When in Cheongju, you’re going to see one name pop up all over town: Jikji. But who or what is that? I finally made it to the place with all the answers: the Cheongju Early Printing Museum. My new Korean hometown is famous for being home to Jikji, the world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type. Admission is free and English guides are available, so off I went and explored this wonderful national treasure!
I love museums and I have to say it’s not the greatest or biggest museum I have seen but it definitely has its charm. If you are fond of Asian languages, especially Chinese, Korean and Japanese, you’re going to find the museum extremely interesting. It covers the history of printing in Korea and also shows techniques from other places in the world, for example Gutenberg’s printing method from Germany back in the Middle Ages.
The Jikji is part of the UNESCO world heritage and an important artifact in human history.
The most interesting artifacts in the museum are the printing tiles themselves. Each tile was hand-cut with an individual Chinese character before “Hangeul”, the Korean alphabet, was introduced. As a former Chinese student, I remember struggling with handwriting all the difficult characters because of the alignment of the strokes. Imagine you would have to cut out each stroke with a knife on wood or bee wax! That sounds like an incredible amount of work! Very impressive!
Another key artifact was the actual printing block in Hangeul after its introduction in the Joseon dynasty (around 1444).
What I also find very fascinating is the Japanese printing block for students of the language. Japanese textbooks were printed for studying the language at the time.
Outside The Museum
When visiting the museum, don’t forget to check out Heongdeoksa Temple right next door. It’s a beautiful small temple with a wooden buddha statue inside. The temple complex used to be much bigger but now only consits of the main hall and a white stone statue in front. This temple is the place where Jikji was published in the 3rd Year of King U in July 1377.
Besides the temple, the museum wall itself is an eye catcher since it resembles a print roll with Chinese characters written back-to-front just like on a printing stone.
Importance At The Time
In today’s world it’s hard to understand the importance of printing for people at the time. For the first time, books could be printed in mass and given to people of all classes. The literacy rate increased drastically and people were educated in all areas of the country. The museum clearly shows how important the development of the prinitng method was for the society at the time. They are, after all, the ancestors of our modern laptops and iPads.
Unfortunately, the actual Jikji was taken to France at the end of the Joseon Dynasty and has been there at the National Library of France in Paris ever since.
The right of ownership remains disputed, with the French National Library maintaining that the Jikji should remain in France, while Korea argues it should belong to Korea.
The National Library of France says that as an important historical artifact of all of humankind, the Jikji should remain in France as it represents a common, worldwide heritage, and does not belong to any one country. In addition, they claim the Jikji would be better preserved and displayed in France because of the prestige and resources the Library possesses.
On the other hand, Korea claims that it should belong to its country of origin and that it carries historical significance for the Korean people. Currently the Jikji remains in France, although numerous Korean organizations are trying to change this status. – Wikipedia
It’s unfortunate not being able to take a look at the real Jikji when at the museum. In my opinion, it should be returned to Korea and brought to the museum in Cheongju where it originated.