Bisheng: Chinese Inventor of Movable Type

By Flora Fan

AD 220 – The history of printing dates back to China's Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). There were two turning points in the development of the printing process - first, the beginning of woodblock printing, and second, the invention of movable printing. Silk printed flowers are the earliest surviving fragments of woodblock printing. With the spread of Buddhism in Eastern Asia, woodblock printing reached European countries through the Silk Road.

During the Northern Song Dynast...y (960 - 1127 CE), Chinese inventor Bi Sheng created movable type. It's regarded as one of the four great inventions from China - the other three inventions include the compass, gunpowder and paper-making. However, movable printing was not widely used in China because of the enormous amount of Chinese characters. It is hard to calculate the exact number of Chinese characters used in total, but it is believed that there are more than twenty-six thousand Chinese letters.

During the Warring States period (475 - 221 BCE), before the development of printing and movable printing, Chinese characters were widely written on bamboo slips. This lead to writing and reading Chinese vertically, and from the right to the left. The bamboo's tall and slender form and texture was more suitable for writing vertically. In addition, people were more likely to write with their right hand as they used their left hand to hold the heavy bamboo slips. Then they would write from right to left with their right hand. Chinese linguists believe that, in spite of the writing materials, writing and reading habits were also influenced by the feudal hierarchy system.

Check out this video that tells the story of how Bi Sheng invented movable type printing:

For more information about moveable type please visit here: