Preserving traditional Chinese printing

By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Taipei

image captionMr Chang's word-making shop still makes Chinese characters out of lead.

The movable-type printing system invented around 1040 AD helped to revolutionise the world by making books and other written material easily available.

It is one of the most important inventions of mankind, increasing literacy and allowing money to be printed.

But few people in the world still make the characters for such printing presses, even in China, where the system was invented.

In Taiwan, however, a man has devoted his life to this dying profession, making words the traditional way, one character at a time.

Chang Chieh-kuan, 59, operates the last word-making shop in Taiwan, making Chinese characters out of lead. His shop is believed to be one of only a handful in the world.

With 120,000 moulds of different characters and more than 10 million lead character pieces, it has perhaps the largest reservoir of three-dimensional Chinese characters.

Mr Chang now wants to turn the shop into an interactive museum. If he succeeds, it will be a rare place to see this great ancient invention in operation.

Dying art

Few people want to have books printed this way anymore. It is time-consuming and costly.

Although traditional printing presses began to shut down in Taiwan in the 1990s, Mr Chang has kept his shop - passed down to him by his father - running, even though it has lost nearly $350,000 (£220,000).

image captionMr Chang inherited his shop from his father and kept it going despite losses

He used savings to maintain the shop and at one point, sold a piece of property to keep it running.

"You can imagine how my wife felt," Mr Chang said, managing to laugh about it now.

The work of the movable-type printing profession involves word masters designing a font that is easy to read and pleasing to look at.

Then some 10,000 characters are written using that design to make a set of words still in use. Moulds of each of the characters are made.

Using the moulds, wordsmiths like Mr Chang melt lead in a machine at up to 400 degrees Celsius. The machine churns out lead pieces carved with one character each.

The lead pieces are then filed away on large, tilted, bookshelf-like cases, such as the rows and rows in Mr Chang's shop.

In the past, when shops like Mr Chang's got orders from publishing companies, they would arrange the characters in the right order based on the script and send them to the presses.

In the old days, "some scripts might be 200,000 to 300,000 or even one million words long. This work was not just done by one person. We would divide the book up into several parts and assign each part to a different person. Usually one person can find 1,200 to 1,500 words per hour," Mr Chang said.

"Experienced people became so good that they didn't have to look on the shelf - they knew exactly where the characters were and just grabbed them without looking, like typing."

Over his 50 years in the industry, Mr Chang has grown to see his job as more than a profession he had to enter because of his father. He began to appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters.

"I would often look up words I wasn't familiar with in the dictionary to understand their true meaning and usage," he said. "In many cases, because of certain words, I changed my views about life."

'Warm feeling'

Located in a quiet, narrow alley, Mr Chang's shop would have been long forgotten had it not been for design students blogging about it and Taiwanese poet Yen Yun.

A few years ago, Ms Yen insisted on printing her first book using the old method. She was the first person in over 10 years to do this.

image captionLead pieces for printing text the traditional way are filed on bookshelf-like cases

"I think computerised printed words are ugly. The difference between these two types of printing is like the difference between listening to music on a CD or vinyl record," Ms Yen said.

"Vinyl records give you a warm feeling. To me it's the same feeling with lead printed words. It can't be replaced by computerised printing."

Nowadays, most people who visit Mr Chang's shop simply want to purchase some of his characters for personal engraving or as gifts.

"I've got a double happiness (character)," said Cindy Shih, a Taiwanese-British woman who picked out the character to engrave on her wedding invitations. "It feels different because it's handmade. It's more meaningful for me."

But it is unclear whether Mr Chang will get enough support, including from the government, to turn his shop into a museum.

So far the Taipei City government had not shown much interest, he said. Whether or not he succeeds may be an indication of how much society cares about preserving things of historical and cultural value.

Mr Chang hopes a museum would allow visitors to try their hand at making lead characters and use them to print business cards or postcards to send to relatives and friend.

"In the future, we might not be able to see the printing press anymore. This is what worries me," said Mr Chang.