Of all the museums of the western world, the Gutenberg Museum probably has the most extensive information on early achievements in the history of script and printing in Eastern Asia. Archaeological finds have revealed that in China script was notated on bone, bronze, ceramics and stone as early as the 5th millennium B.C. The invention of paper, originally made from hemp fibres and later from silk rags, the bark of the mulberry tree and other plant products, can be dated back to the 2nd century B.C. Paper allowed longer texts to be notated and texts to be copied. The development of Chinese script was closely linked to that of the writing utensils of the time, namely the brush, ink, the ink block and paper. They were fashioned to technical perfection; careful attention was paid to their form and design. Ink was usually made from the soot of burnt pine which was mixed with other ingredients (mainly lime) to form a paste
and then dried. This hard slab of ink was then placed on an ink block and wetted until fluid enough to be used for writing. Brushes were kept in special pots made from glazed ceramics or other materials, some of them costly.
The Early Days of Printing
During the Han period (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) religious inscriptions were chiselled into square slabs of stone. With the passing of time, rubbings and proofs of these inscriptions were taken on paper. The next step was to cut texts in Chinese characters in tablets of wood and to use these to produce prints (7th century A.D.). In this process, each character had to be painstakingly carved in lateral reverse and in relief.
Wooden printing formes exhibited at the museum give an impression of how text and pictures were reproduced in Eastern Asia for centuries. Four Chinese tablets in wood, cut as a forme on both sides, show how polychrome pictures were duplicated; printed together, they produce a display of complex colour.
Moveable Type before Gutenberg
Records tell us that in c. 1040 a man called Bi Sheng began experimenting with moveable ceramic printing stamps, using them to compose and print texts. They were arranged on an iron grid which had been smeared with wax or resin to prevent them from slipping out of place. The paper was placed onto the inked ceramic letters and the back of the sheet rubbed with a blade to transfer the ink to the paper. In later years individual stamps like these were made from wood.
The first moveable type in metal (copper, lead or brass) was probably produced in Korea. In China printing with moveable type was not really widely practised until the end of the 19th century; in Korea moveable type was in common use long before that. The enormous number of characters in Chinese script was a handicap to printing methods with moveable type, whereas in Korea the writing reform of the 15th century reduced the number of characters to 28 and then to 24, making the language better suited to such printing processes. The resulting Korean system of notation, Hangul, was officially launched in 1444 and by virtue of the authority of King Sejong was soon in use throughout the country.
The Book Art of Japan
The development and forms of Japanese writing are explained in the Japanese section of the museum on four large posters donated by the Dai Nippon company. Among the precious items on display in an original Japanese showcase is a Dharani sutra from the Nara period (710–794), a Buddhist scroll printed from a wooden forme and kept, as is the tradition, in a small pagoda of wood. Dated c. 770, this is estimated to be one of the oldest known wooden slab prints in the world.
Various illustrated books, most part of the collection presented to the museum by Dr. von Kritter, document the fine art of the colour woodcut in Japanese book illustration.
Examples of Japanese lead type, also given to the museum by Dai Nippon, demonstrate how European methods of type production began to spread to Japan in 1890. One artistic highlight is the calligraphic work of SHO calligrapher Shiryu Morita, born in Kyoto in 1912. SHO is a writing process which involves the whole body, where shape and form are inspired by gestures and the act of writing is preceded by meditation.