Printing Chinese Characters, Engraving Chinese Types: Wooden Chinese Movable Type at the Imprimerie Nationale (1715-1819)

In: East Asian Publishing and Society
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  • 1 École française d’Extrême-Orient / Université Paris Sciences et Lettres, UMR Chine Corée Japon, Paris, France
  • | 2 École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, UMR Chine Corée Japon, Paris, France
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The collection of Chinese wooden movable types is among the oldest treasures of the Imprimerie Nationale. The types were carved in Paris between 1715 and 1819, and they are a legacy of the first French attempts to master the expertise necessary to print Chinese alongside Western alphabetic scripts. This article, which is the result of research conducted at the Imprimerie Nationale, combined with a study of historical and literary sources from various periods kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and at Italian libraries, provides a description of the types’ physical characteristics and relates how they were created, designed, organized, engraved, employed, classified and stored.

Our research focuses on the attempts to include Chinese characters in publications in Western languages which were made in Europe and particularly in France from the beginning of the eighteenth century onwards. At a time when Europeans were beginning to expand their range of activities in Asia, printing in Asian scripts was a technical as well as a commercial, political and intellectual challenge. With no Chinese typographer to help, the French team modelled the types on characters found in a Chinese dictionary imported into France by missionaries, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century they published two dictionaries which included Chinese characters printed with wooden type.

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