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Early Joseon-era metal movable type blocks unveiled to public

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Movable metal type print blocks are on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap
Movable metal type print blocks are on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap

By Park Ji-won

Up to 1,755 excavated artifacts, including the oldest existing movable metal type print blocks made in the Joseon era (1392-1910), at around 1434, will be unveiled to the public in the National Palace Museum of Korea.

In the exhibition, titled "Encounter with the Brilliant Scientific Technology of the Joseon Dynasty" which will run until Dec. 31, the museum will present up to 1,632 metal print blocks bearing Hangeul and classical Chinese characters, unearthed during an archaeological excavation at a redevelopment site in Insa-dong between March and June. According to the museum, 48 of the print blocks bearing classical Chinese characters known as "Gabin-ja" were made in 1434 under King Sejong, predating Johannes Gutenberg's metal movable-type printing press, introduced in Europe in the 1450s, by about 16 years. There are also 42 print blocks carrying "Eulhae-ja" classical Chinese characters made in 1455 under King Sejo, and 214 "Eulyu-ja" blocks carrying various sizes of Hangeul letters made in 1465 under King Sejo.

About 1,000 of the blocks bear classical Chinese characters while about 500 display Hangeul. About 1,300 blocks haven't been identified, but they also are on display.

Movable metal type (printing) blocks are on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap
Movable metal type (printing) blocks are on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Tuesday. Yonhap

Currently, Korea's "Jikji Simche Yojeol," a Buddhist book written by the Buddhist monk, Baegun, in 1377, is believed to be the world's first book printed by movable metal type. However, due to the scarcity of other comparable centuries-old printing tools, it has been difficult to identify and fix the timeline of both the document's publication and the production of the blocks. Eight movable metal type print blocks dating back to the 918-1392 Goryeo Kingdom are still known to exist ― one belonging to the National Museum of Korea and seven located in the North ― and 30 other Hangeul print blocks are known to date back to the early Joseon period.

In addition to the print blocks, the exhibition also unveiled remnants of astronomical and water clocks made during Sejong's reign. The exhibition will include, "Sun-and-Star Time Determining Instrument," presumably made in 1437, which uses the shadows made by the sun during the day and the stars at night to tell the time.

The clock had been presumed to have a square-shaped handle, but a recent archaeological excavation revealed that it was shaped like a cloud.

"Officials decided to unveil the artifacts as soon as possible, rather than keeping them for studying for a long period of time, so that researchers and citizens can see them," a museum official said.


Park Ji-won jwpark@koreatimes.co.kr


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