At the dazzling Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, China's invention of printing 1,968 years ago was celebrated by thousands of performers hoisting tiles bearing Chinese characters above their heads. These squares symbolized the imprinted clay blocks used during the infancy of Chinese printing. It was also a reminder of how far Chinese printing has come into the computer age.
When peasant Bi Sheng devised movable block type in 1040, he was merely writing the first page of the story of the Chinese printed word - a legacy complicated by the fact that Chinese is written in hanzi, or characters developed from pictographs.
It's a well-known thing that the pictographically-based Chinese alphabet contains thousands of characters – unlike Latinate alphabets, where we assemble words from a limited set of glyphs, each character becomes a word. And there are innumerable words in English as well.
The sheer number of characters in the Chinese "alphabet" (in a country that famously speaks more dialects than this autodidact can count) makes print publication a daunting task, to gild the lily somewhat. The China Daily article further details what printing was like, as channeled though the testament of a worker from those times:
The vice-president of the China Academy of Printing Technology, Chi Tingling, said most printing houses of the era had about 60 blocks of nearly 6,000 characters in every typeface. They were stored in small cartons stacked inside booths spread among several rooms, covering more than 66,000 sq m.
Once his department received the last copy at 2 am, the printing house team would begin frantically hunting for and inserting the blocks in a 13-kg metal frame
The characters would become increasingly distorted throughout the night from being mashed in printing page after page, so every day they would melt the blocks down to cast new ones. Those making the lead type worked with toxic chemicals, such as potassium cyanide.
Printing in earlier times, even in the West, required using materials that we understand better these days to be toxic and deleterious to the health. Of course, it should also be remembered that when Marie Curie did die, it was of complications from prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation from her own researches.
The multiplicity of characters in Chinese has (if compared to digital printing in the West and in Europe) caused it to lag behind, relatively speaking: As late as 1990, regional editions of national dailies had to replicate pages by hand after them being physically delivered. Withal, it's not whether or not Chinese is a better or worse system, just a large and more complex one, that took longer for technology to catch up with:
The man who came up with the solution was Wang Xuan (1937-2006), a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the former chair of software leader Founder Group.
Hailed as a modern Bi Sheng, Wang developed a large-scale integrated circuit capable of efficiently storing compressed information in hanzi and a five-stroke input method in 1975. He went on to devise a laser-printing system for characters. In 1980, a 26-page text about kung fu that rolled off his press became China's first laser-printed book.
The next time some fifth-grader complains about spelling tests, they should feel fortunate that they didn't have the travails that Chinese print had.
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