Bi Sheng Develops Movable Earthenware Type Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Bi Sheng’s invention of movable type was a significant event in the history of printing. His discovery preceded Johannes Gutenberg’s developments in typography by about four centuries.

Summary of Event

Printing existed in China by the end of the second century. In the earliest form of printing, moistened paper was pressed against stone inscriptions or carvings of texts, much like stone rubbings. Woodblock printing began to be used during the Tang Dynasty (Tan’g; 618-907). The text or images were carved in relief on a single wood plate, which was then inked. This form of printing continued to be used in China until the end of the nineteenth century. The world’s first movable type was created by Bi Sheng, a commoner, during the Northern Song Dynasty Northern Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1126). He made individual ceramic-type pieces for each character or ideogram. [kw]Bi Sheng Develops Movable Earthenware Type (c. 1045) [kw]Movable Earthenware Type, Bi Sheng Develops (c. 1045) Bi Sheng Printing;China China;printing Typography;China China;c. 1045: Bi Sheng Develops Movable Earthenware Type[1580] Science and technology;c. 1045: Bi Sheng Develops Movable Earthenware Type[1580] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1045: Bi Sheng Develops Movable Earthenware Type[1580] Communications;c. 1045: Bi Sheng Develops Movable Earthenware Type[1580] Bi Sheng Shen Kuo

Little is known about Bi Sheng’ Bi Sheng life. His year of birth is unknown, but the discovery of his tomb in 1990 established that he had lived in Yingshan County, Hubei Province. According to his tombstone, he had four sons and three grandsons and died in 1051.

Bi Sheng’s invention of movable-type printing was described in great detail by his contemporary, Shen Kuo Shen Kuo , the eminent Song scholar and scientist. After Shen Kuo retired, in about 1088, he wrote his famous thirty-volume encyclopedic work, Mengxi bitan (dream pool essays, or brush talks from the dream creek), The work’s 609 articles covered such diverse subjects as science, history, politics, philosophy, and technology. Mengxi bitan also contained the earliest surviving historical account of movable-type printing. Shen Kuo describes Bi Sheng’s method (as translated in Thomas Carter’s The Invention of Printing in China, 1955):

He took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a copper coin. Each character formed as it were a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered this plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the type, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

Shen Kuo said Bi Sheng could print quite rapidly, partly because he would prepare a second form while the first one was printing to avoid wasting any time. He also made several pieces of type for each character, up to twenty or more pieces for common characters. When he was not using the charters, Bi Sheng “had them arranged with paper labels, one label for words of each rhyme-group, and thus kept them in wooden cases.”

In 1313, another historical account of Bi Sheng’s invention appeared in Wang Zhen’s historical work, A Guide to Movable-type Printing. Wang Zhen, a magistrate, experimented with wooden type, cut individually by hand, to print his district’s official records in the Jing de xian zhi (chronicle of Jingde County) and the Nong shu (treatise on agriculture). He invented a rotary typesetting device, a revolving table on which was placed a round bamboo frame holding the type. The type in the compartments were arranged according to a popular book of rhymes. A second table held the most common characters, with a total of more than 30,000 characters on the two tables. The type was taken from the tables to put on a dry block for printing.


Bi Sheng’s invention was a major revolution in printing technology, but movable-type printing did not flourish or become widespread in China at that time. Although the invention made it possible to print thousands of copies of a book easily, much time and effort were required to set up printing plates with the individual movable characters. In contrast to the twenty-six characters or letters of the English alphabet, there were tens of thousands of individual Chinese characters. Also, in feudal society, reading was limited to a privileged minority, so it was not necessary or economical to print thousands of copies. Traditional woodblock printing, with characters engraved a page at a time, remained the principal printing technology.

However, although movable-type printing was not the dominant technology, printers and others continued to experiment, resulting in numerous improvements. During the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), experiments with tin, the earliest metal type, were conducted. Tin failed to hold the traditional water-based inks well, and wooden types were developed.

Later, during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (Ch’ing, 1644-1911) Dynasties, woodblock-letter printing became popular. In 1773, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795), the government produced 253,500 type pieces from date tree wood. China’s largest wood-type publication was Wu ying dian ju zhen ban cong shu (eighteenth century; books of Wuying Hall), a 2,300-volume compilation of 138 books by various writers. During the reign of Emperor Daoguang (r. 1821-1850), Zhai Jingsheng is recorded as having used more than 100,000 pieces of clay type to print the Pedigree Records of the Zhais.

Movable-type printing technology also traveled to Korea, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe. Bi Sheng’s invention, the world’s first block-letter printing, was the precursor of twentieth century lead-type printing.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Thomas. The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward. New York: Ronald Press, 1955. The authoritative, scholarly work on the subject. The chapter, “The Invention of Movable Type in China” includes the author’s translation of the entire passage about Bi Sheng’s invention, as recorded in Shen Kuo’s work. Includes an extensive bibliography, footnotes, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guppy, Henry, and Bruce Rogers. Stepping-Stones to the Art of Typography. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1928. Describes Bi Sheng’s invention within its historical context and the difficulties of the method. Includes a bibliography and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Ancient China’s Technology and Science. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1987. The chapter, “The Invention and Development of Printing and Its Dissemination Abroad,” discusses Bi Sheng’s invention. Bibliography consists primarily of original source materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liu, Guojun, and Zheng Rusi. Translated by Zhou Yicheng. The Story of Chinese Books. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1985. The chapter entitled. “The Invention of Movable-Type Printing and Its Development” discusses in detail the history of this invention. Illustrations include a picture of Bi Sheng.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMurtrie, Douglas C. The Book: The Story of Printing and Bookmaking. London: Oxford University Press, 1972. The chapter on “Printing in the Far East” discusses the historical records of the invention of movable type in China and its later development in Korea. Illustrated, with a bibliography for each chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Frank. Oracle Bones, Stars, and Wheelbarrows: Ancient Chinese Science and Technology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982. Includes a basic, general history of printing in China and a description of Bi Sheng’s printing process. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin. Paper and Printing. Part 1 in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Vol. 5 in Science and Civilisation in China, translated and edited by Joseph Needham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A scholarly and comprehensive study of the invention and technology of printing in China, from the earliest woodcuts to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It discusses the invention of movable type and the resulting spread of printing. Illustrated, with bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twitchett, Denis. Printing and Publishing in Medieval China. London: Wynkyn de Worde Society, 1983. Informative chapters on printing from movable type in both China and Korea. Includes illustrations, notes, and bibliography.

Categories: History