THE INVENTION OF BLOCK-PRINTING - The Sung Dynasty (A.D. 900-1200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Sung Dynasty (A.D. 900-1200)

THE Tang dynasty was brought to an end in 907, and during the succeeding fifty years the empire experienced no fewer than five separate dynastic changes. It was not a time favourable to literary effort; still production was not absolutely at a standstill, and some minor names have come down to us.

Of CHANG PI, for instance, of the later Chou dynasty, little is known, except that he once presented a voluminous memorial to his sovereign in the hope of staving off political collapse. The memorial, we are told, was much admired, but the advice contained in it was not acted upon. These few lines of his occur in many a poetical garland:—

"After parting, dreams possessed me,

and I wandered you know where,

And we sat in the verandah,

and you sang the sweet old air.

Then I woke, with no one near me

save the moon, still shining on,

And lighting up dead petals

which like you have passed and gone."

There is, however, at least one name of absorbing interest to the foreign student. FÊNG TAO (881-954) is best known to the Chinese as a versatile politician who served first and last under no less than ten Emperors of four different Houses, and gave himself a sobriquet which finds its best English equivalent in "The Vicar of Bray." He presented himself at the Court of the second Emperor of the Liao dynasty and positively asked for a post. He said he had no home, no money, and very little brains; a statement which appears to have appealed forcibly to the Tartar monarch, who at once appointed him grand tutor to the heir-apparent. By foreigners, on the other hand, he will be chiefly remembered as the inventor of the art of block-printing. It seems probable, indeed, that some crude form of this invention had been already known early in the T'ang dynasty, but until the date of Fêng Tao it was certainly not applied to the production of books. Six years after his death the "fire-led" House of Sung was finally established upon the throne, and thenceforward the printing of books from blocks became a familiar handicraft with the Chinese people.

With the advent of this new line, we pass, as the Chinese fairy-stories say, to "another heaven and earth." The various departments of history, classical scholarship, general literature, lexicography, and poetry were again filled with enthusiastic workers, eagerly encouraged by a succession of enlightened rulers. And although there was a falling-off consequent upon the irruption of the Golden Tartars in 1125-1127, when the ex-Emperor and his newly appointed successor were carried captive to the north, nevertheless the Sungs managed to create a great epoch, and are justly placed in the very first rank among the builders of Chinese literature.