Bi Sheng (990–1051 AD) was the Chinese inventor of the first known movable type technology. Bi Sheng's system was made of Chinese porcelain and was invented between 1041 and 1048 during the Song dynasty.
Movable type printing
Bi Sheng was a commoner, and his ancestry and details were not recorded. He was recorded only in the Dream Pool Essays by Chinese scholar-official and polymath Shen Kuo (1031–1095). The book records detailed description on the technical details of Bi Sheng's invention of movable type:
During the reign of Chingli [慶曆, 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.
Some Korean scholars claim Bi Sheng's clay types were fragile and not practical for large-scale printing. However, this claim was refuted by facts and experiments. Bao Shicheng (1775–1885) wrote that baked clay moveable type was "as hard and tough as horn"; experiments show that clay type, after being baked in an oven, becomes hard and difficult to break, such that it remains intact after being dropped from a height of two metres onto a marble floor. Korean scholars could have tried clay movable type, but with little success, probably due to misinterpration of Shen Kua's description "as thin as coin", which likely referred to the depth of the character matrix, not the total length of the moveable type body. The length of clay movable types in China was 1 to 2 centimetres.
The government official Wang Zhen (fl. 1290–1333) improved Bi Sheng's clay types by innovation through wood, as his process increased the speed of typesetting as well. Later in China by 1490 bronze movable type was developed by the wealthy printer Hua Sui (1439–1513).
- Translation by Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin (1985). "part one, vol. 5", in Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China: Paper and Printing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 201-202.
- Sohn, Pow-Key, "Early Korean Printing," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1959), pp.96-103 (100).
Shelton A. Gunaratne (2001). Paper, printing and the printing press: A horizontally integrative macrohistory analysis. International Communication Gazette, 63 (6) 459-470.