Most people think the Gutenberg Bible, printed in Latin in Germany c.1455, is the world's earliest printed book. It is certainly the world’s earliest book printed with movable metal type, and the progenitor of the printing revolution in Europe. However, the honour of being the earliest printed book goes to a Buddhist text, known in English as the Diamond Sutra, printed in Chinese in AD 868 on paper using woodblocks, a copy of which was brought from a cave in western China to the British Museum in 1909 by the Hungarian-born, British-funded explorer and archaeologist of Central Asia, Sir Aurel Stein.
Indeed, even this copy of the Diamond Sutra may have had printed predecessors in the Far East. Good-quality paper had been invented in China in the 2nd century AD, and by the mid-9th century Far Eastern printing was already a mature industry. Printing was used, for example, in 764, by the Japanese empress Shotoku to mass-produce 'a million charms' on small strips of paper curled inside pagoda-shaped wooden containers for distribution in temples. But no surviving book from this time is plainly dated like the Diamond Sutra now in the British Library. Hence, the cautious subtitle – The Story of the World’s Earliest Dated Printed Book – of this crisply written, finely illustrated, general-interest guide written by two of the library’s staff members: Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section, and Mark Barnard, the manager of the Conservation section, who completed a seven-year conservation of the Diamond Sutra in 2010.
Rather than being folded and stitched, the British Library’s Diamond Sutra takes the form of a scroll. The first sheet of paper begins with an elegant frontispiece showing the Buddha in a garden answering questions posed by an elderly disciple, attended by shaven-headed monks, haloed Bodhisattvas, flying apsaras (angels), an emperor and an empress, and other figures. There follow six long sheets of paper joined together edge to edge, printed with Chinese characters read top to bottom and right to left. At the end is the printed colophon, which translates as: "Reverently (caused to be) made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of (his) two parents on the 15th day of the 4th month of the Xiantong reign" (AD 868).
No more is known about Wang Jie. Presumably, he commissioned the printing and distribution of hundreds of copies of this work, in order to earn himself merit. "The Diamond Sutra includes passages where the Buddha states that chanting, or repeating aloud, even parts of the sutra would confer immeasurable merit," note Wood and Barnard. It is a favourite sutra among Chinese Buddhists, because it is quite easy to memorise and takes only 30-40 minutes to chant in its entirety.
The basic story of its requisition by Stein in 1907, along with large numbers of Buddhist manuscripts, from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang on the Silk Road, is fairly well known. After protracted clandestine negotiation through his Chinese-speaking interpreter, Jiang Xiaowan, with the self-appointed guardian of the caves, Wang Yuanlu, Stein was able to purchase a selection of scrolls and spirit them out of China. Wang (a wandering Taoist preacher) was in need of Stein’s money but was afraid, as was Stein himself, of alerting the local Chinese authorities. Thus, a photograph of the caves published by Stein in 1912 showing bundles of manuscripts on the floor beneath Buddha images was in fact a double exposure – the heaped manuscripts superimposed on the empty cave – probably intended to give the impression that the explorer had examined the manuscripts in the cave, whereas in fact Jiang had smuggled them out of the cave to Stein’s tent by night. Eventually, in 1910, the Chinese government had the remaining manuscripts moved to Peking.
Less familiar is the fact that Stein did not really know what he had bought. Neither he nor Jiang Xiaowan was able to read most of the texts. Jiang knew Chinese, of course; but he was unfamiliar with Buddhism and knew nothing of Buddhist terminology. Stein, an Indologist by training, could read Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit, the original language of the Chinese translation (made around AD 401) printed in the Diamond Sutra, so he could recognise some of the Sanskrit terms phonetically rendered into Chinese when these were read out by Jiang; but he did not know Chinese. Not until the texts reached the British Museum in London were they viewed by a visiting Sinologist capable of appraising their contents properly – and he, in a further irony, was Stein's leading rival, the French scholar Paul Pelliot, who was very disappointed Stein had beaten him to the caves. It was Pelliot who realised the true significance of the printed Diamond Sutra and made Stein aware of it, after the appearance of Stein's 1912 account of his expedition, Ruins of Desert Cathay.
Having described the discovery, production, content and interpretation of the Diamond Sutra, the authors conclude with a chapter on its conservation. Decades of attempts to prevent the rolled-up paper from cracking by lining it have recently given way, after much delicate removal of linings, adhesives and old Chinese patches, to more sensitive repairs. Now it is even possible to see the impression of the block print, over a millennium after it was first made. The unsolved problem is whether to reassemble the sutra as a scroll, which it was intended to be, or to keep it in flat sheets for better preservation, less self-damaging than a scroll, like a western printed book.
Review reproduced with permission from www.archaeology.co.uk
Charing Cross Rd Bookshop - 22/02/2011