Friday, October 15, 2010

Where the book began

They invented moveable type in Cheongju long before the Gutenberg Bible

Most people still believe Johannes Gutenberg printed the world’s first book using movable type, a 42line Bible. They must have missed the news in 1972 that the book “Jikji” was printed 78 years before the Gutenberg Bible. In 2001 it was registered as a “Unesco Memory of the World”.

“Jikji” is the short name for “Baegun-hwasang-chorok-buljo-jikji-simche-yojeol”, which means “Monk Baegun’s Anthology on the Meanings of the Buddha’s Most Important Words, Jikji”.

It was printed using movable metal type in 1377, at Heungdeoksa Temple in Cheongju.
France’s original envoy to Korea, Collin de Plancy, took a copy of “Jikji” home with him, and it was auctioned along with his library following his death in 1911.

In 1952, the buyer, Henri Veve, in turn bequeathed that copy of “Jikji” to National Library of France, and that’s where Korean historian Park Byeong-seon “rediscovered” it 15 years later.

Dr Park also found 297 “Uigwe” - royal protocols - of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), covered in dust and wrongly classified as Chinese.

The edition of “Jikji” included a postscript with the term ju-ja, meaning “metal type”. When she submitted it to the 1972 Special Exhibition for Books in the National Library, experts realised its importance.

So significant was the revelation that South Korea built the Cheongju Jikji Pavilion, a museum of ancient printing, on the site of the Cheongju Heungdeoksa Temple, to underscore the fact that Korea was the first nation to use movable metal type.

Subsequent research has suggested that the type was formed using the technique known as lost-wax casting, since there are variations in the same letter, even on the same page.

Each stage of lost-wax moulding is portrayed in the museum’s Space of Discovery zone, with life-like animated figurines of humans and machines arranged to tell the tale.

Push a button and the figurines pour beeswax into rectangular moulds and then inscribe the dried wax. Ten or 11 letters on stalks were attached to the same base, and the mould was coated with clay.

Once the clay mould dried, it was heated to melt the wax inside. The wax was emptied out and replaced with molten metal. The metal was left to harden, the mould was broken open and the type was cut from the stalks. Each letter was cleaned of imperfections, and then they were ready for typesetting.

The only thing you won’t see at the “Jikji museum” is the original metal-print “Jikji” printed at the Heungdeok Temple.

The book remains in France’s National Library - properly labelled now and with pride of place in the Manuscrits Orientaux division - while the possibility of its return home is debated.

Art and resourcefulness are also in evidence at Suamgol Village, a former slum given new life as a National Public Fine Arts Development Project.

The wall of every building is now covered in paintings, as are the utility poles.
The long, winding alley with people living on either side, growing bell peppers and tomatoes in cracked baskets out front.

After its coat of fresh paint in 2008, the village was used for location shoots for the TV series “Cain and Abel”, and tourists started pouring in to see the “Wall Painting Village”.

“The villagers are happy to see people flocking in and taking pictures of their houses,” our guide assures us.

We head next to Sangsoo’s Herbland for lunch. It’s a 197,700-square-metre garden growing some 550 species of medicinal plants.

We’re treated to bowls of herbs, sprouts and colourful flowers along with a side of gochujang (chilli paste) and rice. Joining us is Herbland’s dashing, silver-haired chief executive, Dr Lee Sang Soo.

He vigorously makes his way around the table, dipping blossoms in water kimchi and sticking the petals to the female guests’ foreheads and cheeks, making them look like classic Korean brides.

Lee then pops rice cooked with rosemary into the bowl of herbs, adds a dollop of gochujang, mixes it up with chopsticks and tops everything with flowers from the mint-infused water kimchi.

“Eat the flowers together with a spoonful of cotbap, the flower rice,” he explains.
Munching the fragrant, herbal cotbap, my mind drifts off to the long journey of “Jikji” to a distant land, and its legacy back home, colourful paintings and the smiling faces of people in Suamgol.

The breath of life of Cheongju truly lies in the vigorous spirit of its people.

Cheongju, South Korea

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