[Viewpoint] Let us have our Gutenberg

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[Viewpoint] Let us have our Gutenberg

Time magazine rated the 100 most influential people of the millennium. Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the metal printing press, topped the list. Isaac Newton, Martin Luther, Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare followed.

Gutenberg used oil-based ink and found a way to effectively create and set type, industrializing knowledge and opening up the path to the Enlightenment. The 42-line Bible published in 1455 is an absolute masterpiece for its beauty of design and practicality.

Although Gutenberg died as an unsuccessful businessman, he expanded the market of knowledge with his “venture company” by industrializing printing and creating a sustainable industry. He is also honored as the inventor of the metal printing press.

And yet, the world’s first metal printing press was in fact invented in the Korean kingdom of Goryeo, before Gutenberg.

In 1091, Emperor Zhezong of the Song Dynasty asked the neighboring nations to find 117 books that had been lost. Goryeo sent “Huangdi zhenjing” (“The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Acupuncture”) and others to Song, and two copies were created of each book.

According to the Joseon Dynasty encyclopedia written by Lee Gyu-gyeong, the copy of Huangdi zhenjing was never returned to Goryeo. Goryeo’s passion for knowledge was so intense that China often checked on it. The Song Dynasty’s great poet Su Shi even asked his ruler not to sell books to Goryeo.

Although Goryeo had such a passion for knowledge, its wood printing presses suffered from limitations. In order for technology to develop further, investment and market are key, but Goryeo and Joseon did not have either.

The demand for books was limited because only a few were raised as intellectuals, and the country lacked forests. Skilled manpower for lumbering and printing was lacking, and the storage of wooden blocks after printing was difficult.

There is an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. Goryeo found a breakthrough by inventing the metal printing press. In Korean society, where few people wanted a large variety of books, metal printing type was effective.

In addition, King Sejong the Great also tried to reshape printing culture from concentration on Chinese characters to Hangul to expand demand and popularize books. The economy, however, was devastated during hardships such as Japan’s invasion in the Imjin War (1592-1598). That prevented Joseon’s printing culture from expanding across the globe.

Both the Korean and Chinese governments prohibited books and knowledge from crossing their borders, and the printing technology was not considered a trade item by the nation.

Korea’s locally developed metal printing type technology did not find a market abroad. Even at home, the technology barely held on as a novelty.

If Korea had enough capital, and if nearby markets such as China and Japan had been open, Korea’s metal printing presses would have become a global sensation with their innovation and beauty. King Sejong, Jang Yeong-sil and Lee Cheon could have been named as the most influential people of the millennium.

Gutenberg began the Gutenberg project, industrializing the metal printing press to meet the demands of European society, and created a technology that will be remembered forever in human history. Such an achievement was possible because there was no ideology to ruin the project. Gutenberg was only focused on developing the technology and selling it on the market.

Today, Korea must look for its own version of the Gutenberg project. There are many possibilities. The joint development of Oriental and Western medicine is a possibility. Through ideology-free cooperation, Oriental medicine, whose efficacy has been proven over 1,000 years of use, can be verified scientifically and objectively. By doing so, blockbuster new medicines can be created.

The cosmetics market also has potential. Recently, a Korean company developed a fragrance, Lolita Lampica, that ranked in the top 5 in France’s fragrance market.

The bio-cosmetics industry has emerged as a new cash cow. This industry can be combined with the Korean Wave and elevated to a cultural industry to promote Korea’s national brand image. It is undeniably a green industry with high added-value.

Our stem cell research and efficient hospital management systems are also competitive.

The government must support technological development and overseas marketing in order to nurture global mega brands.

Let’s begin Korea’s Gutenberg project right now, without repeating the mistakes of the past.


*The writer is a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sohn Myong-sei
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