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date: 09 December 2023

From Manuscript to Print in South and Southeast Asialocked

From Manuscript to Print in South and Southeast Asialocked

  • Christoph EmmrichChristoph EmmrichUniversity of Toronto, Department for the Study of Religion


The historical shift from manuscript to print is only one aspect of the relationship between the two media, yet it has attracted the most attention. Influential media historiographies have either stressed or downplayed the degrees to which this particular change impacted textual practice in Asia. Playing one medium against the other, however, hinders our understanding of how print and manuscript have been shaping each other since the emergence of Buddhism. A broadened understanding of print that comprises early dhāraṇī estampage and later Chinese and Tibetan block prints, as well as the European printing press, shows that technological innovations in the reproduction, preservation, and distribution of writing spread out of and moved back into parts of South and Southeast Asia, recurring in multiple waves and in diverse forms, with differing local solutions defying attempts at a comprehensive media-centric periodization. Clay as the earliest preserved medium for the printed reproduction of Buddhist texts was replaced by paper as South Asian Buddhism spread northwest into Central and East Asia, impacting script cultures in Vietnam and Tibet and facilitating a division of labor which ensured that prints resembled manuscripts and manuscript came to dominate entire genres and social niches in the economy of the book. In the southern Himalayas, Tibetan block print and South Asian manuscript culture intermingled freely, even after the introduction of the European printing press, with Western print in isolated but striking cases upholding the prestige and supporting the ongoing reproduction of manuscripts. Similarly, in Sri Lanka and Thailand it was the colonial impact of print that led to a retooling and reevaluation of manuscripts as the key commodity through which to justify publishing and archiving efforts at the service of the project to build the nation-state, leading to the emergence of a new genre in South Asia, the library catalogue. Burma and Cambodia, with their interrupted trajectories toward Buddhist nationhood, saw interplay between manuscript, print, and epigraphy, in one case, and the detachment from the larger Thai manuscript lineage by the creation of a new mixed manuscript and print tradition in the other. More recent Buddhist traditions never experienced any of the passages from manuscript to print, emerging in a textual environment entirely constituted by the European printing press. Yet, in this and in the general contemporary Buddhist environment too, the manuscript persists in novel forms, either as a preliminary stage in the ontogenesis of any published or unpublished material or in the myriad instances in which jotting down on slips of paper contributes to the organization of the Buddhist everyday.


  • Buddhism

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