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Buddhism and Print Culture in China

Summary and Keywords

In premodern China all written materials were to be treated with respect, but Buddhist materials containing the words of the Buddha in particular embodied his surviving presence in the world just as much as an image, and so any means of multiplying them increased that presence, thus casting printing in a role far more significant than the mere provision of reading matter. Unfortunately, the study of Buddhism and print culture in China has been hindered by cultural factors that have so far resulted in an uneven coverage by existing research. The contributions of Buddhism to the early history of printing have been acknowledged by modern scholarship, and the importance of Buddhist doctrines and practices to the emergence of the technology continue to be explored. More recently the immense achievement of Chinese Buddhists in printing the Buddhist Canon in its entirety from woodblock in a dozen successive editions has also been recognized. But the investigation of extracanonical printing has not blossomed in the same way. Only in the case of the Chan school, whose writings as a result of their incorporation of vernacular elements present a somewhat anomalous case, has modern research been carried out to the degree that one might have expected, largely as the result of the work of Japanese scholars such as Ishii Shūdō 石井修道 and Shiina Kōyū 椎名宏雄. This leaves much of the printed output of Chinese Buddhists over more than a millennium almost completely unaccounted for, which has very serious implications for any estimation of China as a book culture in past history. Simple counting of the number of editions published in China and Europe ignores the reluctance of our sources to record Buddhist works. Under the circumstances the picture given can only be described as provisional. China for its part was not a stable concept throughout history. Historically printing in languages other than Chinese occurred in the territorial area that forms the contemporary nation-state, and printing in Chinese also took place in locations that fall within other territories.

Keywords: Printed dhāraṇī, woodblock printing, East Asian Buddhist Canon, Chinese book collectors, modern Chinese Buddhist publishing

Buddhism and Print Culture in China: Historiographic Considerations

Chinese scholars during the last millennium of imperial times occasionally mentioned printing, largely drawing on official records of the government printing of the Confucian Classics from 932 onwards. Although some scattered references were made to printing in the previous century, almost no mention was made of Buddhist use of woodblock.1 One premodern writer suggested an earlier date at the end of the 6th century on the basis of a misunderstood Buddhist reference, but this hypothesis did not command much support and his suggestion was definitively eliminated from consideration as a record of printing in the early 20th century.2 The move toward opening any narrative of the development of Chinese printing with some consideration of its predominantly Buddhist origins depended on two new sources of information: printed Buddhist materials from the 9th century, and apparently earlier among the Dunhuang manuscripts, together with other archaeological finds retrieved from 1900 onward; and accounts of a large number of surviving printed Buddhist dhāraṇī in Japan, the production of which was datable by historical records to from around 770. The earliest of these archaeologically retrieved Chinese printed materials turned out to be items that were not designed to be read by human eyes and were of a type that were completely unknown to the transmitted record of Chinese history. The Japanese historical records are also extremely sparse and completely uninterested in the technology involved.

Two factors explain this situation. First, the history of printing technology excited very little interest among traditional scholars, certainly by comparison with the history of papermaking.3 Second, traditional bibliographical records paid scant attention to Buddhist works. In principle, it seems, translated Buddhist scriptures had since the late 3rd century been listed separately from Chinese works, and from the late 4th century were always recorded within the catalogues devoted to the Buddhist Canon. If any Buddhist scriptures appeared in regular library catalogues it was generally because of some special feature such as calligraphy executed by someone famous. Buddhist works composed in China did have a place in traditional Chinese bibliography alongside Daoist religious texts, but perhaps given the existence of catalogues compiled by clergy elsewhere, both were included or excluded in a somewhat haphazard fashion by “mainstream” secular cataloguers, as Japanese scholarship has demonstrated for at least one period.4 Cumulatively, such a policy affected the recording and perhaps thereby the preservation of Buddhist materials not included in the canon. In any case the nature of the earliest phase of Buddhist printing left no trace in transmitted bibliographic records. This should occasion no surprise, as the earliest references to printed materials in transmitted Chinese sources concern calendars, which would not have been routinely preserved and catalogued by librarians.

Buddhism and the Origins of Woodblock Printing

The evolution of woodblock printing from the creation of multiple images by means of seals is still a somewhat obscure process. Seals and like vehicles for stamping textual or representational patterns on soft materials such as clay were used by Buddhists in South Asia and beyond and in China by other religious practitioners. The notion of creating images by stamping them on paper first appeared in Daoist sources of about 600 ce, along with the notion of making images out of snow. Stamped Buddha images on paper among the Dunhuang manuscripts may date back almost as far, but the earliest textual indication that Buddhists were interested in legitimating for themselves the practices adopted by their Daoist rivals is found in a work by the Chinese pilgrim Yijing 義淨‎ (635–713) completed in 692, which affirms that he saw the stamping of texts on paper and snowmen in India. He traveled by sea through the tropics, however, so the improbability of the latter assertion makes it probable that his observations, at least insofar as they alleged the use of stamped paper, were written with a polemical purpose.5

The earliest date assigned to a printed object from China bearing text—and also manuscript additions—according to the best evidence available in the early 21st century is a dhāraṇī recovered by archaeologists in the Xi’an area, which would seem to date to the second half of the 8th century, about the same time as Japanese materials from around 770 that are also dhāraṇī.6 The Chinese example is one of a number of similar texts that were evidently incorporated into funerary procedures for their apotropaic qualities. Such forms of the Buddha’s word, which were concentrated in power beyond the point of human intelligibility, promised especially generous benefits to the bearer in this world or the next. Their spiritual value was matched by their brevity, and it would have made sense to manufacture a quantity of these ready-made but customizable dhāraṇī. for funerary use. The fact that these printed words were never destined for human readers indicates the perils of attempting to understand Buddhist printing solely in light of the European experience. But the Japanese examples were manufactured and distributed (albeit not very widely) in huge numbers simultaneously, without any overt link to funerals.

Rather, the context indicates a distribution of dhāraṇī by a reigning empress in which they functioned as relics of the Buddha (all of Buddha’s word possessed this status but again dhāraṇī had the advantage of portability combined with potency). The underlying model would then be the distribution of the Buddha’s relics by Ashoka, a model also adopted explicitly in the 10th century distribution of printed dhāraṇī by Qian Hongshu 錢弘俶‎ (929–988, r. 948–978),the king of the state of Wuyue 吳越‎.7 Though the use of relics to legitimate imperial rule may be seen earlier in China, under the Sui dynasty and the reigning Empress Wu (r. 684–705), unlike these later cases there is no record at this point of a distribution of relics in textual form. A Chinese printed copy of the same dhāraṇī used in Japan, certainly early and perhaps dating to Wu’s time, is listed in a Japanese library catalogue but has not been examined by scholars.8 The possibility that the spread of printed dhāraṇī attested to China from the late 8th century may have been originally stimulated by the imperial use of printing technology at the start of the century cannot be proven, but, in light of Yijing’s legitimation of printing by a suspect appeal to Indian precedent, it is not impossible.

By the middle of the 9th century printed, small dhāraṇī were joined by other forms of printed product. The catalogues of their acquisition by Japanese Buddhist monks who visited China during this period mention reference works such as dictionaries and the image of a Tantric deity. Printed calendars are attested by both a textual reference and surviving fragments from Dunhuang, where a number of manuscript copies of reference works include colophons making it clear that they were transcribed from printed originals published in the capital.9 This rather complicates the interpretation found in many secondary studies of a visiting official’s account of printing in Sichuan in the late 9th century: although often construed as evidence for the novelty and hence primacy of printing in that area, the report might better be seen as a comment of the dominance in that region of a form of book production already known in Chang’an but limited there to a part of the book market.10 It may well be that scribal culture in Sichuan had been affected by foreign invasion in the first half of the 9th century, encouraging a more prominent role for print. Scribal copying costs would have risen where scribes were in short supply, making the initial outlay on carving blocks more attractive. This would have eventually come into play more widely, especially after the dynasty collapsed into a chaos, many books were destroyed, and many literate individuals capable of contributing to manuscript production were killed.

This is not to say that Sichuan printing did not influence the publication of Buddhist literature. Colophons from Dunhuang make it clear that in the 10th century a Sichuan edition of the Diamond Sutra served as a frequent model for manuscript transcription. It may even be that the famous printed Diamond Sutra of 868 from Dunhuang was created in Sichuan, but this is uncertain.11 What is clear is that Buddhist scribal culture throughout most of China was likely affected by the closure of monasteries and mass laicization that took place in the great Huichang Persecution of 842–846. The 868 sutra ends with a colophon stating that the merit gained from its creation was to be transferred to the benefit of the deceased parents of a certain Wang Jie 王玠‎. The sutra was part of a multiple set of Diamond Sutras created for the same purpose. There are plenty of references to manuscripts of this and other works being copied out a thousand at a time, if not more, so when scribal costs increased due to the need to replace destroyed Buddhist texts Wang Jie was probably opting for something meritorious but not so financially burdensome. But even though the creation of the text was not linked to any stated desire on his part to read it or even put it to some other ritual use, somebody did so, for there is evidence that this book required repairing before it entered the Dunhuang archive.

Another oblique indication exists that restocking monastic libraries was perhaps a necessity after the Huichang Persecution and again late in the century as the Tang dynasty stumbled to its close in a rising tide of rebellion and destruction. A transmitted document known to Chinese scholarship since the 19th century mentions raising funds for a second printing of commentary on the Vinaya, apparently in 905 or shortly thereafter.12 The Vinaya and study aids associated with it lie well beyond the karmic economy with which Wang Jie engaged, since they were strictly the business of monks, and limited manuscript circulation within their number would normally have sufficed, so the mention of two consecutive printed editions is a sure sign of some unusual circumstance.13 Though it is not clear exactly what work of commentary was involved, it would have demanded many more woodblocks than were required for Wang’s 868 enterprise, and the same is true for the first collection of Chinese Buddhist poetry to be published in Sichuan in 923.14

By contrast, at Dunhuang itself there is very little sign of printing on anything approaching such a large scale, although in 949 the Diamond Sutra was produced locally with government support.15 More typical of the locality was the production of single sheets, though not so much dhāraṇī, even if these continued to be widely manufactured for funerary purposes, as what have been termed “prayer sheets,” which combine the depiction of a bodhisattva with an invocation beneath. Some of these latter sheets were also the result of the same government sponsorship, and finds of similar materials produced elsewhere in China at this time also stem from official patronage.16 Royal patronage was important in the case of the dhāraṇī created for Qian Hongshu, and these also bear as a frontispiece illustrations that are much better integrated with the text than those attached to the 868 Diamond Sutra. Qian’s capital of Hangzhou was to remain an important place of publication of illustrated Buddhist texts into the 12th century.17 But his promotion of Buddhist woodblock printing is insignificant next to of that of his eventual overlord, the Song emperor Taizong (r. 976–997). At some point between 984 and 991 the Song ruler sponsored the production of a still partially surviving Buddhist treatise of his own, complete with very finely wrought woodcut illustrations that provide a unique insight into the landscape art of the time.18 This treatise formed one part of a massive series said to have been printed off some 130,000 blocks: the first edition of the entire Buddhist Canon. At this time, the printing of the canon was based in the new imperial capital of Kaifeng, but it was originally started by Taizong’s predecessor, the first Song emperor Taizu (r. 960–976) in Sichuan, where an edition of the printed Confucian Classics had already been created.

The Buddhist Canon in Woodblock

Most historians of Chinese printing, in seeking the background to this colossal endeavor, look no further than the existing expertise in the large-scale creation of woodblocks already evident in Sichuan. But just as the prosperous yet militarily weak ruler Qian Hongshu found it expedient to stress his nonbelligerence in the face of powerful neighbors through his emulation of Ashoka, so too did Taizu have an urgent need to demonstrate in Sichuan in particular his own renunciation of brute force. Taizu’s conquering army had exerted an unusual level of violence on the local population, and his generals, for example, had found it expedient to massacre 27,000 surrendered troops in cold blood.19 No source exists to clarify the motivations for imperial sponsorship, but the dissemination of the Buddhist Canon even in later times in East Asia might be seen as still playing the same role as Ashoka’s distribution of the Buddha’s relics.20 By contrast, the Daoist Canon, which had no such role, was not edited until the early 11th century and was not printed until well over a century later.21

In China both the Buddhist Canon and the Daoist Canon had a long history in manuscript, with early records of their organization and description by means of comprehensive catalogues stretching back in the Buddhist case to the late 4th century. The reunification of China meant that such catalogues preserve for us precise, normative accounts of the official canon that would have been transcribed at imperial command. No doubt many monasteries that did not benefit from imperial largesse had to make shift with smaller collections, but even in 920 after the chaotic collapse of the Tang dynasty it was possible to find at least one private patron who could sponsor the production of fifteen manuscript copies of a corpus of literature that had swollen to over a thousand titles in over a thousand fascicles.22 Taizu’s canon is generally known as the Kaibao 開寳‎ Canon, after the era name of its inception in 971.23 But it is important to see that the long life of woodblocks, which kept the entire series in print for a century and a half, meant that a history of revisions and modifications changed somewhat the substance of the edition, even though some blocks may have been used without alteration.24 It is also important to note that with the inception of these imperial productions Buddhist printing had moved far beyond the crabbed and crowded blocks first used for 8th-century grave goods and continued for commercial reasons by secular printers of the next century. Even the family prestige embodied in Wang Jie’s more ample blocks with their added illustrations was surpassed by printing that was clearly designed to be seen and to impress, granted that the demonstration of imperial support for the dissemination of the Buddha’s presence in the form of his words still remained more important than securing a wider readership for his scriptures. Additions to the canon during the 11th century in the form of newly translated texts, or works given canonical status by the government, were described by new catalogues, though not all of these have survived. Distribution took place not only within China, but also to the Koreans, Tangut, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Jurchen. The Khitan, chief rival power to the early Song, printed their own woodblock canon that drew on a different manuscript tradition twice, from around 987 on, and though these editions themselves are almost completely lost, they constituted an influence on the rock-cut canon of Fangshan 房山‎ and on Korean canon production.

The government’s direct control over the canon only lasted until 1071, when the blocks, now carrying more than 1,500 different texts, were removed to a major Kaifeng monastery. The next stage in the evolution of the woodblock canon followed soon thereafter, when a monastery in Fujian created its own edition of the canon (c. 1080). A rival institution nearby then launched a third edition between 1112 and 1151. There was by this point scope for these private editions to replace the Kaibao original in the territory of the Southern Song, since its blocks were destroyed by the invading Jurchen in 1127; indeed, yet another fresh edition was created in Huzhou 湖州‎ in Zhejiang between 1126 and 1138. The Jurchen Jin dynasty in 1178 granted recognition to a canon produced by private efforts on their territory in the north, and the blocks of this edition survived the Mongol conquest in the next century and even saw some expansion in its contents. Meanwhile a final Southern Song edition, the Qisha 碛沙‎ Canon, started in 1216 and lived on as a long-term printing project into Mongol times. It reached provisional completion in 1322 and was further developed, despite some losses, well into the Ming. Thus, up to the Mongol reunification the massive enterprise of producing a canon in Chinese had been repeated eight times in what is now China. A further edition had been created in Korea between 1011 and 1029 and was destroyed by the Mongols and replaced between 1236 and 1251. The blocks of this particularly carefully edited canon survive to this day.

Yet in the south of China the impact of the Mongol conquest on Buddhist publishing was not so negative: Hangzhou—Marco Polo’s Qinsai—was the home of a new canon published between 1277 and 1290 by a group of lay Buddhists of a type that flourished under Mongol rule. The imperial family included many devout Buddhists, and it has been discovered that around 1332 to 1336 the regime sponsored a lavishly produced canon of its own, though it had little impact. It may, however, suggest that the production of the woodblock canon should have been the responsibility of the emperor, as it was originally. The Ming dynasty from 1399 to 1402 produced a canon in its capital of Nanjing, though the blocks were destroyed by fire by 1407. Undaunted, the Ming between 1413 to 1420 replaced it with a reorganized version of the lost canon. This new compilation was known as the Southern Canon, since after the shift of the Ming capital to Beijing a Northern Canon was produced to the best imperial standards between 1419 and 1440. Despite this ample imperial provision, the rise in Buddhist patronage spurred by the economic progress of the 16th century prompted the planning from 1589 onward of an independent canon designed along the lines of contemporary secular publications in rectangular volumes of folded-over sheets bound by thread. Hitherto the original scrolls pasted together from the block printed sheets of the Kaibao Canon had been replaced by sheets folded “concertina fashion” into longer, thinner rectangles between harder covers, but this format may have seemed somewhat conservative to the late Ming laity.

The vicissitudes of the 17th century certainly delayed progress on this “popular” Jiaxing 嘉興‎ edition, but even the Manchu conquest did not stop its eventual completion, and indeed the addition of a considerable quantity of supplementary material by 17th-century Buddhist authors, a process of expansion that continued into the 18th century. The tendency of Ming loyalists to enter the Buddhist clergy in the late 17th century perhaps made the Manchu rulers uneasy about the prospect of further volumes drawn from the writings of these erstwhile opponents. As rulers and religious patrons of extensive Buddhist domains beyond the Sinophone world, they soon turned to the production of new woodblock editions in other languages, from 1684 to 1692 and in 1737 in Tibetan and 1717 to 1720 in Mongol. In 1733 a sumptuous new but in form and content somewhat conservative Chinese canon decreed, which was completed in 1738.

By the 17th century however Japanese Buddhists had mastered the financial, organizational, and technical skills necessary for producing the canon in woodblock, and it was they who in the late 19th century pioneered the production of typeset editions. Attempts in China at emulating Japanese success in this field tended to fall short either by failing to achieve the same standards of accuracy or in failing to complete the printing of the very large mass of material involved, given that supplementary materials from China were added to Japanese collections in the 20th century. Photolithography and other facsimile printing techniques have however allowed for the republication of surviving versions of woodblock canons and typeset canons alike. The Zhonghua 中华‎ edition produced under government sponsorship in Beijing from 1982 onward endeavors to build on this capacity by further adding to a facsimile reprint of the Jin canon. This was supplemented by other facsimile resources: an apparatus of collation notes that draw on a far greater range of evidence than was available to the editors of the most thorough Japanese typeset canon, who worked before the recovery of both the Jin and Qisha canons. But these notes do not seem to have achieved the highest editorial standards.25 The digitization of the Japanese canon in Taiwan and elsewhere does however offer some scope for the further future consolidation of this vast textual heritage.26

The Publishing of Extracanonical Buddhist Literature

Indexed modern catalogues of the Chinese Buddhist canons just described cover almost 4,700 titles, though these span some of the 20th-century Japanese editions whose criteria for inclusion were sometimes rather more generous than was traditionally the case in China. Japanese editions also printed for the first time some texts newly discovered in manuscript at Dunhuang and elsewhere. Traditional Buddhist woodblock canons in Chinese, even including printed supplementary sections, did not far exceed some two thousand titles and generally contained a core of not much more than 1,500 to 1,600. Inclusion in the canon was originally a matter for the imperial authorities, and as in the time of manuscripts some texts could be deliberately excluded. A case in point would be the celebrated Platform Sutra of Huineng, which does not appear in any surviving Song period canon, even though it may have been printed in supplementary series and was only allowed into the main canon during the Ming. By this time an associated work, the Baolin zhuan 寳林傳‎, which had been excluded by all but the Jin canon, had otherwise entirely disappeared in China. The surviving Jin canon edition is only partial, leaving this source as we know it incomplete, even with the help of a further fragment in a Japanese manuscript.27 Certainly a work might be banned from every woodblock printed canon and yet survive if it was used in everyday ritual contexts that ensured its constant reproduction. The best example of this is The Scripture on the Ten Kings, a guide to the torments in store for the wicked in the afterlife that was eventually included in a 20th-century Japanese canon on the basis of a 15th-century Korean print. But such texts were limited in number, and less liturgically important works were much more vulnerable to loss.28 In general the writings of the Chan tradition in China seem to have been regarded at least until the Ming as existing in a separate, noncanonical category, apart from those works of commentary exposition that also circulated outside the canon. Thus, although it is possible to find in modern scholarship examples of studies of the transmission of works from other Chinese Buddhist traditions, Japanese academics affiliated with the Zen school made a particular effort in the 20th century to account for the transmission of their sources, and their results have in some limited cases become known in English.

The findings of this research underline the consequences of exclusion from the canon. A census of surviving Chan texts printed in the Song and Yuan dynasties runs to 135 items; by contrast the number of titles mentioned that do not survive runs to a total of one 179—and this may not be a definitive list.29 Of the lost titles, only fourteen were ever recorded in any early library catalogue or similar record; the vast majority are only known from references in biographical materials or other nonbibliographical works. One can only conclude that outside the canon a considerable literature existed during this period that entirely escaped bibliographical control. Matters do not seem to have improved in later times. While the Jiaxing Canon contains in its supplement about seventy Chan texts in the “Recorded Sayings” (yulu) genre that were published during the sixty-year reign of the Kangxi 康熙‎ emperor (1661–1722) out of its total of about two hundred, the early 20th-century Beijing bookseller Sun Dianqi (1894–1958) noted about one hundred from this period that passed through his hands, of which only about a quarter were identified as having been printed by the publishers of the canon.30 This again suggests a broader Chan textual production than any conventional bibliography ever hints at. And this literature at least did not come into the category of merely ephemeral, popular publication: Chan masters were respected figures who were often considerable poets. By contrast no one felt obliged to mention any example of the sort of single-sheet productions found at Dunhuang, though in Tibet at least similar items, which we must surmise were based on Chinese models, seem to have been regularly printed over a span of a thousand years.31 This apparent drastic undercounting of Buddhist publications in the secular records hitherto used by book historians poses at least two important questions for the future.

First, it becomes much more difficult to assess the apparent burgeoning of Buddhist publishing in the 20th century. The difficulties that Chinese Buddhists experienced in trying to emulate the modern Japanese compilation of entire canons evidently did not affect less complex ventures. Recent research has on the contrary established that the religious press, and the Buddhist press in particular, built up from impressive beginnings based on revived woodblock publication in the late 19th century to exploit more modern technologies to the full in the Republican era, with dramatic results. One extracanonical Buddhist collection, the writings of Zhou Anshi 周安士‎ (1656–1739), is said to have sold three million copies during that period, for example.32 Even the Jinling Scriptural Press, which led the way with its woodblock editions from before the 1911 Revolution, and sustained after 1949 a certain level of permitted publication as a repository of traditional printing skills, is said by the 1980s to have issued more than 200 titles, putting a cumulative total of 800,000 copies of Buddhist works into print.33 Early 21st-century researchers know much about the organization of Buddhist publishing before 1949.34 But its historical background remains unclear. Was this a new market, or an old market reached by new technological means? As for Yang Wenhui 楊文會‎ (1837–1911), the founder of the Jinling Scriptural Press, was his success due to the exploitation of new religious forces or on a restocking of earlier library holdings lost in the indubitably destructive Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century? Sun Dianqi’s notes suggest a rapid falling off in the production of “Recorded Sayings” after the early 18th century, but this decline may have been specific to that genre, and on less literary materials such as liturgical manuals, for example, he makes no observations at all, though these were certainly produced in new editions in the 19th century. The inclusion of liturgical manuals of any sort in library or other catalogues at any stage of Chinese history seems to have been a particularly problematic and somewhat random process.35

Issues of Comparison

The problem of the underreporting of Buddhist publications stretches much back further. There is therefore a second question to be addressed that is far from inconsequential. Writers of the broader history of the book, given what we know of the temporal primacy of Chinese printing, even supposing this was not indirectly the ancestor of Gutenberg’s invention, have perforce been obliged to take Chinese book production into account in assessing weightier matters such as the comparative availability of readily circulated knowledge in China and the West as a factor in economic development. Early attempts at quantitative comparison were clearly dogged by misunderstandings that gave an exaggerated picture of traditional Chinese book production, including the period of particular interest between the age of Gutenberg and the arrival of new technologies in the 19th century.36 But the greater availability in English of pioneering accounts of Chinese book history has furnished comparativists with examples of quantitative data that are not well understood.

Counting early modern books is not easy, but those who have done so tend to assume that ratios of known, surviving publications to unknown, lost publications remain constant across cultures, something that has apparently not actually been demonstrated and that plainly depends on identical book collection and recording practices.37 Traditional book collectors in China rarely make explicit their criteria for preserving books, but when they did make their criteria explicit then in at least one instance it is carefully explained that Buddha’s word as embodied in scriptures, which played a key religious role and even in manuscript times were produced in batches of thousands, remained beyond the purview of the cataloguer. How much extracanonical Buddhist material was collected and recorded seems to have depended not on any desire for comprehensiveness but rather on personal inclination.38 In the case of many, and probably the majority, of scholarly cataloguers, who tended to be of a neo-Confucian disposition, that inclination, possibly quite unlike the attitudes of the majority of book users, was strongly hostile to Buddhist writings. Modern Chinese bibliographic practice, the ultimate source of information in English used by comparativists, is scarcely better as a starting point for comparison. One apparently extremely thorough census of surviving Ming editions in the People’s Republic of China lists the Buddhist Canon only once, as a single title, yet it has been noted that it ran to over 1,500 separate works issued over a span of time and published in more than one edition under the Ming dynasty.39 Its index, for that matter, somewhat improbably lists only four printings of the Lotus Sutra during the Ming; as we shall see, in this case it is possible to find an exemplar from one more edition very easily in London, and in all probability many more editions were produced in monasteries across the land. At present, perhaps, any attempt at comparison might be advised to ignore all European religious literature in comparisons with the Chinese case.

