12. A Chinese character

T. H. Barrett
“I think the burning question is: we think of printing as having revolutionized intellectual life in Europe, how come it doesn’t appear to have revolutionized intellectual life in China? There’s no great fanfare when it arrives. It seems to creep in and people don’t talk about it much for quite a long time. That was the problem I was trying to address overall.”

This week I’ve been at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to see Professor of East Asian History, Tim Barrett. It was the title of Tim’s recent book – The Woman Who Discovered Printing – which made me keen to meet him. After all, most of us have grown up with the idea that printing was invented in medieval Germany by Gutenberg. In fact, Tim’s book shows that printing was already well-established in China many centuries before Gutenberg, and that Europeans had probably seen eastern wood-block type at a period when they were too far behind China technologically speaking to make use of it.

Woman who discovered printing book jacket

Perhaps our difficulty in the West with acknowledging the great advance the Chinese had over us (cultural prejudice aside) is how very different the story of printing looks from China. The woman in Tim’s story, for example, is not a artisan or a scientist, but Empress Wu, the only woman to rule China single-handed in its long history.

And her interests in the fledgling craft of printing around 700CE was stimulated not by a desire to spread knowledge, but to reinforce her own position. You can hear how she did that and how Tim has pieced together the evidence in the podcast.

In the programme, we touch on the possible impact of climate change on the development of printing and the role of Buddhist texts which were never meant to be read. You can also hear about the impression (if you’ll pardon the pun) made in the history books by one Gong the Sage, who, with his magic inks and words which appeared on paper when he blew on it, may be the very first printer in recorded history…

Reading Tim’s book provided me with a list of further titles I wanted to track down. Here is my personal selection:

Elizabeth Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

Blake Morrison: The Justification of Johann Gutenberg

John Hobson: The Easten Origins of Western Civilisation

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