THE WOMAN WHO DISCOVERED PRINTING, by T. H. Barrett, Yale University Press, 176 pages, $25

T.H. Barrett, the author, teaches East Asian history and Oriental studies at the University of London. He has written a fascinating little book about the origins of Chinese printing, which anticipated Johannes Gutenberg by centuries. He tells the story of the Empress Wu (A.D. 625-705) and the revolution in printing that occurred during her regime.

According to Barrett, this technology, developed by a woman, was ignored for two centuries. He writes that "sheer misogyny" was a major factor, along with dynastic politics and religious rivalries. Printing in China filled a political need for more holy objects. Barrett has found evidence that the Empress Wu utilized printed materials that were "produced by mechanical reproduction ... Seal paper was also used, meaning a document consisting of a piece of paper stamped with a seal."

There were also "talismanic documents formerly carved into wood." Allegedly, "she had copied out at least one set of the entire Taoist scriptures, in about two thousand scrolls ... and she had five thousand scrolls of Buddhist scriptures recreated in embroidery."

Moreover, the practice of "taking rubbings from inscriptions" and a jade printing block using small woodblocks became popular. There were also messages on coins and a longer, flatter object which gleamed when the mud was rubbed off it. This was a slip of gold, upon which was printed a message of 31 characters, "Loving the true Way and the long-living holy immortals, I have respectfully come to the mountain gate of the Central Peak, Song of the lofty, and cast one golden slip, begging the three palaces and nine departments to erase the wrong doing of Wu Zhao."

In fact, Barrett finds the Empress guilty of rewriting history in several instances, to cover up her autocratic decisions. He also declares that "for in China the greater part of historical writing was produced by bureaucrats for bureaucrats ... The earliest printed materials, after all, were designed to be distributed but not read, and show up not in China, where all the developments toward printing appears to have been taking place, but as far away as Japan."

Barrett asserts that woodblock printing was in place in the late fifth century A.D., but a manuscript culture that already had a lot of paper and writing brushes, rapid copying was common. "Multiple copies were easily created by hand, and it was not until after the following century, a time of great social and religious turmoil, that the need arose for the creation of short texts on a massive scale."

According to Barrett, these texts were not intended to be read but regarded as the words of the Buddha and used as relics. Thus the religious intentions were as strong as the government in making printing a regular part of the culture.

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