Bi Sheng

Bi Sheng

Chinese inventor
Country: China

  1. Bi Shen: The Chinese Innovator who Revolutionized Printing
  2. An Ancient Technique
  3. The Printing Process
  4. A Diverse Collection
  5. A Revolutionary Invention

Bi Shen: The Chinese Innovator who Revolutionized Printing

Bi Shen, a Chinese inventor, holds the distinction of being the first person in human history to conceive and implement the concept of movable type printing. His innovative movable type was crafted from clay during the reign of Jen-tsung, the fourth emperor of the Song Dynasty. Although Bi Shen came from humble origins, his groundbreaking invention was preserved through the writings of the renowned Chinese scholar and statesman, Shen Kuo.

An Ancient Technique

According to Shen Kuo's work, "Dream Pool Essays," Bi Shen developed his movable type during the Qingli era, between 1041 and 1048. As a non-government official, Bi Shen devised a unique method using viscous clay to carve individual Chinese characters, as thin as the edge of a coin, creating separate stamps for each symbol. He then fired the symbols to strengthen them. Prior to this, Bi Shen prepared a metal plate and coated it with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ash.

The Printing Process

When Bi Shen needed to print something, he would take an iron frame and place it on the metal plate. He would then arrange the clay stamps with the hieroglyphs in the frame, one row after another. As the frame filled up, it formed a single, stable block of stamps. Bi Shen would then heat it and press a smooth board against the surface, making it as smooth as a whetstone.

A Diverse Collection

To accommodate different characters, Bi Shen created multiple sets of characters, producing twenty or more stamps for the most commonly used hieroglyphs. This ensured that he was well-prepared for situations where a character repeated multiple times on a page. When not in use, Bi Shen stored the movable type in wooden boxes labeled with paper tags.

A Revolutionary Invention

Shen Kuo noted that Bi Shen's invention was exceedingly useful when printing a large number of copies, such as a couple of hundred. However, due to the fragility of the clay type, it was not practical for large-scale printing. Two hundred years later, Wang Zhen, a government official, refined Bi Shen's delicate clay system by creating a typeface made of homogeneous wood, which expedited the typesetting and printing processes. Another century and a half later, Hua Sui, a wealthy printer, introduced a bronze movable type in China.

Bi Shen's contribution to the art of printing laid the foundation for future advancements in the field. His innovation revolutionized the way information was disseminated and played a crucial role in the development of printing techniques that continue to shape the world today.