But at least some insight is available into extracanonical Buddhist printing after the Ming and before the onset of new imported technologies. Art historians have identified a number of lavishly illustrated and individually printed texts designed to enhance the prestige of wealthy and often imperially connected patrons, for example.40 More prosaically, one or two compilations of stories about the workings of Pure Land devotion or of karma are included in series generally designed to provide reading materials for the amusement of the literate, suggesting that Buddhism was not purely a matter for the clergy and their self-declared adherents.41 Some religious texts deemed heterodox by the authorities, and so suppressed, have for this very reason been much studied by modern scholarship, with the result that a more objective assessment of their validity tends now to accept them as expressions of lay Buddhism that simply failed to win the approval of the elite.42 In fact some elements from this tradition remain important in local lay ritual performance to this day.43 Christian missionary book collectors, less discriminating than their learned Chinese contemporaries, but anxious to understand the religious environment that they sought to penetrate, seem to have preserved editions of Buddhist works that might otherwise have been lost, and sometimes afford a valuable glimpse of local, often monastery-based printing, including for instance an exemplar of the fifth Ming Lotus Sutra edition in the earliest missionary-created collection.44

Much future work, therefore, will have to done by local researchers in China, since quotidian Buddhist publishing especially when carried out to serve immediate ritual purposes appears to have been rather decentralized, unlike the better-known publishing industry that catered to a narrower, more highly educated market. Woodblock printing technology, after all, though it depends on skilled labor, uses no complex machinery and can be carried out anywhere there is room to store blocks, something that was not normally a problem in a traditional Buddhist monastery. Research conducted during Republican times discovered that at least one major monastery that had lost its printing blocks in the Taiping Rebellion was still entirely self-sufficient in printing from woodblock all the basic manuals and disciplinary works that its monks needed; beyond the path of the Taiping armies, yet more substantial woodblock publishing facilities could also be found.45

Contemporary Buddhist publishing, by contrast, is better understood within the larger media landscape of a digital age. For decades Chinese Buddhists have been exploiting advances such as the phonograph and the radio.46 Now the entire Chinese Buddhist Canon, as well as many extracanonical works, are available on the Internet. The many issues raised by the long history of Buddhism and printing in China will, one trusts, continue to attract scholarly attention.

Review of Literature

Buddhism in its relation to print culture is not a category of research in the study of China, either within the history of the book or the history of Buddhism. No overall monograph has been devoted to the topic as such, though some studies of aspects of printing related to Buddhism have appeared. The overall picture is thus uneven, and in some parts is very sketchy. General treatments of the history of the book mention early Buddhist use of woodblock and the creation of the various woodblock canons, whereas histories of Chinese Buddhism tend to mention only the latter. Twentieth-century religious publishing has only recently attracted attention, but scholarship appears to be making rapid progress. The standard work covering the history of paper and printing from the point of view of the history of technology by Tsien naturally touches on Buddhism, but the interpretation of the early evidence in relation to religious ideas has been developed subsequently by T. H. Barrett.47 On the canon, the volumes by Jiang Wu and his collaborators, especially the first, have built usefully on the work of Chinese scholars, but for a full account to 2008 of all the scholarship on various aspects of the Buddhist Canon, including those based on Chinese texts, the bibliography of Sueki is indispensable.48 Modern Chinese Buddhist publishing is well-served among other contributions by the work of Gregory Adam Scott, with his Oxford Bibliography entry for the period 1900–1950 a good place to start.49 Snippets of information about extracanonical Buddhist publishing in imperial China are scattered throughout recent writings on the history of the book, for which the bibliographical essay in the volume edited by Joseph P. McDermott and Peter Burke provides a convenient survey, with a relevant paragraph in its chapter by Cynthia Brokaw, but the history of this quite diverse phenomenon still remains to be written.50

Primary Sources

The entire corpus of texts included in premodern and modern Buddhist canons is approaching complete digitization by the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association’s project based in Taiwan, while other similar projects have also made lesser quantities of material available in the same way.51 But digitized text tends to obscure important paratextual features of the original works, such as cartouches containing dedications to the emperor. Information from this large body of primary sources needs to be integrated with information from a wide variety of other sources spread over more than a thousand years of history and ranging from casual remarks in anecdotal writing to recent bookseller’s catalogues.

Further Reading

Barrett, T. H. From Religious Ideology to Political Expediency in Early Printing: An Aspect of Buddho-Daoist Rivalry. London: Minnow Press, 2012.Find this resource:

    Barrett, T. H. The Woman Who Discovered Printing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

      Clart, Philip, and Gregory Adam Scott, eds. Religious Publishing and Print Culture in Modern China, 1800–2012. Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2015.Find this resource:

        Katz, Paul R. Religion in China and Its Modern Fate. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

          Kiely, Jan, and J. Brooks Jessup. Recovering Buddhism in Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

            McDermott, Joseph P., and Peter Burke. The Book Worlds of East Asia and Europe, 1450–1850: Connections and Comparisons. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

              Sueki, Yasuhiro. Bibliographical Sources for Buddhist Studies from the Viewpoint of Buddhist Philology. 2nd ed. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

                Tsien Tsuen-hsuin. Chemistry and Chemical Technology. Vol. 5, Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

                  Wu, Jiang, and Lucille Chia, Spreading Buddha’s Word in East Asia: The Formation and Transformation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                    Wu, Jiang, and Greg Wilkinson, Reinventing the Tripitaka: Transformation of the Buddhist Canon in Modern East Asia. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.Find this resource:


                      (1.) The following account relies on standard works such as Paul Pelliot, Les débuts de l’imprimerie en Chine (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1953); and Thomas Francis Carter, The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward, rev. L. Carrington Goodrich, 2nd ed. (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1955), for accounts of the traditional historiography of Chinese printing.

