Jikji: The first known book printed with movable metal type

Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible is world-famous as supposedly the first book made with a printing press, which changed the course of humanity forever by eliminating the need for hand-copying books and enabling the mass production of books and literature.

However, that belief is actually untrue. The Chinese and Koreans printed books centuries before Gutenberg. Gutenberg’s printing press was certainly a huge achievement and his Bible paved the way for printed books in Europe, which reached the masses to a much higher degree than in Asia, where movable type printing wasn’t as useful. Chinese and Koreans both used thousands of characters in their script which in turn required thousands of unique woodblocks. The Roman alphabet, on the other hand, only needs twenty something letters, so the printing press was a more revolutionary item in Europe than in Asia.

Printing presses in China originally used woodblocks before using metal. Characters were carved into a woodblock and then inked and placed on a page. The earliest book using this method is the Chinese book Diamond Sutra, which is held in the British Library in London (the Jikji museum displays a replica). Movable type was also invented in China, and originally used wood.

The Jikji, which is a collection of Buddhist teachings, was printed in Cheongju, Korea in 1377, 78 years before the Gutenberg Bible. What makes it important is that it is the oldest known book printed with movable metal type.

The Cheongju Early Printing Musuem does not contain the actual Jikji though, the Jikji is stored in the National Library of France in Paris. A French diplomat purchased it from Korea during the Joseon dynasty.

The museum is set on the grounds where the Jikji was founded, at  Heungdeoksa temple site. The temple is no longer standing, but a replica was made.

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The museum itself is nicely designed.

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I thought the museum and exhibits were interesting, and there is English information on most of them.

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Display showing how the Jikji was made. The monks move and talk if you press a button.

There’s details of how printing presses, from the original wood to the later metal, worked and were used. There’s a focus on Korean printing methods, but there are some displays of Chinese, Japanese, and Western methods.

During my visit, an older man who works at the museum gave me a guided tour and explained some of the exhibits, such as how printing worked and the various printed books from the dynasties in Korea. He struggled several times with English, but I appreciated his effort and he was still informative.

Although the Jikji is very importnant, the national pride in some of the descriptions here came across as over the top. Even so it’s an informative museum and it’s also free. I would recommend a visit if passing through Cheongju, but I wouldn’t  go to Cheongju just to see it.

Getting there is easy. From Cheongju bus terminal, take bus 831 or 832 to Cheongju Arts Center (예술의전당). It’s about a 10 minute ride and you’ll see a green and yellow pedestrian bridge when it’s time to get off. Right across the road is the Early Printing Museum.

I spent the night in the city in a newly opened guesthouse called House202020. It’s located near the gate of Chungbuk university in an area with lots of bars and restaurants. The 4 bed dorm room is a good size and has an en suite bath. Price is 20,000 won a night. The owner is very friendly and cooks breakfast, which was toast, a sausage, eggs and pumpkin salad with yogurt. It was several times better than most hostel breakfasts.

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The guesthouse is in this building, up a few flights of stairs on the floor with the Korean flag.

The guesthouse doesn’t have a sign, at least not while I was there, but it was just officially opened so they might put one up in the future. At least for now, it’s best to call the owner and ask for directions, she answered my call right away and met me near the university gate.

Korea has tried to get the Jikji returned from France, but has so far been unsuccessful. Only the last volume of the metal printed Jikji has ever been found, so the first volume may or may not still be out there.

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