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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part Three


By Cynthia Muak

Wonders 3 - Printing

I place PRINTING at No. 3 not because of its importance as one of the 4 great inventions of China but because Paper and Printing do go hand in hand. After the invention of paper, it would seem only logical to invent a system that could put the paper to good use.

When paper became available, transcribing the text from bones or bamboo scrolls by hand onto paper began. This was a tedious and time-consuming process. So some Chinese minds developed a method that would make the task easier and more accurate. Printing is a process for reproducing text and images using a master form or template.

Before 220 AD:
-Woodblock printing text, images or patterns originated in China on textile or on paper.
-Earliest surviving woodblock printed fragments are from China and are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from Han Dynasty.

Mid-7th Century:
-Earliest example of woodblock printing on paper appeared in China
The cost of manufacturing paper should have been greatly reduced. Also with time, the paper quality must have shown remarkable improvement because by

9th Century:
-Printing on paper had taken off. The first completed printed book was the Diamond Sutra of 868 AD (exhibit at British Library).

10th Century:
-400,000 copies of some sutras and pictures were printed.
-Confucian classics were in print.
-A skilled printer could print up to 2,000 double page sheets a day.

11th Century (1040):
-Bi Sheng in China had by this time developed a printing system that included movable pieces of metal types. The new movable type allowed for a more flexible process than hand copying or block printing.

Bi Sheng's technique:
Bi Sheng invented the movable type of printing on the basis of reforming the engraving type.
-At first, he sawed wood into small pieces, and then lettered every small piece of wood to make movable Chinese characters.
-According to which character an article needed, he arranged the needed character on an iron board.
-After printing, all these characters could be reused.
-It did not take him much time to make 3,000 characters.
-He organised storage of these characters by putting them in dozens of wood plates and filing them according to their first syllable of pronunciation.
-Bi Sheng improved his type by making his movable characters in clay; later in metal too.
-To be more efficient he prepared two iron boards. When one was being used for printing, the other could be used to arrange characters for the next page or other articles.
-When the printing of the characters on the former iron board was finished, the printer would use the latter board, which was arranged to continue printing.
-The characters on the former board could be taken off for future use, or to assemble another page.
-Bi Sheng prepared several character pieces for every character or even scores for some very frequently used ones, as obviously many times one character would be used several times on a page.
-If an uncommon word was required, Bi Sheng could letter it quickly and put it in a kiln to bake which was very convenient.
-Printing using this method thus became very fast.

Up to 12th Century:
-After printing became popular in the Song Dynasty, paper was often used as a levy with one prefecture sending some 1.5m sheets of paper to the capital as tribute, up to the year 1101.

13th - 14th Century:
-Bi Sheng's technique soon spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, and to the Middle East. From there it reached Europe.

15th Century:
-Johannes Gutenberg of Germany developed a printing press improving on the Chinese printing process, making it more efficient for use with the Westerners' limited alphabets.
-After that, printing took off in a big way. Printing of the Bible led the way, creating new careers and businesses for the paper and printing related industries.

Modern times:
-In China (maybe in the whole world) the most printed book would be Mao's Little Red Book.
-The other work running a close second would be Sun Tzu's Art Of War. His original treatise written onto bamboo slips were recovered in perfect condition. The 13 chapters had since been translated and claimed by so many translators, in so many languages, and printed by so many publishing houses, under so many guises, and bound into so many versions, and presented in so many forms, yet underneath all that it still remained China's Sun Tzu's Art of War.

Although what Bi Sheng invented was simple when compared to the printing in modern times, it already had the traits of movable letters, typesetting, and printing. Movable type printing was a huge development in the history of printing and contributed much to human civilisation.

Hibiscus Town
I first saw the Chinese movie Hibiscus Town when it was screened in an arthouse cinema in Hong Kong in 1988. The next year when I had the opportunity to visit Guangzhou for the first time, the first thing I bought was a street map of Guangzhou. We then made our way to the highly recommended Yuexiu Park. While there, we met a very pleasant elderly gentleman, Mr. Chan, who was working as a attendant for 2 pavilions by the lake. Visitors used these shady pavilions as rest-stops. Uncle Chan would provide tea and some snacks. According to Uncle Chan many locals (usually men) were regulars. They would arrive as soon as the park opened, make for the shady pavilions and spend almost the whole day there reading. Uncle Chan never charged them anything. They brought their own tea and their own food. Uncle Chan would top up their tea with hot water whenever he noticed the tea in their bottles had gone dry. They would usually tip Uncle Chan 2RMB when they left. (An inexpensive way to spend a pleasant and restful day for Chinese: bus fare for senior citizens 1/2 price, 65 and over free travel; entry to park for seniors free).

Uncle Chan was very helpful towards us too. When we asked whether he knew of any good book stores close by, he suggested we first go to Dongfang Middle Road. From there, if we looked into the side streets as we walked around, we should be able to find a book shop. 'Look out for Foreign Language Press' was his parting instruction to us.

