Somewhere between 1045 and 1058, Bi Sheng, who lived in
China's capital of Bianliang during the Northern
Song Dynasty (960-1127), invented the moveable type.
He invented it on the basis of reforming the engraving type. At first he
sawed wood into small pieces, and then lettered every small piece of wood to
make movable Chinese
characters. According to what characters an article needed, he arranged the
needed characters on an iron board. After printing
, all these characters could be reused.
It did not take him much time to make 3,000 of the most commonly used
characters. Since it was hard to find a single character from out of the 3,000
characters, Sheng decided to put the characters in dozens of wood plates
according to their first syllable of pronunciation.
Later, Sheng also made movable characters from earth (such as soil or clay)
successfully. To be more efficient, he prepared two iron boards. When one was
being used for printing, the other could be used to arrange characters for the
next page or other articles. When the printing of the characters on the former
iron board was finished, people could use the latter board, which was already
arranged, to continue printing. Then the characters on the former board could be
taken off for future use or to assemble another page. By using the two boards
alternately, people could print faster.
Sheng prepared several movable characters for every character, or even scores
for some very frequently used ones, as obviously many times one character would
be used several times on a page. If an uncommon word was required, Sheng could
letter it very quickly and put it in a kiln to bake, which was also very
Although what Bi Sheng invented was simple when compared to the printing in
modern society, it already had the main traits of movable type printing: making
movable letters, typesetting, and printing.
Movable type printing was a huge reform in the history of printing and
contributed much to human civilization.