Thirty years ago, China still employed traditional letterpress techniques and lagged far behind western counterparts in printing technology. In part because of the enormous number of Chinese characters (about 50,000), workers were required to select and compile from what could seem a mountain of characters engraved in lead.
"It took more than 30 people eight hours a day to arrange just one page of news print," said Zhang Suhua, a printing division employee with People's Daily. Under the old system, she would run between workshops to assemble and reassemble the varied sizes and typefaces of metal characters.
It was such a time-consuming and problematic process that many scientific books, magazines and dissertations were no longer current by the time they were published. Also, magazine and newspapers were very limited in number and variety.
Today the average publishing cycle is complete at light speed, relative to those old ways. Books, magazines and newspaper have skyrocketed in volume and variety. Much of this progress is attributed to one man and his signature technology: Wang Xuan and his computerized laser photo composition system for Chinese character typesetting.
Professor Wang practices shadowboxing in Peking University in the morning.
"Be confident, but not conceited."
Wang Xuan graduated from the Mathematics and Mechanics Dept. of the elite Peking University in 1958. In August 1974, China launched the "48"project to focus on the development of Chinese character processing, and Wang was eventually put in charge of the research and development for a precision phototypesetting system.
By then western printing techniques had progressed through three phases: manual, optical, and cathode-ray. Yet, the laser photo composition system was still in the research stage. An industry in flux, five other Chinese institutions that were engaged in research on printing technique set their sights on optical and cathode-ray technology respectively. Wang Xuan, however, would prove more accurate in his foresight. He directed his R&D efforts to laser photo composition system for Chinese character typesetting. Some in that day thought he was perhaps dreaming a bit, considering that efforts towards manual and cathode-ray processes were still beset by many difficulties. But Wang Xuan stuck to his plan, confident in his projections.
In 1979 a major milestone was reached and the products that were yielded would realize wide use. In late 1988, Economic Daily became the first Chinese newspaper to adopt laser printing technology. China's printing industry has since said farewell to the era of lead and fire.
Wang in research work on a laser photo composition system in Jianghuai Morning Post of Hefei, capital city of Anhui Province.
The large print technology firms of Britain, America and Japan once made their way to China to carve out their share of the market in Chinese characters. People's Daily imported two sets of expensive American HTS photo composition systems which did not work properly until adjusted by Wang Xuan and his technology. Great respect was shown to Wang Xuan and his invention by the president of HTS Company.
In 1982 Wang patented the system for Chinese character typesetting in Europe. By the end of 1989, the foreign companies that had developed or sold photo composition for Chinese character typesetting gave up on the market successively. Meanwhile, Wang Xuan had secured a solid niche in the overseas market of photo composition systems for Chinese and other languages typesetting. Today, 99 percent of domestic newspapers and 80 percent of overseas Chinese newspapers use laser photo composition systems for Chinese character typesetting with technology traceable to Wang's groundbreaking work. What's more, the so successful development of laser photo composition for Japanese and Korean on basis of Wang's invention has been exported into Japan and South Korea that it makes great social and economic profits
"We knew each other for 20 years," said Ni Guangnan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering. "He impressed me most as a person full of innovations. He was both an outstanding scientist and a paradigm of self-innovation." Expressing his personal philosophy for success, Wang Xuan once said, "Be confident but not conceited, be persevering but not rigid. Fix your target and spare no effort in realizing that goal. And adapt to new circumstance." From 1975 to 1993, from the time of conception, through development and the eventual maturity of laser photo composition system, Wang worked more than 65 hours a week, and he took no holidays.