The Influence and Importance of the Korean Metal Type

Though the Korean metal type was created earlier than Gutenberg’s, there are some people who think that it is of less significance because it had a smaller influence from a historical point of view.


I acknowledge that it may be perceived in that way, but isn’t this perspective rooted in the Western viewpoint? The evolution of mankind has largely been viewed through an enormously influential Western bias. So there are aspects of Asia that remain unknown to Westerners, which leads to an undervaluation of their worth. Jikji, the oldest extant movable metal type printing, serves as a compelling example of an overlooked part of Korea’s contribution to the advancement of technology. We aspire to shed light on these overlooked aspects. We hope that you regard the following text as an opportunity to discover the unknown Korean and Asian contributions to historically significant advances in technology.


The main reason for Koreans’ use of the metal print was to, like Gutenberg, distribute information quickly. The fact that Koreans were widely using this technology in the early 13th century, 200 years ahead of Gutenberg, is very significant considering the importance of information distribution. For this reason, UNESCO registered Jikji and Gutenberg as a Memory of the World in 2001. Additionally, the rarity of Jikji contributed to its successful registration and Jikji was recognized for its legacy, especially in regards to its large influence on humanity. Mr. Bendik Rugaas, Chairman of the Memory of the World National Committee, officially acknowledged that Jikji is the oldest extant movable metal type printed book. Originally there were two volumes of Jikji printed. However, only one volume remains, which is currently stored in France.


In the East, Korea’s metal type’s influence on Asia can be observed through its importation to Japan and use in printing books. In 1592, the Japanese General, Toyotomi Hideyoshi plundered the copper type and in his journal, it says that he offered this to the Emperor Huyangsung. The Emperor commanded the printing of a book called ‘Gomun Hyokyung’. There is no existing copy of ‘Gomun Hyokyung.’ However, this command is recorded in the document ‘Shikyung Kyungki’. Following this, in 1597, the book ‘Kwonhakmun’ was printed using a wooden type that replicated the Korean metal type. In the preface, it states that the wooden type printing method was from Joseon dynasty, one of the ancient dynasties of Korea. As seen in the above examples, it is clear that Korea’s metal type printing influenced Eastern Asia in the same way Gutenberg’s printing press influenced Europe.


After Jikji, printing technology was passed down and used by many Koreans. In the Joseon dynasty, the printing technology continued to improve. Every time a new form of metal type printing was created, it was given a name. Four notable versions are Gyemija in 1403, Gyeongjaja in 1420, Gabinja in 1434 and Byeongjinja in 1436 which were used to print various books. Following the popularization of Hangeul (current Korean script) in 1446, a metal type was used in 1447 to print the book ‘Wolinchungangjigok’ in Hangeul.


From a Western point-of-view, more research is needed to confirm the extent of Jikji’s influence. There are even historians that claim the Gutenberg’s metal type casting method was from Korea. For example, former US Vice President Al Gore stated in his opening speech at The Seoul Digital Forum 2005 that many know Gutenberg as the inventor of printing. However, through his visit to The Swiss Printing Museum, Al Gore discovered that the printing technology was obtained after the Pope’s delegation visited Korea. He also said that Gutenberg was friends with the delegation who at that time brought him many different records of printing technology. (Source: Yeonhap News May 19, 2005)


The conclusions that can be drawn are as follows:

1) The Korean metal type was for swift, mass distribution of information, just like Gutenberg.

2) In 2001, UNESCO registered Jikji and Gutenberg for changing the world by spreading massive amounts of information.

3) The Korean Metal type influenced Asia through its effect on book publication in Japan.


Gutenberg and Jikji influenced world history. Instead comparing these two through the Western view that Gutenberg has more significance than Jikji, I believe that we need to study the significance of the Korean Metal type through a global lens. As we do this, it is my hope that the Eastern Jikji and the Western Gutenberg, both Metal types of the East and West, are given equal importance and that this is reflected in textbooks, encyclopedias, and on the internet.

I wish that this article will change your views on Jikji and furthermore be of some help in making people from all corners of the world learn the right facts about Jikji.


Writer: Gi-tae Park, VANK Co-writer: Cheol-hee Lee, Director of Cheongju Early Printing Museum