The earliest woodblock printed fragments to survive are from China and are of silk, printed with flowers in three colours from the Han Dynasty (before AD 220). It is clear that woodblock printing developed in Asia several centuries before Europe. The Chinese were the first to use the process to print solid text, and equally that, much later, in Europe the printing of images on cloth developed into the printing of images on paper (woodcuts). It is also now established that the use in Europe of the same process to print substantial amounts of text together with images in block-books only came after the development of movable type, which was developed by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Northern Song Dynasty of China, about four hundred years later
oloured woodcut Buddha, 10th century,
In China, an alternative to woodblock printing was a system of reprographysince the Han Dynasty using carved stone steles to reproduce pages of text. The three necessary components for woodblock printing are the wood block, which carries the design cut in relief; dye or ink, which had been widely used in the ancient world; and either cloth or paper, which was first developed in China, around the 3rd century BC or 2nd century BC. Woodblock printing on papyrus seems never to have been practised, although it would be possible.
A few specimen of wood block printing, possibly called tarsh in Arabic, have been excavated from a 10th-century context in Arabic Egypt. They were mostly used for prayers and amulets. The technique may be spread from China or an independent invention, but had very little impact and virtually disappeared at the end of the 14th century. In India the main importance of the technique has always been as a method of printing textiles, which has been a large industry since at least the 10th century. Large quantities of printed Indian silk and cotton were exported to Europe throughout the Modern Period.
Because Chinese has a character set running into the thousands, woodblock printing suits it better than movable type to the extent that characters only need to be created as they occur in the text. Although the Chinese had invented a form of movable type with baked clay in the 11th century, and metal movable type was invented in Korea in the 13th century, woodblocks continued to be preferred owing to the formidable challenges of typesetting Chinese text with its 40,000 or more characters. Also, the objective of printing in the East may have been more focused on standardization of ritual text (such as the Buddhist canon Tripitaka, requiring 80,000 woodblocks), and the purity of validated woodblocks could be maintained for centuries. When there was a need for the reproduction of a text, the original block could simply be brought out again, while moveable type necessitated error-prone composition of distinct "editions".
In China, Korea, and Japan, the state involved itself in printing at a relatively early stage; initially only the government had the resources to finance the carving of the blocks for long works. The difference between East Asian woodblock printing and the Western printing press had major implications for the development of book culture and book markets in East Asia and Europe.