                      (2.) Carter, Invention of Printing in China, 44–45.

                      (3.) T. H. Barrett, “The Woman Who Invented Notepaper: Towards a Comparative Historiography of Paper and Print,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd ser., 21, no. 2 (2011): 199–210; Jean-Pierre Drège, Le papier dans la Chine impériale: Origine, fabrication, usages (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2017)—this work constitutes a magisterial collection of translated sources on the history of paper with a lengthy introduction.

                      (4.) Timothy H. Barrett, “Ritual in the Library, With Special Reference to Taoism,” in Foundations of Daoist Ritual: A Berlin Symposium, ed. Florian Reiter (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009), 21–22, draws on the work of Aitani Yoshimitsu 合谷佳光‎ in describing the “perfunctory” treatment of Buddhist works in catalogues of the early Song dynasty.

                      (5.) The narrative here and below on early Buddhist printing generally follows T. H. Barrett, The Woman Who Discovered Printing (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), unless otherwise specified.

                      (6.) Paul Copp, The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014),235, item 12.

                      (7.) John Rosenfield, “Notes on the Jewel Casket Sutra in Japan,” in China and Beyond in the Medieval Period: Cultural Crossings and Inter-Regional Connections, ed. Dorothy C. Wong and Gustav Heldt (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2014), 387–402; Shi Zhenru, “From Bodily Relic to Dharma Relic Stūpa: Chinese Materialisation of the Aśoka Legend in the Wuyue Period,” in India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought, ed. John Kieschnick and Meir Shahar (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 85–109.

                      (8.) See Peter Kornicki, “The Hyakumantō darani and the Origins of Printing in Eighth-Century Japan,” International Journal of Asian Studies 9 (2012): 50n41.

                      (9.) T. H. Barrett, “Transcribed Printer’s Colophons at Dunhuang as Evidence for Early Printing,” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 6 (2015): 149–153.

                      (10.) Translated in Carter, Invention of Printing, 60.

                      (11.) Frances Wood and Mark Barnard, The Diamond Sutra: The Story of the World’s Earliest Dated Printed Book (London: The British Library, 2010), 67, mention Sichuan printing but do not suggest any connection with the 868 scripture.

                      (13.) For earlier Buddhist qualms about circulating the Vinaya even in manuscript, see Antonello Palumbo, An Early Chinese Commentary on the Ekottarika-āgama (Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing, 2013), 195–204.

                      (14.) Barrett, From Religious Ideology to Political Expediency, 107–108.

                      (15.) See Rong Xinjiang, “Official Life at Dunhuang in the Tenth Century,” in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, ed. Susan Whitfield (London: British Library, 2004), 62.

                      (16.) See Katherine R. Tsiang, “Buddhist Images and Texts of the Eighth–Tenth Centuries: Typologies of Replication and Representation,” in Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang: Rites and Teachings for This Life and Beyond, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein and Sam van Schaik (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 214–220.

                      (17.) Shih-shan Susan Huang, “Early Buddhist Illustrated Prints in Hangzhou,” in Knowledge and Text Production in an Age of Print: China, 900–1400, ed. Lucille Chia and Hilda De Weerdt (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 135–165.

                      (18.) Max Loehr, Chinese Landscape Woodcuts from an Imperial Commentary to the Tenth-Century Printed Canon (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1968).

                      (19.) Peter Lorge, “From Warlord to Emperor: Song Taizu’s Change of Heart during the Conquest of Shu,” T’oung Pao, 2nd ser., 91, fasc. 4/5 (2005): 320–346.

                      (20.) Compare the discussion in Sem Vermeesch, The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism During the Koryŏ Dynasty (918–1392) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 355–360.

                      (21.) Piet van der Loon, Taoist Books in the Libraries of the Sung Period (London: Ithaca Press, 1984), 29–45.

                      (22.) See Barrett, From Religious Ideology to Political Expediency, 82–83, where it is pointed out that this patron also had violent crimes to expiate.

                      (23.) Unless otherwise indicated, the description of the editions of the woodblock canon, unless otherwise indicated, follows Jiang Wu and Lucille Chia, Spreading Buddha’s Word in East Asia: The Formation and Transformation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), especially Appendix 1 on pp. 311–320, which concisely summarizes what is known on this topic.

                      (24.) This seems to have been Max Loehr’s position, but see Wu and Chia, Spreading Buddha’s Word, 160–161.

                      (25.) Stefano Zacchetti, In Praise of the Light: A Critical Synoptic Edition with an Annotated Translation of Chapters 1–3 of Dharmarakṣa’s Guang zan jing 光讃經‎, Being the Earliest Chinese Translation of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā (Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, 2005), 75; Florin Deleanu, The Chapter on the Mundane Path (Laukikamārga) in the Śrāvakabhūmi (Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2006), 132.

