Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day 31: Stuff just got real.

Today's lesson is a little more intense than the usual. But today we were learning about the history of libraries, archives, literacy and publishing, so that's a pretty hefty topic to cover.

The Chinese invented movable type. This much I already knew. 

They had it made of clay, wood and finally metal before Gutenberg was even a glint in anyone's eye. But a very eurocentric lecture about library and archive history made me wonder about this original iteration of movable type. 

While it is undeniable that while the Chinese did it first, it didn't explicitly create the massive waves that affected the very structure of the society we are currently living in the way Gutenberg's press did. 

But why didn't it? What social effects did it have? 

So that's what I started looking into... It's hard to find reference to the Chinese invention, and subsequent Korean attempts, beyond "Gutenberg did it, but the Chinese did it first". But my extensive research (by which I of course mean, Googling till I got what I was looking for) gave me my answer.

Lesson 31: The Chinese invention of the printing press did not have the same impact as Gutenberg's printing press, and is therefore rarely mentioned and often overlooked, because the Confucians (aka, the group in charge of China at the time) actively prohibited the commercialization of printing and the invention was restricted to governmental use. 

So while the Chinese (and Koreans using Chinese characters) had been using movable type for centuries before Gutenberg, the citizenry at large had never encountered, used or benefited from it, so its impact was limited to the scholarly. For instance, we are grateful to it today, because it saved, recreated and revived a lot of pre-3rd century (A.D.) Confucian learning.... which likely had a profound, but subtle, influence on the Enlightenment, rise of humanist thought and by extension the society we are currently living in. But it didn't seem to create any grandiose, "first great ideological revolution" like Gutenberg's press allowed in Europe. It created no wave of skyrocketing literacy rates, or increase in public education,  or emergence of the middle class the way Gutenberg's press paved the way for.

Well, and also: racism, colonialism and eurocentrism. But despite those things, we still attribute the invention of gunpowder to the Chinese, so it was obviously something extra keeping it quiet when it came to the printing press.

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