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Buddhism and Print Culture in China  

T. H. Barrett

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.