Yes, you read that right: the book called “ Jikji ” was the first to be printed with movable type. When at school we are taught that the Gutenberg Bible is the first printed book in the world, it is a mistake. So let’s see what’s really going on with the Jikji !
Jikji , a Buddhist book
Jikji is a collection of lessons in Buddhist philosophy. Its actual title is Baekwoon hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol ( Anthology of the teachings of the great Buddhist monks ). Initially consisting of two volumes, only the second of thirty-eight pages has been preserved. A fine mulberry paper was used for its manufacture.
The Buddhist monk Baegun (1298-1374) compiled the Jikji in 1372 with his disciple on Seongbulsan Mountain . It was in 1377 that the book was printed with metallic movable type at Heungdeok Temple in Cheongju . Initially, the Koreans used xylography to print the various works. This technique uses wooden boards where texts and images are embossed for printing. The use of metal movable type is believed to have existed since 1234 in Korea. In the end, the Bible printed by Gutenberg arrived 78 years later than the Jikji, itself not being the first book printed with movable type but the oldest that is still in existence today.
Conservation and posterity of the anthology
Currently, the book is kept at the National Library of France (BNF). It was brought back at the end of the 19th century from Korea by Victor Collin de Plancy, the first French diplomat in Korea. It was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and included in the Korean Bibliography of Maurice Courant, interpreter for the French Embassy in Seoul in 1890 and passionate about Korean literature on the recommendation of Victor Collin de Plancy. Henri Vever bought the Jikji at an auction at the Hôtel Drouot in 1911 along with other objects and books from the former diplomat’s Korean collection. It was in 1952 that the book was given to the BNF after the death of Henri Vever, according to his wishes.
The year 1972 is symbolic for the Jikji . Park Byeong Seon, a Korean working at the BNF, managed to have the book recognized as the oldest existing book printed with metallic movable type during the International Year of the Book. On September 4, 2001, it was included in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” program (as was the Tripitaka Koreana in 2007). Also through this organization, its Executive Board approved in 2004 the creation of the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize , thus rewarding people or institutions that participate in the preservation of documentary heritage and in access to it.
Finally, at the end of 2020, the Museum of Ancient Printing in Cheongju designed a site on the Jikji : available in 11 languages, you can learn more about the anthology itself, access its version digital and on Eastern and Western printing. The BNF contributed to the project by providing the images. A game, a webtoon and an animated film are also present on the site to learn in a more playful way.