Ancient Korean book trumps Gutenberg Bible as oldest surviving book

While it is generally recognized that Johannes Gutenberg printed the monumental 42-line Gutenberg Bible in Mainz, Germany, around 1455, it remains largely unknown outside of East Asia that Jikji, the world’s oldest surviving book printed from moveable metal type, was printed 78 years earlier in Cheongju, South Korea.

The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah and an international team of researchers have formed the From Jikji to Gutenberg project to research Jikji’s origins, generate awareness of the book’s earlier creation and magnify and underscore the invention of printing as a global phenomenon, rather than a Eurocentric achievement.

PHOTO CREDIT: J. Willard Marriott Library

Initial multispectral imaging by Mike Toth of a Noble Fragment of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible (c. 1455) and “The Spring and Autumn Annals,” a Korean-printed Confucius, (c. 1442). Multispectral imaging of early Western European and East Asian printing from moveable metal type provides baseline data to compare similarities and differences in inks and papers for the international From Jikji to Gutenberg project.

Early Korean printing remains a cultural blind spot in the West partly because the sole surviving copy of Jikji is generally inaccessible. France’s acquisition of this cultural icon includes questions of colonial illegitimacy, and South Korea has asked for its return. Now deemed Korean National Treasure No. 1132, the Buddhist text was relocated to France in the late 19th century, and then sold at auction by the first French consul to Korea, Victor Collin de Plancy. The buyer, a prosperous jeweler and collector named Henri Vever, specified his desire for the book to be donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) and in 1950, seven years after his death, his family complied with this wish.

Jikji remained unrecognized for 20 years until Korean historian Park Byeongseon took a job at the BnF and located the book along with other Korean treasures. The BnF chose to display the book in 1972, and again in 1973, but it has not been seen in public since. For nearly 50 years, the memory of Jikji and its international significance has been marginalized, and in so doing the knowledge of Korea’s achievement has been suppressed.

The From Jikji to Gutenberg project consists of an interdisciplinary team of over 40 historians, material specialists, conservators and scientists working in 14 time zones and committed to conducting original research. Coordinated by Randy Silverman, Marriott Library’s head of preservation, the scholarly project will roll out in phases over the next five years, culminating in a greater understanding of East Asia’s technological contributions to world culture. To achieve this, the project plans to do the following:

  • April 2023—Hold a scholarly symposium at the Library of Congress to familiarize the team’s participants with the results of the scientific investigation and to encourage debate of shared drafts of everyone’s papers for an exhibit catalog.
  • 2025—Publish a scholarly, 400-page exhibit catalog to be made available at each venue of the 2027 exhibit to offer insights into East Asian and Western European 14th- and 15th-century metal type casting, ink manufacture, handmade paper production, bookbinding and the printing process itself—as well as patterns of book distribution, literacy and the cultural impact of printing in opposite sides of the globe.
  • 2027—Coordinate an international, two-month, multilingual exhibit commemorating the 650th anniversary of Jikji’s printing. The exhibit will open simultaneously in nine U.S. and 34 international research libraries located in 14 countries. The Library of Congress and Princeton University Library, the first two institutions invited, have committed to participate and will serve as models as other libraries are invited in 2023.

With UNESCO’s support, an international conference will also be convened in Cheongju, South Korea, to further disseminate the team’s findings and engage scholars and the general public worldwide.

To learn more about the From Jikji to Gutenberg project, click here to watch a video made in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles.

National Endowment for the Arts support

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently announced a $74,999 Exhibitions Planning award to support of the initiative, From Jikji to Gutenberg: The Origins of Printing from Cast-Metal Type. The NEH grant complements the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation bequest of $68,150 awarded to the project in January 2022.