From Wikipedia

Around 1040, the first known movable type system was created in China by Bi Sheng out of porcelain. Bi Sheng used clay type, which broke easily, but Wang Zhen by 1298 had carved a more durable type from wood. He also developed a complex system of revolving tables and number-association with written Chinese characters that made typesetting and printing more efficient.

Copper movable type printing originated in China at the beginning of the 12th century. It was used in large-scale printing of paper money issued by the Northern Song dynasty. Movable type spread to Korea during the Goryeo dynasty.

Around 1230, Koreans invented a metal type movable printing using bronze. The Jikji, published in 1377, is the earliest known metal printed book. Type-casting was used, adapted from the method of casting coins. The character was cut in beech wood, which was then pressed into a soft clay to form a mould, and bronze poured into the mould, and finally the type was polished. The Korean form of metal movable type was described by the French scholar Henri-Jean Martin as "extremely similar to Gutenberg's".

Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the first movable type printing system in Europe. He advanced innovations in casting type based on a matrix and hand mould, adaptations to the screw-press, the use of an oil-based ink, and the creation of a softer and more absorbent paper ... The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type for Western languages.

From this it sounds to me like a printing revolution could have occurred before Gutenberg. Why did it not happen earlier?

  • 4
    why questions are difficult to answer. In general, we rarely know what are the specific set of factors that launch a technology into adoption.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 12:50
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    Economics. You need a market for mass-produced books and you need movable type to lower the cost of production so that the books were affordable -- I'd imagine that a script with thousands of characters would make for very expensive startup costs and typesetting costs and correspondingly expensive books.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 13:32
  • There's also the factor of demand. What percentage of 12th century Chinese were literate as opposed to 15th century Germans? And a major religious reformation was in progress in Europe, where many people wanted to be able to read a Bible in a language they understood. It's not enough to have a great invention, having a sufficient number of people that want to use it is also required. A revolution needs a cause, not simply a means. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 14:17
  • @RayButterworth Really? Presses spread all around, printing Latin bibles for 80 years before the first Luther version in the common tongue became available… Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 14:38
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    Did this demand for bibles exist? Who wanted to buy them? Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 0:51

2 Answers 2


"Why" questions are notoriously difficult, and I am sure there will be plenty of scorn piled on me for even trying...

Any major invention consists of many parts. It also requires a market to take off. Let me start with an example that I'm more of an "expert" on - airplanes.

The Wright brothers are rightfully credited with its invention because they invented the final piece - the 3-angle control system (their predecessors' planes took off and fell down because they failed to control them in all 3 directions). Also there was a ready market for airplanes - militaries needed them for reconnaissance (even though generals did not realize that yet).

I suspect that the lack of economic success of movable print invention in China is a combination of technical and economic issues.

Movable print consists of many parts: reusable metal letters, matrix, ink that dries fast but can be removed from the letters &c. The letters must be simple enough so that inevitable imperfections and fouling do not make the printed text unreadable (a problem with the 1000s of Chinese characters).

The market requires a big pool of literate people who need the book. Remember, it is faster to make 1 copy of a book by hand than by printing, so to justify printing it, one has to know that there will be many people buying it. Europe had Bible that everyone wanted to own. Did China have a text of similar importance that everyone wanted to own? How many characters an average literate person knew? How many people could benefit from owning a book?

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    According to wp, the famous Chonese novel "Dream of the Red Chamber" was first published as a woodblock print, in 1791. By that time, woodock printing had already been using for one thousand years or so. IMHO this would indicate that the problems with movable type had less to do with market size, and more with pecularities of the Chinese script. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheng%E2%80%93Gao_versions
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 17:45
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    This answer seems to be mostly speculation. I would venture that Ming china had far more literate people than Europe at the time; especially as it had a much larger population. I would also venture that the market for books in China was much stronger as well. Thus, I don't believe your response answers the question. Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 0:53

There are a couple of issues here:

  1. Writing system.

Moveable type printing gives the greatest efficiency gains when the writing system doesn't need to employ a lot of different glpyhs. This means it works much better for systems that are alphabets (30ish glyphs) than for systems that use syllable glyphs combined with logographs (tens or hundreds of thousands of glpyhs).

So although the Chinese had worked out, their quasi-logographic writing system meant that making industrial use of it for the traditional Chinese writing system would require pre-creation and organization of what looks to western eyes like a completely unreasonable 50,000ish glyphs. For the modern Chinese used for newspapers today, the count commonly used is reduced to a mere 3,000, but that's still two powers of 10 more than that required for German.

You might think Korea was in a better spot here, since their modern writing system is quasi-alphabetic. However, that system was not invented in 1377 when their press was. So their press used a system borrowed from Chinese (or rather, it used the Chinese writing system), so it had the same problems.

  1. Literacy

This one's tougher to get good numbers on. There seems to be a recent trend to up-estimate Europe's literacy during the late middle-ages to possibly as high as 40%. Certainly the influx of paper to the region starting at the 11th Century attests to an demand for it existing. If those high numbers are anywhere near accurate, its quite likely the relative simplicity of its alphabetical writing system played a part. Clergy and monks were likely nearly universally literate.

For China the estimates I'm seeing are more along the lines of 16-30%, but in China literacy wasn't so much a boolean thing, but rather measured in the number of glyphs you know. So a barely literate Chinese person would perhaps know only a few hundred characters, while the full system contains on the order of 50,000. I don't have any info for Korean literacy at this time, but as they were still using the Chinese system, it seems fair to assume it wouldn't likely have been much better than the Chinese were experiencing.

I don't want to overstate the case here. Chinese is printed today, so its still an improvement over not doing so, and they continued to do some printing back in the day too, so it wasn't a total waste of time then either. However, when a tech is new its going to be at its least developed and efficient. At that time, there simply wasn't nearly the gain to be had for printing over professional hand-copying in China or Korea that there was in Germany.

  • How is it possible to post an answer 3 hrs after the post is closed? Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 13:22
  • I was wondering that myself. It wasn't closed when I started editing last night (and didn't show as closed when I submitted), but you'd think that shouldn't matter. Was pretty damn surpised when it showed as closed when my screen updated.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 15:00
  • The number of 50000 characters is when you want to cover every character and character variant that anyone has ever written. Modern dictionaries have about eight to ten thousand characters, and that number should be OK for the vast majority of printed texts. But of course it might happen that a character needs to appear more than once on a page.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 21:18
  • @Jan - Dial those up a bit? The 2004 Dictionary of Chinese Variants (which yes, include out-of-use glyphs) has over 100,000, and I'm seeing reported that the max you can expect to see in most less ambitious dictionaries is around 20,000. The minimum officially required by PRC for proficiency is a bit over 2,600.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 22:23
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    @Jan - Still quibbles. As huge as those number differences may be in absolute terms, what's important here is the qualitative difference of thousands (and probably not having some you might want) vs. having to create and deal with nice organized stacks of your 30 German glyphs.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 22:37

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