In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Book Publishing and Printing Technologies in Premodern China (Seventh-Nineteenth Centuries)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Craft Labor and the Organization of Book Production and Sale
  • Economics of Print Production and Sale
  • New Technologies and the Decline of Traditional Printing Methods

Chinese Studies Book Publishing and Printing Technologies in Premodern China (Seventh-Nineteenth Centuries)
Cynthia Brokaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0212


In the world history of printing, China is distinctive for the number and variety of different technologies employed in the premodern era—that is, between the seventh century, when xylography or woodblock (muban 木版, diaoban 雕版, diaoke雕刻) printing was invented, and the late nineteenth century, when mechanized movable type and other imports from the West began to supplant indigenous print technologies. The Chinese also developed several methods of movable-type printing as early as the Song dynasty (960–1279): earthenware or clay movable type (nihuozi 泥活字) and wooden movable type (muhuozi 木活字) printing. Metal movable type (jinshu huozi 金屬活字), first invented in Korea in the thirteenth century, was also in limited use in China by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644); Chinese printers experimented with bronze or copper (tong 銅), tin (xi 錫), lead (qian 鉛), and, eventually, porcelain (ciban 磁版) types. In the Qing (1644–1911), wooden movable type or wax tablets (laban 蠟板) were used for rapid reproduction of news sheets and public announcements. Each method had different practical, economic, technological, and/or aesthetic advantages. For example, xylography reproduced calligraphy more effectively and allowed publishers to reprint works easily and relatively cheaply as the market demanded, whereas movable type was the most efficient way of speedily publishing texts of immediate relevance but short shelf life, or texts in which the same characters were frequently repeated (e.g., genealogies). The variety of print technologies thus offered Chinese publishers, whether official, private, commercial, or institutional, considerable flexibility in adapting technology to content and use. But, generally speaking, throughout the long twelve-century history of premodern Chinese printing, woodblock printing remained the dominant technology, as it was most suitable for printing the Chinese language and could most effectively reproduce the aesthetic quality of Chinese calligraphy. This bibliography gathers sources, primary (where available) and secondary, to provide information about these different printing technologies, their origins, their development, and their uses—and the ways in which they shaped Chinese book culture from the late Tang dynasty (618–907) through much of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911). Some attention is also devoted to the techniques of Chinese color printing, the materials and tools of printing, craft labor and publishing organization, and the economics of printing. A final section treats the fate of the premodern technologies in the modern era. For works that treat the history of Chinese publishing and book culture, see the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies article “Printing and Book Culture.”

General Overviews

Overviews of premodern Chinese print technologies are usually included in comprehensive histories of Chinese printing; the attention paid to purely technological developments varies. Sun 2016 and Carter 1955 (cited under Origins of Printing) were among the first works, in Chinese and English, respectively, to attempt a history of Chinese printing. Tsien 1985 is the standard overview in English, while Zhang 1986 (revised in Zhang 2006) is the standard overview in Chinese. Wei 1988 supplies a more condensed history, with attention to the distinctive physical characteristics of woodblock and movable-type printed texts. Qian 2002 is a collection of essays that provide specialized discussion of technologies and, in particular, the materials of printing. Xu 1997; Pan 1998; and Zhang, et al. 1999 also provide synthetic overviews of the history of xylographic and movable-type printing; Pan 1998 is the most clearly attentive to technological change. Zhong 2007 collects essays on printing techniques throughout the entire history of Chinese printing, premodern and modern. Shi, et al. 2011 provides an overview of the development of print technology and the materials of printing in China. Some Chinese print historians tend to overemphasize the role that movable-type printing played in Chinese book history, often in response to the Western obsession with Gutenberg and the invention of movable-type printing in Europe or in competition with Korea to claim the invention of metal movable type in East Asia. But, in all these works, although due attention is paid to the growing significance of movable-type printing in China in the later imperial period, the primary focus is wisely on woodblock printing, the most commonly utilized technology of print until the early twentieth century.

  • Pan Jixing 潘吉星. Zaozhi yu yinshua juan (造纸与印刷). Zhongguo kexue jishu shi (中国科学技术史). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 1998.

    By an expert on Chinese paper-making, this volume in a series of works on science and technology in China, includes a detailed discussion of both woodblock and movable-type print technology in premodern China; the focus here is on the technological development. Contains a useful section on premodern publishing by Uyghurs, Tanguts, Tibetans, and other neighboring ethnic groups who employed print technologies presumably transmitted from China.

