When we think of Gutenberg, we think of books. His invention of the adjustable mold and his use of metal alloys allowed for the mass-production of movable metal type. This invention, combined with his use of oil-based ink and a wooden printing press, led to the first printing of the most read book in the world, the Bible.
While it was Gutenberg’s system that made it economically viable for printers to mass-produce books, the concept of the “book” pre-dates Gutenberg by thousands of years.
The oldest surviving printed book, The Diamond Sutra, dates from 868 AD. This woodblock-printed paper scroll contains a Buddhist text. It also includes an inscription on the lower right-hand side that reads “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.”
Woodblock printing is a labor-intensive process and calls for the collaboration of several skilled craftsmen. For each page to be printed, a block of fine-grained wood, about an inch thick, was needed.
Next, the text must be carved into the block of wood. This is a relief printing process, so the artist needs to cut away the parts of the wood that will not print. This leaves only the raised portion, the Chinese characters, to receive the ink. And, if the artisan made a single mistake in carving, he would have to throw away the wood block and start again from scratch. Also, the carving must also be done in reverse so that the final printed product will be right reading.
The Diamond Sutra is 17-and-a-half-feet-long. A book this size would take artisans months to carve the many wood blocks needed to reproduce the book.
The book was discovered in the Cave Temples of Dunhuang. This network of over 500 caves was an old outpost on the Silk Road at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Also known as the Mogao Grottoes, or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, they’re a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Diamond Sutra was found in the Library Cave of the complex. The cave contained nearly 50,000 ancient manuscripts, silk banners and paintings, fine silk embroideries and other rare textiles dating from before the early 1000s.
This book is a excellent example of the power of print and written communication. The Diamond Sutra is part of a larger group of sacred texts in the branch of Buddhism most common in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. This is interesting because Buddhism was actually founded in Northeastern India during the sixth century BC. This means the contents of the book was originally written in Sanskrit and then translated into Chinese and disseminated throughout Asia.
Before The Diamond Sutra was printed, other Buddhist books were transported along the Silk Routes to areas in Northern, Central, and Southeast Asia. Archeologists have found what may be the oldest surviving Buddhist texts in what is today is Pakistan and Afghanistan. These birch bark “books” date to the 1st century AD.
These books were not printed like The Diamond Sutra. These manuscripts were written on tree bark. In India and many parts of ancient Asia, it was common to write on prepared plant surfaces. In addition to bark, palm leaf books were prevalent. Today India possesses an estimated five million manuscripts, many on palm leaves that cover a variety of themes, scripts, languages, calligraphies, illuminations, and illustrations.
Palm leaves were among the first writing materials to be used, predating papyrus. Some sources say that Sanskrit was first written on this material more than 6,000 years ago.
The bookmaking process is relatively straightforward. Take a look at the video from the Rangiri Technical Centre and see how the palm leaves are prepared and the books are produced.
I found it especially interesting how the monk held the leaves in one hand and with the other inscribed lettering from left to right using a needle-like instrument. It appears as if he is writing, but the results are nearly invisible. Only when the leaf is wiped with soot or another pigment, sometimes mixed with oil, is the writing made clear.
Once the leaf is cleaned of excess pigment, the dark residue remains behind in the scratches carved into the surface. The books are then bound together with string using the holes drilled into them when the leaves were prepared for writing.
Books made from palm leaves were convenient to carry and made it easy to travel with a book.
Gutenberg’s printing press allowed the common man to read the bible and draw his own conclusions, giving strength to the Reformation already in progress in Europe. In much the same way, a belief system that began in India was able to spread all across Asia. Buddhist missionaries and pilgrims traveling along the Silk Routes, first with their religious palm leaf and later printed books in hand, were able to spread Buddhism to millions of people. The graphic object known as the BOOK was the object that made this transformation happen.