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What Was the First Printed Book?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are a number of contenders for the title of "first printed book in the world." The answer to this question is actually quite tricky because it depends on what one means by "printing" as well as "book." Historical evidence strongly suggests that the identity of the first book in print will probably never be known, because it's unlikely that it survived to the present day. There is also a great deal of cultural bias in the answer to this question, as some authorities commonly cite Western texts such as the Gutenberg Bible, while other experts contend that Asia would be the most likely point of origin.

Defining the Question

When determining the identity of the first printed book, it's important to define "printing." The simple transfer of words or symbols to paper, clay, fabric, and other materials is thousands of years old, and could be termed a form of printing. For example, Egyptians and Sumerians used clay tablets and papyrus for writing. Many people define printing, however, as a much more recent mass production process using plates, blocks, movable type, or other media, which can be used to transfer ink to a surface over and over again, mechanizing the process and resulting in large numbers of copies. It is also important to note that many early printed books were not entirely printed, with most being illuminated and rubricated — decorated and having red text added — by hand after the printing process was finished.

Beyond that, others will argue over the definition of the word "book." Must it consist of multiple pages bound to a cover and spine, like a modern book, or might a scroll or a series of etched tablets be eligible? There is not really a right or wrong answer to this question. Perhaps a more practical approach would be to consider the length of the volume, since most would consider a book to be of more substantial length than, for example, a proclamation or a letter.

Woodblock Printing

If woodblock printing is included, then a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra is the oldest known surviving example of a printed book. Woodblock printing is an ancient process that requires laboriously hand carving a wood block for every page of the book. A copy of this book in the British Library dates to the year 868 CE. There's a catch, however; other block printed editions are probably older, but are undated, making the Diamond Sutra the first printed book with a verifiable date, not the oldest printed book and most certainly not the first. The earliest examples of woodblock printing are estimated to date as far back as 220 CE.

Movable Type Printing

Some people prefer to use movable type as the distinction when dating the first printed book, arguing that the development of movable type was a huge leap forward in printing technology that revolutionized the ability to mass produce books. With movable type, each letter or character is separate, allowing the printer to set the type in lines or pages, print the material, and then break the type down and reuse it. With a set of movable type, the need to hand carve wooden blocks is eliminated, and it's possible to print much more quickly.

Evidence suggests that ceramic movable type was invented in China by Bi Sheng around the year 1040. Unfortunately, no surviving printed books from this period have been found. It's fairly clear that if the Chinese invented movable type, however, they were probably putting it to practical use. This means that the oldest printed book is likely a Buddhist religious text from the 11th century, even if researchers don't know which one. Sheng's type did not hold up well, according to contemporaries, and the concept was abandoned, with the Chinese returning to woodblock printing.

Metalloid Type

In Korea, someone took note of the Chinese explorations into movable type, and developed metalloid type at around the same time. Researchers believe that the Koreans were printing books with movable type as early as the 1200s, with the first surviving printed volume with metalloid type being the Jikji, which was printed in the year 1377. That's over 70 years before Johannes Gutenberg succeeded in printing his famous Bible in 1455 in Germany. Gutenberg is traditionally credited with inventing this printing method.

Learning from this Debate

The true identity of the first printed book may never be known unless researchers discover a well-preserved copy with an attached discussion of the date and printing techniques. It is interesting, nonetheless, to explore the history of printing and its impact on the world. It is also revealing to observe the history of crediting things invented in the East to developers in the West; in the case of printing, it is entirely possible that Gutenberg came up with the idea of movable type independently, which means that the Chinese and Gutenberg both deserve credit for inventing it. It is also possible that Gutenberg heard about Chinese and Korean experiments with movable type and decided to try it out for himself.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By goems6240 — On Sep 21, 2013

I'm a Korean cultural heritage ambassador and would like to add more details about Jikji.

In 1372, during Gorye(918~1392), a Buddhist monk named Baekun Hwasang wrote "Baekun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol"(commonly abbreviated to Jikji) by compiling the teachings of the Budda and revered monks. The essence of the teachings is "When seeing the true nature of one's mind through meditation, one can realized that the nature of the mind is the nature of the Buddha." To put it simply, it emphasizes the importance of looking into the mind without judgment.

After the death of Baekun, his disciples Seokchan and Baljam started searching for ways to disseminate his teachings to the public and pass it on to their descendants. They learned about the movable metal type printing that was already in use. In 1377, three years after Baekun's passing, they printed Jikji by using movable metal type. Jikji is officially recognized by UNESCO as the oldest extant book printed with movable metal type.

By anon148046 — On Jan 31, 2011

the first dated printed book is the diamon sutra. it was printed via wood block press around 868 ad.

the gutenburg bible is the first book printed with a movable metal press.

a simple search for 'first printed book' will show many reliable sources, including the excavation reports.

christianity is not the be all and end all of everything, you know.

By anon124254 — On Nov 05, 2010

After all good detailed explanations, why is it so hard for many to accept there may be a possibility that the Gutenberg Holy Bible could not be the first printed book? Is it so painful to say chinese and korean printing technology were way ahead of their western counterparts?

By anon119586 — On Oct 18, 2010

Both woodblock and porcelain movable type were invented by the ancient Chinese inventors and utilized extensively by ancient Chinese book publishers to publish books on Buddhism, Taoism and Confucius.

Later on, books were also published dealing with medical science, astronomy, metallurgy, geology and technology. The metal movable type was later invented by the Chinese Tributary vassal state of Korea in the 1200's a few hundred years before Gutenberg's comparable metal movable type printing press.

Nonetheless, the Diamond Sutra is the best "confirmed" contender for earliest book printed although it is definitely certain the ancient Chinese had printed other books many hundreds of years earlier.

By anon118785 — On Oct 15, 2010

The first printed book was The Bible. Gutenberg printed 180 copies of it in three years. By the standards of that time, it was very fast printing. -Ruchit

By anon117852 — On Oct 12, 2010

When in college, they taught that Gutenberg invented printing. Printing is defined as the transfer of ink to media for the eyes to behold. The Gutenberg Bible was the first book that Gutenberg printed.

By anon64356 — On Feb 06, 2010

The Holy Bible is the first book that was printed in my understanding.

By anon48922 — On Oct 15, 2009

tbw I believe those are categorized under manuscripts and not printed.

By tdwb7476 — On Sep 07, 2009

I am surprised that researchers don't list a Greek or Egyptian writing as being in the running. I guess these weren't "books" or they weren't "printed?" Like how about the "Derveni Papyrus," or the "The Egyptian Book of the Dead?"

By anon44368 — On Sep 07, 2009

On 4 September 2001, UNESCO identified Jikji as being the oldest printed book -- it was printed on metal.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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