The Oldest Metal Type In the World, All About Jikji
The Oldest Metal Type In the World, All About Jikji
  • 구은진 기자
  • 승인 2018.04.16 09:00
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Do you know what April 22nd is every year? In Korea, it is info-communications day. The info-communications day is an anniversary that enhances the importance and meaning of info-communications. It encourages the people who work in info-communication industry. Today, the world has become a smartphone society where people can get a lot of information anytime and anywhere. So now, society has developed into a new information society that not only obtains information, but also turns the information into goods.

When do you think the new-knowledge society, in which information became a commodity, began? The beginning began by recording information and universalizing knowledge. From the past, people have learned that the universalization of knowledge is the basis of human development, and that they wondered how to transmit knowledge to future generations. That led them to write letters and make books to record information. The first prints revealed in history were in Korea where the “metal type” was invented. The oldest metal type book in the world is called Jikji.

The metal type was invented in Goryeo. Goryeo chose Buddhism as a national religion and created national enterprises with wood-block printing. Here various Buddhist scriptures and the Tripitaka Koreana were printed. At that time Goryeo's technology included the making of paper, the making of metal types by using fire and metal, and the making of ink was the best in the world. In the 13th century, Goryeo was a powerful printing nation which invented metal type for sending information effectively. However metal types's beginning record was not told, so people did not know when, how, or who invented metal types accurately. One of the reasons why metal type is considered the world's greatest invention in the past thousand years is because of how its ingenious process of production resulted in excellent preservation.

The oldest metal type in the world that was born with so much time and effort is 'Jikji'. The original name of Jikji is 'Baegunsae Buljo jikji simche yo jeol'. The content of the book is a summary of the of the goodness of the Buddha and Zen master. Jikji was published in metal form in 1377 in the Cheongju Heungdeoksa temple and it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Jikji is the world's only cultural heritage listed in UNESCO, which is not owned by the country but recognized for its value. In 2004, UNESCO presented a Jikji prize, supported by the Korean government, to promote 'Memory of the world.’ Unfortunately however, the original Jikji is owned and located in a national library in France.

How has preserving metal types and jikji had a profound impact on human culture? Currently in Korea, the only metal type printmaker, (Geumsokhwaljajang) Lim In Ho, who was designated by the National Intangible Cultural Property No. 101, has participated in research on metal type restoration. Lim In Ho learned metal type production technology from his teacher Oh Guk Jin and he was designated by intangible cultural property through six stages in 2009. He restores metal type through all the processes that carve the letters, make casting molds, and print letters. Also, he participated in research on major types from the Joseon Dynasty period until 2009, and up to now he has succeeded in restoring 30 kinds of metal types from the original mold of the Joseon Dynasty. His son is following his footsteps to become a metal type printmaker.

But there are difficulties for those who keep tradition and inherit culture. There are dangerous factors and economic difficulties that exist throughout the restoration process. Injuries to the hands is a frequent occurrence as they restore the type by using a molten metal of more than 1000 degrees everyday. metallic stain with more than 1000 degrees per day. In addition there is extreme physical and mental effort required to prevent other fire explosion accidents or personal injury.

Despite the presence of many dangerous factors, those who keep tradition aren't currently supported by the national government. The only income that is received is through lectures and by local governments. The reason why they keep researching, restoring cultural properties, and preserving traditions without national government support, is because there is a sense of an important mission. Due to the difficult reality of Jikji, people's interest is gradually diminishing. The people who want to become master craftsmen are few as well.

Jikji is owned and located in a national library in France. The France national library is considered as something worth enough to preserve in a single safe. The first person to discover Jikji at the French National Library is Dr. Byeongsen Park who is commonly referred to as the woman of royal books (Oegyujanggak). Dr. Park first discovered Jikji in 1972, and in 1979, while working as a librarian at the national library of France, she confirmed the existence of Oegyujanggak.

After acknowledging the existence of Jikji through Dr. Park, the Korean government has demanded that Jikji be returned to Korea but France has refused to do so. Despite France’s stubborn refusal, some intellectuals in France have responded positively to Korea's demand. Dominique Barzou, Professor at Versité De La Sorbonne University in Paris, insisted that “France is refusing Korea's demand because France is superior in terms of old document preservation. However, Korea has the capacity to preserve cultural heritage as much as France, so France must now return Jikji.” Richard Pennington, an American who lives in Korea, is working on the Returning of Jikji Committee. He participates in the campaign to return Jikji to Korea.

Korea possesses the world's first metal type letter and has greatly contributed to the development of the printing culture and history of humanity, but we still lack efforts to recover the cultural assets that have been plundered and taken overseas. The biggest problem is the indifference of modern people to cultural properties. In fact, visitors to Cheongju Early Printing Museum, Inheritance Center of Type Metal', are mainly foreign tourists. There are various programs for students at this site but not many students use them.

As a matter of fact, campaign activities to return cultural property plundered and taken overseas are decreasing year after year. Richard Pannington, a representative of the Returning Jikji Committee, said, "I am surprised that Koreans are less interested in Jikji. They should be actively involved in the return movement with much interest." Not only Jikji but also other cultural properties which have been plundered and are now exhibited all over the world. We should seek various ways to return these historical and cultural artifacts to our country with great interest.

Another problem is the lack of support from the national government. Lim In ho and his son, the only metal type printmakers in Korea, continue to study because they have a sense of duty that they can not give up metal letter restoration. But if the master craftsmen devoted to preserving and inheriting the tradition have no government support in the future, they will abandon their mission and the traditions and the restoration projects will become opaque. In addition, governmental support for their safety and honor is essential, because if they do not guarantee their safety from risk factors that exist throughout the cultural property restoration process, there may be people who are reluctant to restore.

It is also important to remember that emphasizing people's sense of mission to cultural heritage can undermine the value and history of cultural properties. Modern information society, knowledge mobility, and human culture development all became possible by recording information. Therefore, with pride of being the country with the oldest printing culture in the world, we must invest a lot of effort and time to preserve and inherit domestic and foreign cultural heritage through the values and lessons of cultural assets and history.


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