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Dead medium: Bi Sheng's Clay Printing Press
From: From: bruces@well.com(Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): ANCIENT CHINA'S TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE, Compiled by the Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
First Edition 1983. Published by the Foreign Languages Press, 24 Baiwanzhuang Road, Beijing, China.
ISBN 0-8351-1001-X.

(((bruces remarks: In honor of Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule, we offer this dead Chinese medium: the clay printing press of the eleventh-century inventor Bi Sheng. The following history may well be accurate as far as it goes, but as is common in this didactically Marxist- nationalist work, there are some curious omissions. Primary among them: if Bi Sheng's was such a "convenient" and "economical" technology, then why did it fall out of use?)))

page 387

"In the Song Dynasty, there lived in an area where block printing was in its prime a commoner by the name of Bi Sheng who for years engaged in block printing and introduced the world's first block-letter printing. Dispensing with the traditional process of plate engraving and so reducing the time required to print a book, the new method was economical as well as convenient. Revolutionizing the printing press and having far-reaching impact, Bi Sheng's invention is essentially the same as the contemporary block-letter printing with lead type as still widely used in today's world.

"Bi Sheng's feat is described in *Meng Xi Bi Tan* (*Dream Stream Essays*) by Shen Kuo, an eminent scientist of the Song Dynasty. In the years 1041-48, according to Shen Kuo, Bi Sheng started making clay types, one for each character. These were fired for hardness. For typesetting a square sheet of iron was prepared with a layer of resin, wax and paper ashes mixed and spread on it. The mixture was circumscribed with an iron frame. A plate was complete when the frame was full. This was heated over a fire until the mixture melted. The types meanwhile were pressed down to the height of the frame with a wooden board and the plate was ready for printing. For higher efficiency two iron sheets were used, one for fresh typesetting and the other for printing, so that a new plate was ready before the specified number of copies had been made from the previous one. Several duplicate types were made for each character, the number depending on the frequency of its use. As for rarely used characters, they were carved and fired when necessary and used on the spot. Bi Sheng's method had great merit, with its notable speed, when hundreds or thousands of copies were made.

"In the reign of the Emperor Dao Guang (1821-1850) of the Qing Dynasty there lived in Jingxian County, Anhuin Province a schoolmaster named Zhai Jinsheng who made over 100,000 clay types after reading *Dream Stream Essays.* The work took him many years. With these clay types he printed *Ni Ban Shi Yin Chu Bian* (*Initial Notes on Printing with Clay Types*) and other books. Additional books printed later by the same method have been located in Beijing Library in recent years, demonstrating the accuracy of the records in *Dream Stream Essays* concerning Bi Sheng's clay-type printing."

Bruce Sterling (bruces@well.com)