On the Cutting Edge of History - The Legacy of Korea's Printing Culture

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In the 8th century, Korea produced the oldest existing scroll printed using woodblock carving.

When Buddhism prospered in the Silla Kingdom from the 6th century, devout believers began to read and revere printed Buddhist sutras. Carved-woodblock printing technology was developed to produce copies efficiently. It became popular among wealthy devotees to donate a copy of a Dharani, or Buddhist mantra, to be kept in sacred places like the cavity inside a Buddha statute or a stupa.

Thus, a printed scroll containing the Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light was found inside the cavity of the Seokgatap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, when it was disassembled for renovation in 1966. Since it was built in 704-51, the scroll was likely to have been printed prior to 751, making it the oldest existing printed document. The print was clean and clear, showing the advanced woodcarving and printing technology of that time. By the 9th century, books other than Buddhist sutras were published using such technology.

Woodblock printing flourished through the Goryeo Dynasty that followed Unified Silla in the 10th century. A massive woodblock carving project in the early 13th century yielded the first edition of the Great Buddhist Tripitaka carved on woodblocks, but they were tragically burnt during the Mongol Invasions. The Goryeo government initiated a new project to carve the entire Tripitaka. All of the Buddhist sutras, commentaries and regulations were carved on more than 81,000 wooden plates, and are still preserved at Haeinsa Temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Korea invented metal movable type and used it to print books, at least sixty years before Gutenberg’s printing in Germany. The oldest existing book printed by movable metal type was printed at a Buddhist temple at Cheongju , Chungcheongbuk-do, in 1377. The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests' Zen Teachings, i.e. the Jikji (Buljo jikji simgyeol yochae) was published in two volumes, but only the second volume was found. A French diplomat acquired the book and took to his country in the late 19th century, and it is now in the collection of the National Library of France. That second volume is registered as a UNESCO Memory of the World Heritage. There are written references to a book printed in Korea using metal movable type 147 years before the Jikji, but there is no existing copy.

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