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The official name of this book is: Fo shuo da cheng guan xiang man na luo jing zhu e qu jing.
The book was printed from engraved wood-blocks and made up of sheets of paper pasted together, and folded in a ‘concertina’ fashion.
It was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist priest, who made a pilgrimage to India and died in 1001 CE. It was produced for the benefit of Chinese Buddhists who couldn’t read the original Sanskrit (an Indian language).
Paper has been used in China for at least 1,000 years, and printing was invented there at least 500 years earlier than in Europe.
It was produced for the benefit of Chinese Buddhists who couldn’t read the original Sanskrit (an Indian language). This is the oldest printed book in Cambridge University Library.
This is the oldest printed book in Cambridge University Library and one of the oldest printed books in the world.
Printing in East Asia was invented long before the practice developed in Europe. It started with the use of woodblock printing on cloth during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and the oldest surviving fragments date from before 220CE.
Later printing was done on paper, (at the Imperial Court as early as the 1st century, or around 80 CE), with wood blocks. It continued with the invention of wooden movable type in Song China by the 11th century. Many of these examples of printing were single sheets, which were sometimes pasted together and rolled into scrolls. At some point during the Tang dynasty (618-908 CE) these scrolls began to be folded in a concertina fashion.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
There are many modern editions of the text available, in print and online.
As with printing in Europe, the first printed books in China were mostly religious texts. It is thought that Buddhism, which originated in India, spread to China along the trade routes known as the Silk Road. Most Chinese Buddhists followed the Mahayana tradition, which believes that everyone can achieve enlightenment, not just those who live a monastic life. It was therefore important that large numbers of people had access to religious texts across a wide area and that multiple copies of the same text were available. Printing was a way of achieving this more quickly and more cheaply than handwriting manuscripts.
The earliest known example of a dated and printed book is the Diamond Sutra, it dates from 868 CE and is kept in the British Library.
More information on this and other written works held by the Library.
The British Library is part of the International Dunhuang Project, a ground-breaking collaboration which aims to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from Silk Road sites available on the internet.