Early Printing in Korea - 3.1 Woodblock Printing

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Understanding Korea Series No.2
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3. Woodblock Printing and Movable Type Printing 1) Woodblock Printing 2) Movable Type Printing

Woodblock printing starts out with a calligraphy on paper done by a master; next, this paper is put face-down on a wooden plate the letters on the page are see-through. Then, the chiseler engraves the plate meticulously to perfect the woodblock. The ink is applied on the block and paper is pressed on top of it and rubbed.

Woodblocks usually consist of two maguri’s which function as handles on each end and protect the plates, and a plate face and center. Woodblocks are sometimes categorized according to their use: chaekpan (the book plate), for the main contents of a book; seopan (書板), for a calligraphy practice book; neunghwapan (菱花板), for a book cover illustration; inchalgongchaekpan (印札空冊板), for a notebook, Sijeonjipan (詩箋紙板), for letters; and dopan (圖板) for diagrams.

Depending on the number of editions or publication order, various names are given to them: choganbon (初刊本, first edition), junggakbon (重刻本, multiple-engraved edition), huswaebon (後刷本, latter edition), beongakbon (飜刻本, re-engraved edition), bogakbon (補刻本, complimentary edition), and gyojeongbon (校正本, revised edition). Other names include daejabon (大字本, large letter edition) and sojabon (小字本, small letter edition) according to the letter size, and daehyeongbon (大型本, large size edition) and sohyeongbon (小型本, small size edition) depending on the size of the book. Besides these names, generic antique book names were applied according to the time period, the place where it was engraved or the shape of the book.

Woodblock printing is a book created by engraving and printing writings using a wooden plate. Multiple copies cannot be made at once: the process is long, arduous and costly. Initially, they were created mainly to publish Buddhist canons but later on, the usage became more diverse and general: they were used to publish trendy philosophic ideas, academic papers, essay collections and other various documents.

Currently, the world’s earliest extant woodblock print is the Mugujeonggwangdaedaranigyeong (無垢淨光大陀羅尼經, Spotless Pure Light Dharani Sutra) discovered inside the Seokgatap stupa, located in the Bulguksa temple in Gyeongju. The dating of this printing of Silla, estimated to be before the year 751, is based on several grounds: the time of restoration of Bulguksa and building of Seokgatap stupa (751), the use of Wu-Zhou Dynasty style scripts in the sutra which was popular during the reign of Empress Consort Wu, the date of Chinese translation (漢譯) of Mugujeonggwangdaedaranigyeong (704), the timing of erection of the three story stupa of Hwangboksa temple which dedicated the identical sutra, and the date of inscriptions on Guhwangri stupa’s sari reliquary, which used the same style (706).

Jujube tress, pear trees, sputum trees, prunus and white birch were usually used as woodblock materials. They are mostly hard trees with a dense grain. The preparation process is: first, soak the lumber board in sea water for a given time or steam it in salted water, to soften the grain and make the chiseling process easier, and then dry it carefully to prevent warping; second, level the surface of the plate with a planer and apply end grains on each ends; third, place the carefully calligraphed manuscript face-down and engrave the letters directly; fourth, to print, situate the woodblock so the letters are facing upward and apply ink evenly throughout the plate face, and fifth, press a piece of paper on it and rub using waxed or greased inche (印髢, a printing sieve) made of horsehair or human hair.

The majority of books printed by traditional Korean methods are woodblock prints. They can be produced only after the original manuscript has been copied, so the source itself is a copy. There are three major ways these woodblock prints are created.

The first way is using the original manuscript. The final manuscript written for the woodblock print is called deungjaebon (登梓本, listed edition) and this deungjaebon disappears as the board is engraved, since the letters are directly engraved upon it. A woodblock engraved with an original manuscript is referred to as chogakbon (初刻本, first engraved edition) or choganbon (初刊本, first published edition).

The second method is called beongakbon (飜刻本, re-engraved edition): recreating a woodblock print from a movable type or woodblock print. This method evolved after the invention of woodblock printing: the beongak or re-engraving process took apart a previously-printed book, pressing the individual pages onto a woodblock and engraving it directly. This could induce distortions on the surface of the woodblock and alter the content if the deungjaebon used was unclear, causing incorrect chiselling. Also, during the re-engraving process, contents were sometimes omitted to save paper, and the beginning and the end were altered, omitted or added. Therefore, the content of the print became more unrefined and inaccurate over multiple re-engravings.

Among Korea’s beongakbon, the earliest confirmed one is Nammyeongcheonhwasangsongjeungdoga (南明泉和尙頌證道歌, Hymn of Monk Cheon in Homage to the Buddha). In the 26th year of Goryeo’s King Gojong’s reign (1239), it was published by engraving an upside down copy of an original movable type print. In Korea there is a large quantity of antique books created by beongakbon due to the convenience of the method. Since an already-existing book was used, a new manuscript was not necessary.

The third way is simply writing the manuscript over and making it into a woodblock print. In this case the original content in question is already published.

A woodblock print made for publication is different from manuscripts in the following ways. First, a woodblock print has a clear goal of publication. It is usually proofread for accuracy and the content tends to be complete, with distinctive, visible characteristics such as letter size, control of board shape and editing.

Second, while written manuscripts are unique and multiple books cannot be produced, woodblock prints can be reproduced as long as a supply of paper exists. The style of writing is consistent, and the form is maintained unless there are special circumstances.

Third, woodblock print can be used continuously for a relatively prolonged period, but attrition of the plate face may occur if it is overused, and sometimes it can become impossible to decipher the letters.

Fourth, the center of the plate, the scripture style and shape of the woodblock reflect social changes over time.

Understanding Korea Series No.2 Early Printings in Korea

Foreword · Acknowledgments

1. Korea’s Memory of the World and Early Printing (古印刷)

2. The Origins of World Printing Culture and Korea · 2.1 The Emergence of Printing Culture and Korea · 2.2 The Development of Printing Materials

3. Woodblock Printing and Movable Type Printing · 3.1 Woodblock Printing · 3.2 Movable Type Printing · 3.3 Other Early Printing

4. The Invention and Development of Metal Movable Type Printing · 4.1 Metal Movable Type Casting · 4.2 Metal Movable Type Typesetting

5. The Publishing Entities of Korean Traditional Prints · 5.1 The Government Publications (官) · 5.2 The Private Publications

Reference · Glossary · Sources · About the Author