the invention itself is grossly misnamed in that appellation. What Gutenberg actually invented, and which changed the world, is the Movable- And Reusable-Type Printing Press.

By devising a system in which mass-produced lead type, cheaply cast in large quantities, could be rapidly set; used for printing; and then disassembled to await the next print job, Gutenberg revolutionized how literature was disseminated.

Prior mechanisms involved the painstaking creation of block text, specific to each print job by master craftsmen. In Gutenberg's new system, only the molds for the typed letters needed to be made by master craftsmen; the type itself could be made by less skilled journeymen.

The speed difference arose from the availability of vast quantities of type, in various font families and sizes, in local print shops. Setting this type could be done by a skilled typesetter at perhaps a quarter the speed of reading it. The actual print runs were comparable, but the typeset was available in hours rather than weeks or months.

The simpler Roman alphabet, compared to those of China and Japan, certainly would have been a motivating factor for Gutenberg's invention, but perhaps simply made the entire notion imaginable. One can start with 52 upper- and lower-case letter, 10 digits, and a few punctuation marks, totaling about 70 molds, compared to a basic vocabulary in Oriental characters of several hundred to a few thousand starting characters.

As noted below moveable-type existed in China for a few hundred years before Gutenberg, but the type characters were individually fired porcelain, thus much more expensive to make than Gutenberg's molded lead type, and not practical for large-scale printing. This reduced their effect on the cost of a book, according to the economic analysis presented by Lennart.

As comments are ephemeral, I here preserve the comment by @LangLangC with details of the type used by Guttenberg:

Using variable width individual chars, abbr. & numerous ligatures, Gutenberg used >290 glyphs or master characters for the B42 (47 upper case letters, 63 lower case letters, 92 abbreviation characters, 83 ligatures and 5 punctuation marks.)

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    There was movable and reusable types in China and Korea before Gutenberg as well. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bi_Sheng However, it's doubtful that Gutenberg ever saw one of those, his invention is probably independent. But, we don't really know exactly what Gutenberg invented, and what was invented by those who took up printing directly after him. He does seem to have invented the mass production of led type, but with a quite different technique than used later, possibly sand-casting. infoplease.com/encyclopedia/people/gutenberg-johann.html Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 4:10
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    @LennartRegebro: History is chock-full of simultaneous invention of technology, even over distances much less than the breadth of Eurasia. Interesting point about the sand-casting - I hadn't realized that. Perhaps what Gutenberg really invented was Printing the Bible in a vulgate tongue. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 4:13
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    I think you can summarize what he did is to invent processes to make printing books an economically viable alternative to copying by hand. This way the actual technical details which are don't really know, are left out. :-) Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 14:21
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    Using variable width individual chars, abbr. & numerous ligatures, Gutenberg used >290 glyphs or master characters for the B42 (47 upper case letters, 63 lower case letters, 92 abbreviation characters, 83 ligatures and 5 punctuation marks.) – which was printed in Latin (albeit the Vulgata version, if that's what you meant in the comment above?) Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 14:46

Before Gutenberg the only practical way to print text in Europe was through wood block printing. You would have to carve one whole page in wood, and print from that. This was slow and error prone, and as a result it wasn't really done much.

So when it comes to the difference in economy, what we need to compare Gutenbergs printing with, is handwritten manuscripts. And the prices for books dropped with c:a 80% in the 50 years that follows Gutenbergs invention.

Before 1450, a book seems to have cost around 2000 day wages. After 1450 most of the recorded prices are below 800 day wages, meaning that printing had a quick impact on book prices. After 1500 prices seem to be below 300 day wages.

I don't know how much the Chinese and Korean printing techniques lowered prices, but considering that the techniques never really seem to have taken off the answer is probably "not enough". This is indeed likely to be to a large extent because of the script.


  • The Welfare Impact of a New Good: The Printed Book - Jeremiah Dittmar 2011 (link)
  • Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Living Costs of the Rich versus the Poor in England, 1209-1869 - Gregory Clark, 2004 (link) (Figure 4)
  • Interesting statistics; too long for a comment; not quite an answer to the question. +1 anyways. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 5:52
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    @PieterGeerkens Yeah, it only answers part of it, partly because you answered the rest. :-) Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 9:05
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    To complement this, a price of a wood block printed book would be interesting. Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 7:26
  • Since it wasn't done, it's impossible to know. From that we likely can conclude that the price was not significantly lower than a handwritten manuscript. That may be because Bibles at that time usually were illuminated, which raised the prices. Gutenbergs first Bible was made to be Illuminated, but this practice was abandoned quickly, as was printing on Vellum. It seems like printing lowered price enough for those practices to become obsolete. Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 11:34

A few relevant factors:

The Roman alphabet of Gutenberg's time had around 32 characters, plus ten digits and ten to fifteen commonly used punctuation marks and other symbols. Written Chinese has over 500 commonly used symbols, many of those being combinations of other symbols within the same block... far more difficult to reproduce for printed pages.

To a degree, Gutenberg was successful because the alphabet he was working with was more conducive to moveable type printing.

Gutenberg was a goldsmith, accustomed to working with metals. It wasn't just the moveable type, but the molds he came up with to make new letters to be printed with, that made his system work so well. Pour hot lead into the mold, and in a few seconds, you have a new printable character. Chinese blocks were either hand carved wood or porcelain, taking far longer to make. Anyone could learn to work Gutenberg's molds quickly, while a skilled carver was needed to make the hand carved blocks.

For printing a page, you need more than one of each character, you need lots of each character, so the ease and simplicity of reproducing moveable print elements was a major factor in the success of Gutenberg's press.

Europe of Gutenberg's time was a period of dramatic change in both technology and society. This probably magnified the impact of the printing press. China of that period and before had a more regimented/caste society, so automating the flow of new ideas wasn't nearly as beneficial... there weren't as many new ideas to print.

This was the same rough time period and location that Copernicus was challenging the centuries old Aristotle solar model that the catholic church rigidly adhered to (and locked Galileo up for contradicting), and Martin Luther was challenging the centuries old authority of the catholic church... aided by an early Gutenberg press.

So, to an indeterminate degree, Europe of the 1500's was in a better position to benefit from automating the flow of new ideas.


Wow all these answers are tinged with Eurocentric superiority and no familiarity with Chinese history.

Chinese movable block printing technology was invented by Bi Sheng in 1040 AD. Further, the notion that the Western printing press is superior because "we know Gutenburg by name" in no way correlates to the technology's superiority.

The economic efficacy and popularity of the technology depended on the block medium, but it is notable that Chinese block printing evolved to use various types including wooden, clay, ceramic, and bronze. By the 12th century, paper money and other official documents were being printed using bronze.

The only advantage that the Gutenberg press had aside from characters in the native alphabet was that the pressing process was mechanical while Chinese printing was manually pressed for centuries.

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    Hi Chaz Germaine and welcome to History SE. Adding some sources and links would improve your answer. Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 13:31
  • Edited the question to reconcile with the code of conduct.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 16:05

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