                      (26.) Though the work of Jiang and Chia does touch on some modern developments, it is advisable to consult Jiang Wu and Greg Wilkinson, Reinventing the Tripitaka: Transformation of the Buddhist Canon in Modern East Asia (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).

                      (27.) Philip Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-huang Manuscript (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 47n165, 52, 106.

                      (28.) Stephen F. Teiser, The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994), 83, 94, 162.

                      (29.) Shiina Kōyū 椎名宏雄‎, SōGen-ban Zenseki no kenkyū 宋元禅籍の研究‎ (Tokyo: Daito shuppansha, 1993), 539–635, which perhaps does not account for all the titles given in surviving Yuan period literary works, as indexed in the late 20th century.

                      (30.) These totals are based on a rough count of Sun Dianqi 孫殿起‎, Fanshu Ouji 販書偶記‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982), 303–308, and Fanshu Ouji xubian 販書偶記續編‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 193–196.

                      (31.) T. H. Barrett, “Pattern Reproduction Possibilities and the Alpha and Omega of Tibetan Printing,” in Tibetan Printing: Comparison, Continuities and Change, ed. Hildegard Diemberger, Franz-Karl Erhard, and Peter Kornicki (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 560–574.

                      (32.) Paul R. Katz, Religion in China and Its Modern Fate (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014), 126.

                      (33.) See Xiao Dongfa, “Categories, Features and Social Background of the Existing Woodblocks for Printing in China,” in The History and Cultural Heritage of Chinese Calligraphy, Printing and Library Work, ed. Susan M. Allen, Lin Zuzao, Cheng Xiaolan and Jan Bos (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 80.

                      (34.) Note, in addition to Katz, Religion in China, the studies collected in Philip Clart and Gregory Adam Scott, eds., Religious Publishing and Print Culture in Modern China, 1800–2012 (Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2015), esp. chap. 3; and Jan Kiely and J. Brooks Jessup, Recovering Buddhism in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), esp. chap. 3.

                      (35.) Barrett, “Ritual in the Library,” though concerned with Daoism, describes a situation that also applied to Buddhism.

                      (36.) See Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual, 4th ed. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 933–936.

                      (37.) See for example, E. Buring and J. L. van Zanden, “Charting the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, a Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Economic History 69, no. 2 (2009), 437; the problem recurs in J. L. van Zanden, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000–1800 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 188. The task of separating out the small segment of the market in China that catered to literati book collectors and then comparing the printing of religious literature in East and West lies as yet in the future.

                      (38.) Chao Gongwu 晁公武‎, Junzhai dushu zhi 郡齋讀書志‎ 16, ed. ed. Sun Meng 孫猛‎ (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990), 769. For Chao’s work, see Ssu-yü Teng and Knight Biggerstaff, An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Chinese Reference Works, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 15–16.

                      (39.) Du Xinfu 杜信孚‎ and Du Tongfu 杜同書‎, Quan Ming fen sheng fen xian ke shu kao 全明分省分县刻書考‎ (Beijing: Xianzhuang shuju, 2001), esp. Zongshi 宗室‎ (Imperial clan) section. This seems to be the only place where the canon, printed several times in the Ming and represented by a number of surviving copies, is mentioned. The first page of the Beijing section likewise lists the Daoist Canon as a single title and the comparative study cited draws indirectly on an earlier and yet more restricted catalogue by Du Xinfu.

                      (40.) Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (London: British Museum Press, 2014), 214–219.

                      (41.) Namely Nianfo sanmei 念佛三昧‎ and Fojie 佛解‎, in Tanji congshu 檀几叢書‎ (1695), Mingbao lu 冥報錄‎, Xianguo suilu 現果随錄‎, Guobao wenjian lu 果報聞見錄‎, in Shuo ling 説鈴‎ (1702 and later editions).

                      (42.) Barend J. ter Haar, Practicing Scripture: A Lay Buddhist Movement in Late Imperial China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014), argues this case.

                      (43.) Stephen Jones, In Search of the Folk Daoists of North China (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2010), 237–261.

                      (44.) Andrew C. West, Catalogue of the Morrison Collection of Chinese Books (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1998), 169–206; note the Lotus Sutra listed on the first of these pages.

                      (45.) Johannes Prip-Møller, Chinese Buddhist Monasteries: Their Plan and Its Function as a Setting for Buddhist Monastic Life (1937; repr., Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1967), 52–53, 227–229.

                      (46.) Francesca Tarocco, The Cultural Practices of Modern Chinese Buddhism: Attuning the Dharma (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2007), 128–130.

                      (47.) Tsien Tsuen-hsuin, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

                      (48.) Yasuhiro Sueki, Bibliographical Sources for Buddhist Studies from the Viewpoint of Buddhist Philology, 2nd ed. (Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2008.)

                      (49.) Gregory Adam Scott, “Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900–1950,”Oxford Bibliographies.

                      (50.) Joseph P. McDermott and Peter Burke, The Book Worlds of East Asia and Europe, 1450–1850, Connections and Comparisons (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015), 192, 327–333.

                      (51.) Wu and Chia, Spreading Buddha’s Word in East Asia, 321–335.