Asians are Either Idiots or Liars: 1

There is nothing like a controversial title to get people riled up and read my post.

This post concerns the development of the printing press, particularly printing codex type books on paper with movable type.

So let us dissect the wikipedia entry on the printing press.

Modern paper and print technology first originated in China. In 105 A.D., Ts’ai Lun invented the process for manufacturing paper, introducing the first use in China. The paper was superior in quality to the baked clay, papyrus and parchment used in other parts of the world. By 593 A.D., the first printing press was invented in China, and the first printed newspaper was available in Beijing in 700 A.D. It was a woodblock printing. And the Diamond Sutra, the earliest known complete woodblock printed book with illustrations was printed in China in 868 A.D. Chinese printer Pi Sheng invented movable type in 1041 A.D. Additionally, Chinese inventor Liu Ching produced the first printed map in 1155 A.D.

Hmm, sounds like a good story. Note the years, though.

The mechanical systems involved were not assembled in Europe until the Holy Roman Empire by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1441, based on existing screw presses. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, developed a complete printing system, which perfected the printing process through all its stages by adapting existing technologies to printing purposes, as well as making ground-breaking inventions of his own. His newly devised hand mould made for the first time possible the precise and rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities, a key element in the profitability of the whole printing enterprise. The mechanization of bookmaking led to the first mass production of books in history in assembly line-style.A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday,compared to forty by hand-printing and a few by hand-copying.Books of bestselling authors like Luther or Erasmus were sold by the hundred thousands in their life-time.

So which part of the Gutenberg press and associated technology was beyond the reach or ability of the chinese?

From a single point of origin, Mainz, Germany, printing spread within several decades to over two hundred cities in a dozen European countries. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. The operation of a press became so synonymous with the enterprise of printing that it lent its name to an entire new branch of media, the press.As early as 1620, the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon could write that typographical printing has “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world”.

Note the time lines and speed of adoption/ refinement. Why was it so fast in the west? It is not that they were any more technically skilled than chinese or indians. Moreover it was only in the 1800s that people started using steam-driven presses.

Any asian country could have copied the Gutenberg press, and built better ones. Making paper, typefaces and oil based inks was not exactly cutting edge stuff. The skills, abilities and resources were there for the asking.

So why did asian countries, not just east-asian ones such as china, ignore the printing press. It is certainly not for lack of contact as india and the middle-east had extensive dealings with europeans during that period. The indian and arabic alphabet systems were quite suitable for movable types.

So why didn’t they?


  1. Leo Tolstoy
    October 18, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Remember that Gutenberg was one of the many who worked on the project, and he did have a financial backer for this new product. The killer app? Indulgences! The church can print thousands of indulgences without having to expensive scribes produce these things! Gutenberg’s project bankrupted him, and his backer took all his press and type foundry tools in lieu of payment.

    My point is – China and East Asia lacked a venture capital funding system that existed in medieval Germany, and they lacked a killer app. The fact that East Asia had cheap labour meant that there lacked incentive to reduce labour cost.

  2. October 18, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    It helped to have less than 100 symbols that were needed for printing as opposed to the thousands used in China.

    Most indian alphabet systems have 24-26 alphabets (like english) , with 12 standard “decorations” for each alphabet. Arabic also has fewer than 100 alphabets.

    Example- in most indian languages, alphabets like ‘a’ have a counterpart stem alphabet (with 12 possible standard variations placed directly above alphabet)

  3. the dude
    October 18, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    the demand side is a problem, need people to read

  4. October 19, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Hey, thanks for this fascinating subject. I wish I knew more about all of it. My first thought is, when did the Chinese become a closed society? Wasn’t there a time when they were pretty much out of touch with Europe, et al?

    It would be interesting to know, also, how much of it was a cultural reticence to change.

    Or maybe the thought of actually etching all those unbelievable characters just scared the hell out of everybody . . . .

    • Mehcan
      October 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm

      China’s position at the time was that it was the center of the world. No need to bother east, west, north, south. Hence the cut off from everyone.

  5. Hughman
    October 19, 2010 at 3:44 am

    The more realistic HBDers note that the Asians may be smart, but they have zero ability in progressing ideas due to their rigid heirarchy systems and inbuilt socialist systems. (the concept of the Greater Good)

    You can even see it in the modern era. Japan is seriously more advanced technologically than the West, but it takes the West to find the ideas and to mass market them to get things rolling (like HD-TV, Japan has had it since the late 1980s)

  6. Feliks Dzierżyński
    October 19, 2010 at 5:19 am

    @Hughman re: HDTV.

    That’s just plain wrong. 1980s HDTV didn’t take off because it was analogue, and was hideously expensive. HDTV did take off in the US only after digital support electronics because both cheap and ubiquitous. I dare say that OTA HDTV in the US also never took off — how many people do you know has a rabbit ear with a QAM receiver??

    As for the realistic HBDers — they’re just plain fucking stupid. I don’t know about the rest of East Asia, but innovation in China died after the black death closed off over land trade routes with the rest of the world. After the Yuan (Mongol dynasty) fell, latter Chinese dynasties focused on wall building (literally – the current great wall was mostly built during the Ming) rather than expanding outside contact. Furthermore, as the Chinese subjugated its hostile neighbors, it could sit on its ass and enjoy the 2 century long relative quiet — it became, basically, the IBM of East Asia, and was a ripe target for upstarts like the Microsoft of its time, Britain.

    • thexder
      October 19, 2010 at 9:50 am

      Feliks that’s brilliant. Sounds similar to what I’ve heard – in essence, if you’re comfy, innovation and drive take a backseat to getting laid and pissing on everyone.

  7. Adam
    October 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    This is a really interesting question, and I’m not sure I know the answer.

  8. namae nanka
    October 20, 2010 at 7:18 am

    too proud to learn from those they thought were below them?

  9. MaMu1977
    October 20, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    America needs cheap, plentiful and easily renewable sources of energy to survive.
    America relies on petroleum to meet it’s needs, despite the various short-term and long-term hazards of using oil as a fuel source.
    America receives a large percentage of it’s oil from countries that are neutral at best and hostile at worst to American interests.
    America(ns) has/have yet to consider moving away from the oil standard in any major way, shape or form, despite the intuition that the major cause of hostilities among it’s enemies is it’s presence in certain countries for the collection, processing and transmission of oil.

    IOW, complacency and rigid adherence to “traditional” values (for the Chinese, ingrained idiocy for the masses, for the Americans, profit incentive over national security) aren’t endemic to any single culture. As mentioned earlier, Chinese printing suffered from two major stumbling blocks: no profit margin due to a very limited customer base and a serious lack of parallel innovators/manipulators/copycats due to the aforementioned limited “privileged” customer base. Intelligence may be an “ingrained” attribute for certain classes of people, but remember that the television was invented by a person who most likely would never had learned anything about his craft if he wasn’t born in a quasi-egalitarian society such as America. The (possibly sole) benefit *of* educating the masses is the ability to winnow out “wild talent”/hidden geniuses/savants who can add new insights to the current dogma. Without it (to use the Chinese example, mandating a miniscule level of education for those of the lower classes), there’s noone to stand in the was of those fateful words, “It can’t be done!”

  1. October 24, 2010 at 1:08 pm
  2. October 26, 2010 at 10:42 am
  3. January 12, 2011 at 4:13 am
  4. August 11, 2011 at 1:01 am
  5. February 12, 2014 at 6:24 pm

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