“Printing” in its purist form was invented by the Chinese around 700 A.D. using wood blocks and India ink. The intent was not to spread knowledge, but to preserve the integrity of religious texts through precise duplication. Thus the Buddhist and Confucian classics were authentically maintained. Later, histories and currency were produces by block printing.

The Buddhists, in 983, produced the spectacular Tripitaka – the entire Buddhist canon totaling 130,000 pages, each printed from a separately carved block!

A little known fact is that the Chinese experimented with movable type long before Gutenberg. But these experiments proved a dead end, for the Chinese language had no alphabet, which meant that more than 30,000 type characters were needed. Later, the Koreans developed a shorter, phonic alphabet of 25 letters. But the Oriental insistence on authenticity derailed its use. In fact, so concerned were the Orientals for precise accuracy in the texts, that floggings of printers were regulated based on numbers of errors per chapter!

Woodblock printing appeared in Europe a few decades before Gutenberg and may have come from the Far East. It was used primarily for the printing of playing cards. It is possible that reports of the distant Korean experiments with movable type might have provided Gutenberg with crucial clues in developing his great invention in the 1450s.

The collection includes several examples of Far Eastern woodblock printing, dating back to the 1400s. One, a fourteenth century Korean example, was printed with movable types. The Tibetan scroll in the collection is from a block carved solely from wood. Its date is unknown, but it was discovered and brought to this country following the Boxer Rebellion. A large woodblock, with carved Chinese characters, illustrates the way woodblock printing was done. It probably dates from the 18th or 19th centuries, when traditional woodblock printing was still cheaper and more convenient than movable type – at least in the Far East where the pictures and books produced by carving in wood excelled anything similar produced in the West.

Woodblocks were used extensively in Europe after Gutenberg, primarily for illustrations. A woodblock crest in the collection is undated, but is typical of those used to add drawings or artwork to the printed page in prior centuries.

The collection contains another woodblock from Thailand (where they are still used to print fabrics) and an English example from the 1800s used to print designs on bedspreads.

Tibetan Scroll

European Woodblock Crest

Chinese Carved Woodblock

Pre-Gutenberg Korean Woodblock Printing (1300s)

Woodblock from Thailand (for textiles)

European textile woodblock (19th Century)