5.2.1 Re-Definition of Encoding Concepts
Encoding in semiotics can be interpreted as the process of creating a message transmission from an addresser to an addressee ; in psychology, encoding can be interpreted as the process of entering the memory system, storing, and subsequently retrieving ; in computers, encoding can be interpreted as the process of efficiently transferring or storing a sequence of characters (letters, numbers, punctuation, and symbols) into a professional format. In the book “Encoding and Decoding in the Context of Television Discourse,” by contemporary cultural researcher Stuart Hall, encoding is interpreted as meaning production of a media message and this plays an important part in cultural communication, and similar processes . Based on these concepts, encoding is a specific process and has different definitions in different discipline areas.
The present work attempted to identify the encoding of movable type printing in the context of Chinese cultural communication, hence encoding is defined for the present purpose as a transferring process from one role to another during the historical development of China’s movable type printing. In a physical view, movable type printing breaks the earlier whole-plate engraving printing into individual units and this may happen during the processes of deconstructing phrases or words. In the psychological view, movable type printing evolves from transmitter to protector of information (in cultural context), and from protector to inheritor.
5.2.2 The Role of Enlightenment
The appearance of words can be regarded as the gestation phase of encoding. The invention of words was a great advancement for human civilization. In primitive ages in China, humans tied a number of different knots or different shapes of knots on ropes to express specific meanings: the so-called knot note (Fig. 5.5). Afterward, ancient humans portrayed certain things on stones and stone walls to convey certain meanings. This kind of pictogram directly gave birth to the origin of human writing: the archeological discoveries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters, Sumerian cuneiform characters, Chinese characters, and similar are all such.
Chinese characters have a long history, but the exact time of their emergence is still a historical mystery . Judging from the archeological findings, the Oracle script system was fully developed in the Shang Dynasty, around 3500 years ago. Chinese characters are ideograms whose form and meaning are closely connected. Early characters were of pictographic form: with such a glyph, people could easily know what it stood for.
The usage of Chinese characters is closely linked with their transmission medium, but there were some limitations for expedient information transmission , for instance, scattered oracle bones were composed of animal bones with engraved symbols (Fig. 5.6); bronze inscriptions were heavy and difficult to move (Fig. 5.7); the words on bamboo slips were hard to modify (Fig. 5.8); silk as a writing substrate was expensive and susceptible to be eaten by insects (Fig. 5.9). The invention of paper was convenient for text recording, but it was not able to change the transmission mode of manual copying and thus still constrained the efficiency of transmission. Until the invention of whole-plate engraving printing, information could not be spread widely. Compared with manual copying, engraving printing had great advantages in saving time and improving efficiency, but it also had shortcomings: it was very costly as each version of the text required creation of a new set of plates. However, with the invention of movable type printing, whole-plate engraving printing was divided into separate re-usable units, overcoming many of the above problems and starting widespread information transmission.
5.2.3 The Role of Encoding
With the development of information dissemination, the role of encoding evolved from transmitter to protector then to inheritor, or in a global view it can be considered as a navigator, directed toward civilization.
Whether as whole-plate engraving or movable type printing, the most obvious role at the beginning is as the information transmitter. In this process, information is transferred from one form or format to another. It is also a medium for a communicator to translate its message or meaning into languages, images, symbols, and so on. In view of relationship between language and literacy, printing provides a platform for converting spoken language into written language, which promotes the development of language, especially the development of written language in the Chinese literary and grammar frameworks. Considering the relationship between written language and communication efficiency, movable type printing provides an acceleration effect, and a new language experience can be built on its platform. This process of evolution with experience is also a role of the transmitter. In other words, the transmitter influences the efficiency improvement between language and literacy.
If the transmitter only transmits information and lacks cultural connotation, it cannot assist in advancing human civilization. Therefore, during the encoding process, the dominant role is held by the transmitter while the recessive role is that of the culture protector. In ancient times, the advancement derived from printing could be identified with history, religion, politics, military matters, and many other issues where printing had important historical and cultural values. The role of protector is crucial in the transfer process, for instance there are still preserved the Vajra cchedikā Prajñā Pāramitā (in English: The Diamond Sutra) (Fig. 5.10) based on engraving printing. This was made in the Tang Dynasty (868 CE), while the encyclopedia MengXiBiTan  (see Appendix), based on movable type printing, was written in the Northern Song Dynasty (written c. 1086–1093 CE) . There can be little doubt that the ancient imperial system also contributed in establishing special rules and orders for specific cultural preservation.
Protection aims at re-dissemination and then assured inheritance. As the foundation of modern printing, movable type printing is the basis of pre-digital era printing technology (digital printing can be argued to be closely connected—see Sect. 3.1). Here, another role of encoding is linked to deep ethnic cultural conventions. For instance, wood type printing was derived from the custom of renewing genealogy records, especially in the southern part of Zhejiang Province, China: the clan concept of root-seeking remains quite strong there. Every clan’s family tree is renewed every 12 years or so. Figure 5.11 shows the use of wooden movable type printing in the Rui’an area of Zhejiang Province. In the wider view of communication theory, the expansion of social and cultural communication has promoted the popularization of education and the exchange of knowledge. Additionally, mass production of printed books increases the chances of book retention, reduces the possibility of handwritten copies becoming extinct due to limited collections, and has a huge positive influence on cultural heritage.
Looking at the role of movable type printing in the history of civilization, it has always guided humans toward civilized societies. As a driver of social progress, movable type printing has effects on almost every aspect of modern civilization. Due to its roles as transmitter, protector, and inheritor, new ideas are quickly disseminated and popularized, and speculative thoughts are promoted.