Cheongju is the capital and largest city in Chungcheong-buk province (which is not saying much, since it is the third least populated province in South Korea).
Did you think that Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press? Think again. Before Gutenberg was born, Koreans were printing with metal movable type. Records incidate that Koreans were already using movable metal type in the 1200s, but the oldest book printed with movable type which still exists is the Jikji, an abbreviated title which could be called “Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Seon Teachings”.
The Jikji was printed in 1377 at Heungdok Temple in Cheongju City.
Thus, the number one tourist attraction in Cheongju is the museum of the Jikji, which is built on the site of Heungdeok Temple. When I visited the reconstructed shrine, I accidently ended up in a martial arts lesson.
Incidently, one of the main roads in Cheongju City is named after the Jikji.
All of these lovely mannikins are inside the museum of the Jikji, and they depict all of the various steps towards printing a manuscript with movable type, including proofreading the plates, manufacturing the metal bits, hey, I can’t remember all of the steps (nor did I take photos of ever diorama). The point is, printing with movable type is complicated and a lot of work, which requires a lot of monks to help out.
The museum also offers a detailed history of printing in Korea. Even after inventing movable type, woodblock printing was preferred because it was cheaper. It is possible to distinguish a manuscript printed by woodblocks from a manuscript printed by movable type, and the Jikji was clearly printed by movable type. Korea was also at the cutting edge of woodblock printing in the fourteenth century. All of this effort was put into printing because Buddhists wanted to disseminate their teachings. Shortly after the printing of the Jikji, the Joseon dynasty came to power, and they were very interested in printing in order to improve government communication and record-keeping. Printing contributed to the rise of Korean civilization.
Is the Jikji – the actual copy – in the museum? No, it’s not, it’s in France (see the comment below for more details).
I would not have made a special trip to Cheongju just to see the Jikji museum and the site where the world’s oldest book printed by movable metal type was printed, but I had to go to Cheongju anyway to catch a bus to Gangneung (Gangwon Province), and it’s great to get these interesting little history lessons along the way.