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Printing and Culture

In the Companion to the Philosophy of Technology (edited by J.K. Berg Olsen, S.A. Pedersen and V.F. Hendricks in 2009), in chapter 3 (“Western Technology”) by Keld Nielsen, I stumbled across this statement:

One [novelty] was Johannes Gutenberg’s development around 1450 of printing with movable type. A somewhat similar technique had much earlier been used in Korea but apparently without the significant impact on cultural and technical development that can be traced in Europe.

This made me think about the definition of cultural development and progress. Maybe Dr. Nielsen simply doesn’t know anything about the history of Korea. Then he doesn’t know that – while Europe was still drenched in mud, disease, crime and primitivity – Korea’s society in the Goryeo dynasty (고려국, 高麗國) that arose from the later Silla (신라, 新羅) period was well advanced in terms of education, technology, social order and balance, hygiene, life comfort, etc. Silla’s capital Gyeongju (경주, 慶州), still a flourishing cultural and infrastructural center in Goryeo times, with then (12th century BC) estimated 1 million inhabitants was the fourth largest city in the world (after Constantinople (now Istanbul), Baghdad and Chang’An), indicating a progressive well-organised urban society. During these centuries, Buddhist worldview and Confucian social ideals entered Korea as the translated texts became available and spread widely. Certainly, the invention of metal movable type printing had a large impact on the culture of Korea.

Koreanskt trätryckblock från 1800-talet

How come, then, that Western scholars don’t regard this as advanced? Because they didn’t consecutively invent the steam machine, steal production, capitalism and football? Historically, it needs to be noted that Goryeo fell to the Mongols after decades of invasions and destruction, followed by years of Japanese pillages. Technological progress appears quite difficult under these circumstances. But I also see another important point. I believe it would be wrong to judge the advancement of a culture by its technological progress alone. Same as in the European realm Gutenberg’s press supported the access of the Bible to everybody, leading to a spread of Luther’s new Protestantism, Korea’s population gained access to Buddhist scriptures, Confucian ideology and other ancient Asian texts. But while – according to Max Weber, amongst others – the European Protestantism ultimately led to capitalism with all its pathological symptoms (environmental destruction, greed, psychological illnesses, social coldness, etc.), the influence of Asian schools of thought, most notably Buddhism, probably led to an understanding of harmony and balance, both individually (the inner sphere) and on the social level, that facilitated and supported a lifestyle that was much more oriented towards sustainability, integrity, well-being (rather than “having”, speaking with Erich Fromm) and propriety. Isn’t “the highest form of culture” one in which its members understand what is at stake and refrain from heading straight into disaster? In this light, Nielsen’s statement is simply arrogant, ignoring that European history is dominated by dark ages to an extent that Korea, fortunately, didn’t have to face. Who brought air-polluting fossil fuel industry over this planet? Who pushed chemical progress towards substances that destroyed the ozone layer? Who created a society based on greed, competition and materialism? Certainly not the Koreans (but, admittedly, they caught up impressively in the past two decades…)! The point I am trying to make is that “culture” and its level of development is much more complex than the suggested factors (technology) indicate. At the time that Korean engineers invented printing with movable metal types, the Korean society flourished and was way ahead of the European! Gutenberg’s press a few centuries later was embedded into an entirely different historical context and, arguably, initiated a “revolution” that was far from being a “blessing” to the Western world! I suggest that it can be regarded as Korea’s great achievement that its culture prevented capitalism and environmental destruction (at least until the West influenced it). What do you say, Mr. Nielsen?


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