Cheongju: City of the Jikji

Wares for sale at an outdoor stall in a festival in Cheongju

Wares for sale at an outdoor stall in a festival in Cheongju

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).

The map shows that Chungcheong-buk Province is in the center of South Korea, and that Cheongju is in the western part of the province.

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.

Mannikin Buddhist monks look at scripture.

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.

Two mannikins wearing black hats are doing something with a cauldron "outside" (i.e. the painting behind them indicates that it is outside).

Incidently, one of the main roads in Cheongju City is named after the Jikji.

A mannikin with a black hat and two monk mannikins are doing something with movable type.

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.

Mannikins with black hats and in brown robes do something with wood "outside".

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.

On the left and in the center are two monks in grey robes checking something before it goes to printing, and on the right is a standing monk in a white robe.

Is the Jikji – the actual copy – in the museum? No, it’s not, it’s in France (see the comment below for more details).

A bunch of mannikins in white robes are sitting down and looking at printing plates, and one mannikin in the back is standing up and looking at some shelves.

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.


About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Chungcheongbuk, City, Festival, Museum and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Cheongju: City of the Jikji

  1. Kai Carver says:

    Sorry if I intrude in your excellent series with two small factual objections in defense of France regarding this:

    > it’s in France, probably because the French stole it
    > while they were busy plundering Korea in the 19th century

    1. France was not “busy plundering Korea in the 19th century”. The single instance of plundering occurred during the navy expedition of 1866 in retaliation for the state-sanctioned killing of nine French Catholic priests. On that occasion the French did steal a precious collection of royal protocols. But the Jikji was not part of that collection.

    2. There’s no evidence that anyone “stole” the Jikji. We do know it was acquired by a French diplomat stationed in Seoul at different times between 1887 and 1906. Without evidence to the contrary it seems more likely that it was simply purchased.


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  4. We are presently working on a project about the Jikji and the story of Dr. Park and her struggle with both Korea and France. If you would like to see our TEDx presentation look for “Some Stories Choose You”

    I also invite you to read one of our recent blogs which discusses the early history of the Jikji. You may find it interesting. Great to see your post! (Sorry about the long link)!Is-the-Jikji-Connected-to-Shakespeare/c7jv/FB3C7A32-F8D0-4F0D-AD3C-9FBB3494AD33


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