  • Qian Cunxun 錢存訓 (Tsien Tsuen-hsuin). Zhongguo shuji, zhimo ji yinshua lunwen ji (中國書籍,紙墨及印刷史論文集). Xianggang, China: Zhongwen Daxue Chubanshe, 2002.

    Originally published in 1992, a collection of essays on paper-making, ink-making, xylography, and movable-type printing. Qian also discusses the influence of Chinese paper and printing on Europe.

  • Shi Jilong 施继龙, Zhang Shudong 张树栋, and Zhang Yangzhi 张养志. Zhongguo yinshuashu fazhan shilüe (中国印刷术发展史略). Beijing: Yinshua Gongye Chubanshe, 2011.

    Overview of the history of print technology in China; it treats the materials, equipment, and processes of printing. The lead author is a faculty member of the Beijing Printing Academy (Beijing yinshua xueyuan 北京印刷学院).

  • Sun Yuxiu 孫毓修. Zhongguo diaoban yuanliu kao (中國雕版源流考). Shanghai: Shanghai Commercial Press, 2016.

    Originally published in 1916, this a classic, although now outdated, work on the origins and development of printing in China by the prominent late Qing and Republican-era bibliophile Sun Yuxiu (b. 1871–d. 1922).

  • Tsien Tsuen-hsuin (Qian Cunxun 錢存訓). Science and Civilisation in China: Paper and Printing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Tsien (b. 1910–d. 2015), former curator of the East Asian Library at the University of Chicago, produced what remains the best overview in English of Chinese print technologies, with descriptions of paper-making, ink-making, the origin and development of printing, woodblock preparation and cutting, printing, and binding. Tsien also persuasively explains the reasons why woodblock printing was preferred to movable-type printing even after the invention of the latter in the eleventh century.

  • Wei Yinru 魏隐儒. Zhongguo guji yinshuashi (中国古籍印刷史). Beijing: Yinshua Gongye Chubanshe, 1988.

    Prominent book scholar Wei Yinru’s (b. 1916–d. 1993) history of Chinese printing; it treats books before printing and the development of both woodblock printing and movable-type printing; and describes the special physical characteristics of Chinese books and changes in these characteristics over the premodern period.

  • Xu Yingjian 許灜鑑, ed. Zhongguo yinshuashi luncong: Shipian (中國印刷史論叢:史篇). 2 vols. Taibei: Zhongguo Yinshua Xuehui, 1997.

    Compiled with the collaboration of scholars from Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States, a history of Chinese printing concluding with the Western print technologies introduced to China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Developments in woodblock printing are embedded in chapters devoted to specific dynasties; there are separate sections on movable-type printing, the materials of printing, and a chronology of Chinese printing history.

  • Zhang Shudong 张树栋, Pang Duoyi 庞多益, and Zheng Rusi 郑如斯. Zhonghua yinshua tongshi (中国印刷通史). Beijing: Yinshua Gongye Chubanshe, 1999.

    With Pan 1998, one of more technologically oriented of the general overviews of Chinese printing, this works treats Chinese printing through the 1990s. Most attention is paid to woodblock printing, but there are separate chapters on printing materials, the different varieties of movable-type printing, and wax and porcelain-type printing. An appendix contains a useful chronology of Chinese printing history, with an emphasis on technological developments.

  • Zhang Xiumin 张秀民. Zhongguo yinshuashi (中国印刷史). Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1986.

    A magisterial history of Chinese printing by the late pioneering scholar of printing history Zhang Xiumin (b. 1908–d. 2006). Primary focus is on the dynasty-by-dynasty history of Chinese woodblock publishing, but Zhang includes chapters on movable-type printing and—unusually and usefully—on the work of scribes, block-cutters, and printers. There is also a glossary of terms.

  • Zhang Xiumin 张秀民. Zhongguo yinshuashi (中国印刷史). Revised by Han Qi 韩琦. 2 vols. Hangzhou, China: Zhejiang Guji Chubanshe, 2006.

    A revised, updated, and more fully illustrated version of Zhang 1986.

  • Zhong Yongcheng 钟永诚. Gujin yinshuashu (古今印刷术). Jinan, China: Shandong Kexue Jishu Chubanshe, 2007.

    A collection of essays that discuss the materials of printing, the technologies of print, and changes in printing processes throughout the entire history of Chinese printing. Zhong emphasizes the gradual standardization of premodern printing processes from the Song through the Qing.

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