Park Byeng-Sen 1929-2011

Jongseong's picture

Historian Park Byeng-Sen, whose work shed light on the early history of printing in East Asia, died Tuesday night in Paris. She had been battling cancer the last couple of years.

I have just returned from the wake being held at the Korean Cultural Centre in Paris. At the entrance, they were showing a short video about one of her achievements—her identification of the oldest extant book printed with movable metal type in the world. This reminded me that she made a valuable contribution as a type historian. I've decided to share a bit of her story, since she is not well known outside of Korea.

Park came to France in 1955 at the age of 27 for her graduate studies, the first Korean woman to do so. In 1967, she started working as a librarian at the National Library of France. It was there that she made the aforementioned discovery. She came across an old book titled Jikji, a collection of Buddhist sayings. There were annotations in French on the cover declaring that this was the oldest printed book from foundry type dating from 1377. This was confirmed in the last page of the book itself, which contained the dates and circumstances of its printing in a Korean Buddhist temple—that it was printed with "letters made from molten metal". The book itself had been in the collection of the first French consul to Korea Collin de Plancy (1853-1924).

At the time, Gutenberg's 42-Line Bibles from the 1450s were the oldest known book printed from movable metal type. So Park knew she was on to a revolutionary discovery, one she would have to back up with evidence. She would have to prove that the document was printed with individual characters made of metal, not blocks of wood on which an entire page would be carved.

Having to learn everything from scratch, Park almost started a fire three times trying to cast type at home. She obtained old metal typefaces from print shops and made prints with them. The breakthrough came when she discovered that the burrs on the edges of metal typefaces can leave their marks in print. This, added to the fact that the characters did not align exactly and some symmetric characters like 日 or 一 were printed upside down, was enough evidence that the document was indeed printed with movable metal type. Jikji was presented at the 1972 l'Année des livres exhibition organized by the National Library of France and changed the way we understand the early history of printing, bringing attention to the developments in East Asia a century before Gutenberg.

In addition to this contribution on the history of printing, her work as a scholar was varied and fascinating, given her unique status as an archival historian of Korean origin residing in France. I saw her once from afar, when she had just returned from Korea for cancer treatment, but never got to meet her. She was doing research and writing books until the end. May she rest in peace.

Té Rowan's picture

I picked that up on the RSS feed from the Chosun Ilbo as "Historian Who Helped Repatriate Korean Archive Dies".

eliason's picture

Thanks for posting that, Brian.

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