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A master of Chinese movable type

A craftsman in Taipei is trying to rescue the millennium-old world of Chinese movable lead type from the advance of the digital age. His foundry makes traditional Chinese characters the old way. Diana Jou reports.

Hunched over a metal casting machine, Chang Chieh-kuan carefully guides a tiny copper mold into a hydraulic press. Seconds later he extracts a piece of lead type with the Chinese character for "happiness."

That's one down, thousands more to go in a last-ditch effort by this 58-year-old craftsman in Taipei to rescue the millennium-old world of Chinese lead type from the advance of the digital age.

Chang's foundry is one of the last making traditional Chinese characters the old way. It's time-consuming and labor-intensive, but Chang says it brings out the grandeur of the characters.

"Lead type makes an impression on paper that digital printing cannot," he said. "It allows people to feel the weight and power of the character."

In an age when Chinese can text and tweet in their native script, and at a time when China has just surpassed Japan to become the world's second biggest economy, Chang's labor of love is a reminder of a much older China, one that invented movable type 400 years before it reached Europe.

Chinese script has no alphabet. Instead it consists of words made up of one or two characters, some of which can consist of up to 25 strokes. To read a newspaper requires memorizing some 2,500 characters, a novel about 4,000.

Handwritten Chinese, using brush and paper, is considered an art form and an indicator of its practitioner's scholarship and aesthetic sensibility.

In the Chinese mainland, many characters have been replaced by simplified forms to promote literacy, but purists say they lack the heft and balance of the originals.

Taiwan, an island of 23 million people 160 kilometers off the Chinese mainland coast, still uses the traditional versions, regarding them as the heart and soul of Chinese culture. The older characters are also in use in Hong Kong, though no movable-type foundries exist there.

And everywhere, word processing is threatening to make the old skills extinct.

Chang, a bespectacled perfectionist with a salt-and-pepper crewcut and a friendly smile, is out to save the family legacy and its 2 million pieces of lead type crammed in his workshop.

To do so, he is fighting fire with fire - digitizing 150,000 characters and enlarging them on a computer screen to help him perfect their lead-type versions and create a museum of printing where visitors can buy character molds as gifts.

When Ri Xing Type Foundry was established in 1969, one of the partners was an uncle in the family who had worked for a newspaper printer for so long that he was able to write almost all the Chinese characters with a calligraphy brush. He didn't need a dictionary, Chang said. "In fact, he was the dictionary."

Back then, Taipei had 5,000 printing shops. Forty years later, only 30 old-style establishments remain and Ri Xing is the last print foundry in the capital. It hasn't turned a profit in 10 years, and to pay the bills, Chang sold the home he inherited from his father.

His determination has attracted a dozen spirited volunteers, many of whom had previously never seen lead type.

The copper molds he is making are in a font called Kaishu that dates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China's last imperial rulers overthrown in 1911.

"If I can't save this business ... it would be a big loss for Taiwan," Chang said. "As for humanity, the Chinese-character movable letterpress is a huge cultural asset and could very well disappear."


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