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China: The Printing Technological Roots


China: The Technological Roots

The invention of the printing press depended on the invention and refinement of paper in China over several centuries. The Chinese had developed "rag" paper, a cheap cloth-scrap and plant-fiber substitute for cumbersome bark and bamboo strips and for precious silk paper, by A.D. 105. Chinese prisoners passed a mature technology on to their Arab captors in the eighth century. The secrets of the craft that were revealed to Europeans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were substantially the same techniques the Chinese had passed to the Arabs several centuries earlier.

Long before the Gutenberg press, Chinese innovations in ink, block printing and movable clay type all fed the technological push toward expanding the written word's range of influence. Althought the European innovations came much later, European culture certainly felt the impact of print more dramatically than the Chinese did. Because their alphabet employs thousands of visually specific ideograms, the use of movable type was much more labor-intensive for the Chinese. Consequently, it did not change production efficiency as dramatically as it did for Europeans. Some historians will also assert that the sequential, linear and standardized character of the printed word especially suited Western impulses toward progress and conquest-- a disposition that favors quick and intense change.