We managed to locate a Foreign Language Press bookshop. I showed the shop assistant the news clipping I had brought with me re Hibiscus Town movie, letting him know I wanted the book. The book (paper cover with about 200 plus pages small print) cost me only 3 RMB. It was my favourite for many years because it depicted the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution so vividly, that when reading the book I felt I was in there experiencing the relentless, senseless and cruel persecution, which inflicted unimaginable suffering on the innocent Chinese people. It also showed human nature as it truly was: hypocritical, corrupt, power-hungry, fanatical, abusive, greedy, cruel and evil, envious, covetous, without charity, unforgiving.

Yet on the other hand the decent people were loyal, trust worthy, humble, helpful, honest, forgiving, kind, charitable, hardworking, loving, and knew how to live and love. Without this book, (a story printed out in paper) I could not have gone through the whole spectrum of human emotions so vividly and beautifully portrayed by the power of the written word. What an author and what a movie director!!!

When I looked at the prices of the other books for sale in the shop, I no longer question the staggering amount of printing done during the Cultural Revolution: billions of books, millions of posters in all formats and sizes, mountains of propaganda pamphlets, etc, etc.

The cost of paper and printing must be very cheap in China, because I had never before come across such ridiculously priced, brand new books and printed articles like maps, posters, etc. Don't buy anything from those official Friendship stores in hotels or shopping malls or stand-alone set-ups if you don't want to be ripped off. A bookstore on any of the busy side streets will carry enough decent stock with wide selection of research and reading materials at really, really low prices.

I used to buy different versions of China maps at every place I visited. In years 1989/90/91/92 I think I paid only RMB 1 for each handy fold-out map. I bought about 20 versions just for Guangzhou alone. For other towns and cities, I would buy as many versions as available. One could go crazy just looking at their prices, and buy and buy some more. No doubt about it. I could fill out a suitcase with Foreign Language Press books by spending just HK$100 at their bookshop. I actually did this. Every time I visited China, I always trucked home at least a carrier bag full of FLP books. I had since given away my China books. The ones I kept were the reference books on Chinese medicinal herbs, traditional Chinese medicine, tai chi exercises, and proper diets for the four seasons.

Judging by the number of daily newspapers on sale, the many different forms, vouchers, tickets and coupons required to get around any business in China, the amount of printed posters displayed all over the place, paper and printing must be big business in China. It is definitely an industry that must be providing job opportunities for millions of Chinese people, ranging from specialised technical staff to designers and writers, to typesetters and printers, to near illiterate senior citizens who still have the energy to collect rubbish and sort through it for recyclable paper.

One time (1990), after lunch in a Kaiping teahouse, we were offered mooncakes as dessert. I wasn't interested as I was not sure what was used as fillings. I walked outside just to have a look around. I saw an old lady manning a makeshift corner stall (a wooden board placed atop a wooden crate) selling some newspapers, stationery items, and street maps of Kaiping. She told me the maps cost RMB 0.80 each. I was hesitating, wondering how many I should buy. I didn't want to carry too much baggage as we were going to Shangchuan Island(St. Francis Xavier died on this island in 1552) after Kaiping and Taishan. I was told the ferry from Guanghai to Shangchuan was not the big sturdy type we were used to. She thought I hesitated because I found the maps expensive. She lowered the price to RMB 0.70.

It was mid Autumn festival. I thought she shouldn't be out on the streets hawking. She should be home enjoying a festival lunch. I gave her RMB 20 and took all the maps she had (about 15). She showed her appreciation by throwing a few ballpoint pens and a couple of plastic gas lighters into a plastic carry bag together with the maps and a copy of the Kaiping Daily News. Those times in China it was easy to get carried away with unchecked spending - the value of the HK$ vs RMB was higher and the prices in China almost negligible compared to Hong Kong. The people in these off-the-beaten track places looked as if they could use the extra money.

The situation in 2014, I have been told, HK$ vs RMB plus Hong Kong vs China, is the exact opposite. Hongkong businesses look forward to the daily deluge of mainland visitors because they have lots of money to spend. And, boy, do they spend - as if money is going out of fashion come any day! How times and fortunes have changed.

It's rather ironic because it's not just Hong Kong businesses wanting Chinese Mainlanders' patronage. The entire world is waiting at China's doorsteps, trying all sorts of ways to court her goodwill. The common belief is that the appetite of Chinese consumers can only be sated by branded goods, both edible and non edible. It is this belief and the Chinese mainlanders' blatant flash of stacks of paper money that is attracting big named brands to China in droves.

Cash is King, and China is sitting on a legendary mountain - deeper than the Grand Canyon, bigger than the Pacific Ocean and higher than the Everest - heapful of it.
Hola - only in China!

Watch out for the next installment of 'Wonders': Compass.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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