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'Jikji' project to shed new light on world's oldest surviving book printed with metal type

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Pages of
Pages of "Jikji," the oldest surviving book printed with movable metal type / Courtesy of National Archives of Korea

By Park Han-sol

A collaborative international research project launched last year to analyze the 918-1392 Goryeo era's Buddhist scripture "Jikji Simche Yojeol," better known as "Jikji," is taking a new step forward with a grant awarded by the Washington, D.C.-based National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

"From Jikji to Gutenberg," led by the UNESCO International Centre for Documentary Heritage (ICDH) and the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library, is a joint research project involving over 50 scholars from 25 prominent institutions, including the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution and Gutenberg Museum in Germany.

Its aim is to study Jikji and the Gutenberg Bible ― historic, cultural artifacts that are believed to be the origins of print practices in Eastern Asia and Western Europe, respectively.

Both relics were inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in 2001. However, in the West, it still remains virtually unknown that Jikji far predates the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, which is widely recognized as the earliest book printed using mass-produced metal types in Europe.

The Buddhist scripture was published during the late Goryeo Kingdom in 1377 at Heungdeok Temple in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province ― 78 years ahead of its European counterpart ― making it the world's oldest surviving book printed with movable metal types. The only surviving original is now kept at the National Library of France.

"From Jikji to Gutenberg" will receive a $75,000 grant from NEH by next year, making this the first time for a humanities project with Korean involvement to be awarded by the U.S. federal institution, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety's National Archives of Korea (NAK).

Through the humanistic research process with state-of-the-art nondestructive imaging technology, the interdisciplinary team of historians, conservators and scientists "expects to discover the origins and principles of printing and type-casting techniques, which have not been uncovered until now," it said in a statement.

Depending on the progress made on its first phase by 2023, the project will qualify for the follow-up grant from NEH in the coming years, which amounts to $3.3 million.

Choi Jae-hee, the chair of UNESCO ICDH and president of NAK, said, "It is of great significance that UNESCO ICDH, established for the first time in the world by Korea with the great support of the international community, has provided an opportunity for experts and professionals worldwide to study Jikji, the pride of Korea."

The scholarly strides made through "From Jikji to Gutenberg" will be unveiled to the public in 2027, when a cooperative exhibition is scheduled to be held simultaneously in 44 research libraries across the globe in commemoration of the 650th anniversary of the printing of Jikji.
Park Han-sol


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