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Where China Failed

To the Editors:

Jason Epstein’s misstatements about movable type in premodern China [“Publishing: The Revolutionary Future,” NYR, March 11] might have been less disappointing if Boudewijn Walraven had not already corrected the same misconception in the very pages of The New York Review [Letters, August 14, 2008]. The notion that China could not conceive of the benefits of movable type seems to be one of those ingrained cultural myths that mere facts are insufficient to dispel.

China could hardly have “ignored” a graphic development “that might have permitted the use of movable type” when movable type was known in China centuries before Gutenberg. Rather, movable type never gained traction in premodern China for a simple reason: with the relatively large print runs that were expected of most publications, woodblock printing was almost always more economical. (Movable type tended to be favored only for huge projects, such as the printing of the Buddhist canon.)

Gutenberg invented movable type only in the sense that Columbus discovered America: he invented it for Europe. It was a remarkable invention, to be sure, but it does not allow us to disregard (or misrepresent) the long history of East Asian printing that preceded it.

Paul R. Goldin
Professor and Chair
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jason Epstein replies:

I did not write that China “could not conceive of the benefits of movable type.” These are Professor Goldin’s words, not mine. I suspect the Chinese conceived them all too well and rejected them as disruptive. Gutenberg’s invention required a phonetic alphabet for which China’s syllabic ideographs were unsuitable.

As I explained, the twenty-eight-letter phonetic alphabet called Hangul, invented by the Korean emperor Sejong, a contemporary of Gutenberg, would have solved this problem had China chosen to adopt it. The emperor wrote of it, “A wise man may acquaint himself with it before the morning is over, even the sound of the winds, the cry of the crane, the barking of the dog, all may be written.” The conservative Koreans rejected their emperor’s invention and the Chinese, as I wrote, “ignored [Sejong’s] phonetic transcription of its ideographs…that might have permitted the use of movable type.” Perhaps I should have added “as required by Gutenberg’s technology,” but I assumed the context made this clear.

Since China had been using wooden and ceramic type for centuries before Gutenberg, it is unfair that Gutenberg should be remembered by Western historians as the inventor of movable type even though European printers, to say nothing of the Chinese, preceded him. But there can be no question that he exploited the technology while China chose not to.

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