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ARTS AND INVENTIONS.
Printing - Printed books - Paper -- Ink - Gunpowder - Mariner's
compass — Variation of Needle — Navigation — Obstacles to improvement - Industrial arts — Cleaning cotton - Candle-making - Metallurgy - Metallic mirrors — Carving — Tools — Silk manufacture — Silkworms — Porcelain manufacture – Egyptian bottle
- Lackered ware — Fine arts — Drawing and painting – Ornamental gardening -- Sculpture - Music.
THERE appear to be reasonable grounds for the belief that what are justly considered in Europe as three of the most important inventions or discoveries of modern times, the art of printing, the composition of gunpowder, and the magnetic compass, had their first origin in China. However much we may have outstripped them in the use and application of these instruments or agents, the Chinese can urge claims to the priority of possession, which are sufficient to convince any unprejudiced person ; and it seems fair to conclude that the knowledge and tradition of these contrivances travelled slowly westward through the channels of Oriental commerce, and were obscurely derived, by those who first imported them to Europe, by the way of Asia Minor or the Red Sea. There cannot be the least doubt of the art of printing having been practised in China during the tenth century of our era. The precise mode in which they operate is certainly different from ours; but the main principle, that of multiplying and cheapening books by saving the time and labour of transcription, is altogether the same.
Shortly previous to the commencement of the Soong dynasty, about the middle of the tenth century, a minister of state, named Foong-taou, is said to have introduced to the notice of government the art of taking impressions upon paper. History states that the first essay in printing was to transfer the pages from stone blocks, on which the writing had been engraved—a process by which the ground of the paper was black, and the letters white. This at length led to the improved invention of wooden stereotype blocks, on which the characters were cut in relief, as at present, and the effect thereby reversed, the paper page remaining white, and the characters being impressed in ink. Dugald Stewart, in his work on the · Philosophy of the Human Mind,' considers the invention of printing “rather as the result of those general causes on which the progress of society seems to depend than as the mere effect of a fortunate accident;"—in fact, as a step in the social history of man, and as marking a particular point of his progress. Admitting this to be true, it would follow that the Chinese in the tenth century were not only further advanced than their contemporaries of Europe (of which there can be no doubt whatever), but that they had reached a higher point of civilization than the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The high estimation in which letters have ever been held in China may certainly be supposed to have contributed to the invention by which books are rendered available to the greatest number of readers; and it seems evident, from Chinese history, that as the period of Soong, which immediately followed, is celebrated for its writers, that invention gave an impetus to the national taste for its own peculiar learning. For all purposes of cheapness and expedition the method of printing is perfect; and a little consideration will show that the stereotype plan is more peculiarly suited to the Chinese characters than to any other. The European alphabet consists of only a few letters, whose infinite combinations form many languages. With them, on the contrary, every word is a different character. The six-and-twenty letters of our alphabet are all within the reach of the compositor in setting up a page of type ; and, from long practice, he moves his hands to the little cells in which they are arranged almost without looking ; but in China it would require the combination of a Briareus with an Argus to pick out the hundreds, or rather thousands, of different characters in the printing of a single book. Then, again, the immense number of copies of their standard, or sacred, works, required in a population of hundreds of millions, all reading, if they do not speak, the same language, is another reason for stereotype.
But, on the other hand, there are some rare occasions on which particular reasons exist to make single or moveable types preferable, and on these occasions the Chinese use them. Mention has already been made of the Red Book, or Court Kalendar, containing the name and office of every functionary in the empire. A new edition of this is published every quarter; and as the characters which it contains are always pretty nearly the same, with only the difference of arrangement, this particular case approximates to that of our own alphabet; for which reason the Kalendar and some other works are printed with moveable types. For their general literature, the stereotype possesses another advantage; they can take off the impressions according to the sale of the work, and there is no needless expenditure of paper. When the faces of the letters are worn by use, they retouch them, and render them available for farther impressions; but, from the following account of their printing process, it will be remarked that there is not anything like the same pressure, nor consequently the same wear and tear, as in our European printing. This, however, may be compensated by the greater durability of material in our metal type.
The substance commonly used by the Chinese is peartree wood, called by them ly-mo. The wooden plate or block, of a thickness calculated to give it sufficient strength, is finely planed and squared to the shape and dimensions of two pages. The surface is then rubbed over with a paste or size, occasionally made from boiled rice, which renders it quite smooth, and at the same time softens and otherwise prepares it for the reception of the characters. The future pages, which have been finely transcribed by a professional person on thin transparent paper, are delivered to the block-cutter, who, while the above-mentioned application is still wet, unites them to the block, so that they adhere ; but in an inverted position, the thinness of the paper displaying the writing perfectly through the back. The paper being subsequently rubbed off, a clear impression in ink of the inverted writing remains on the wood. The workman then with his sharp graver cuts away with extraordinary neatness and despatch all that portion of the wooden surface which is not covered by the ink, leaving the characters in pretty high relief. Any slight error may be corrected, · as in our woodcuts, by inserting small pieces of wood : but the process is upon the whole so cheap and expeditious that it is generally easier to replane the block and cut it again; for their mode of taking the impression renders the thickness of the block an immaterial point.*
Strictly speaking, “the press of China” would be a misnoměr, as no press whatever is used in their printing.
* For ephemeral works, this block-printing is of course less adapted. A daily paper at Canton is imperfectly printed from a composition of the consistence of wax, in which characters can be more rapidly formed.
The paper, which is almost as thin and bibulous, or absorbent of ink, as what we call silver-paper, receives the impression with a gentle contact, while a harder pressure would break through it. The printer holds in his right hand two brushes, at the opposite extremities of the same handle; with one he inks the face of the characters, and, the paper being then laid on, he runs the dry brush over so as to make it take the impression. They do this with such expedition that one man can take off a couple of thousand copies in a day. The paper, being so thin and transparent, is printed on one side only, and each printed sheet (consisting of two pages) is folded back, so as to bring the blank sides in inward contact. The fold is thus on the outer edge of the book, and the sheets are stitched together at the other ; which might lead an uninformed person to take any Chinese book for a new work, with its leaves still uncut. In folding the sheets the workman is guided by a black line, which directs him in the same manner that the holes, made by the points in our printed sheets, direct the binder.
Every Chinese volume is a species of brochure, neatly stitched with silk thread in a smooth paper of a drab colour, and every volume is numbered on the outer edges of the leaves. Collectors of choice books put up about ten volumes of the same work in a neat case, covered with flowered satin or silk. The popular works of the country are greatly cheaper than ours; they have no taxes on literature, and three or four volumes of any ordinary work, of the octavo size and shape, may be had for a sum equivalent to two shillings. A Canton bookseller's manuscript catalogue marked the price of the Four Books of Confucius, including the Commentary, at a sum rather under half-a-crown. The cheapness of their common literature is occasioned partly by the mode of printing, but