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The role of immigrant printers

Initially, the Gozan presses published only the sayings of Chinese Zen patriarchs and other works related to the sect [fig. 1].

books Fig. 1. Zenrin ruijū, National Museum of Japanese History [Left] [Right]

During the Southern and Northern Courts period (1336-1392), however, as the reputations of Zen monks as experts of “Chinese learning” (kangaku) and masters of Chinese writing grew, they also began to publish secular works (known traditionally as the “Outer Classics” [J. gaiten, Ch. waidian]), such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, major works of literature [fig. 2],

Sutra Fig. 2. Hoshitsushū
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and poetry collections by contemporary poets. For example, the Tenryūji temple in the Saga area of Kyoto published the poetry collection of the Yuan-dynasty poet Fan Peng (J. Han Ho, 1272-1330). Another temple printed the Huang Yuan fengya, an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry [fig. 3]. This process of secularization may have been further accelerated by the arrival in 1367, at the invitation of Japanese monks, of a group of master carvers from the Chinese city of Fuzhou.

books Fig. 3. Comparison of Huang Yuan fengya (the National Library in Taipei, Research on Gozan-ban
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Printing blocks were made by professional “carvers” (called kokukō in Japanese). Contemporary records bear the names of eight master carvers who arrived in Japan in the 6th year of Jōji (1367) and settled in the Saga area. Names such as Chen Bashou (J. Chin Hakujū) and Yu Liangfu (J. Yu Ryōho) appear frequently in Gozan-ban editions published after this date [fig. 4] [fig. 5]. In China, where printing was far more widespread, books usually bore names of the carvers who had been involved in their making, which, among other things, made it easier to determine the wages for each carver. Thus, immigrant craftsmen from China made a vital contribution to the publishing activities of the Tenryūji, the Rinsenji, and other Zen temples of the Saga area.

Sutra Fig. 4. Zenrin ruijū, Gozan-ban edition
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books Fig. 5. A carver’s name in the colophon of Toryū sensei bunshu, National Museum of Japanese History [Left] [Right]

1367 was the year that the Yuan dynasty surrendered much of its power and control over the land to the troops of Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398). The following year, the new Ming dynasty was inaugurated. Located on the Western shore of the Taiwan strait, the Fuzhou area was one the last bastions of Yuan resistance against Zhu Yuanzhang’s troops. With Jian’an, Fuzhou was an important printing center, so it is quite possible that the Fuzhou printers relocated to Japan to escape the war.

The commercial nature of printing in Fuzhou [fig. 6] was to exert a profound influence on Japanese bookmaking. The Fuzhou printers brought with them their mercantile understanding of publishing. Although the focus of their activities were Zen institutions and their primary readership consisted of members of the clergy, they also printed Confucian texts, dictionaries, literary works, encyclopedias, and other works that satisfied a growing demand for secular texts among monks. This new, demand-based, proto-commercial approach to publishing was a clear departure from earlier printing practices at temples.

Morden city beside a river with tall buildlings Fig. 6. Fuzhou, China - a recent photo
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The pioneering work of these immigrant printers paved the way for the boom of commercial publishing in the early-modern period (1603-1868). “Five-Mountain culture” (Gozan bunka) is credited with introducing or popularizing in Japan a wide variety of continental objects and cultural practices, from foods like tea, miso paste, soy sauce, and filled buns, to architectural styles, room designs, garden designs, ink painting, and flower arrangement. However, as we have seen, its contribution to the evolution of Japanese printing and book culture was no less significant.

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This article is from the free online course:

Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

Keio University

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