Long before Gutenberg, the printing press was Buddhist

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

Paper and printing were invented in East Asia centuries before these technologies arrived in Europe. And the Buddhists were at the forefront of this little-known story.

Four great inventions have allowed the West to impose its supremacy on the rest of the world since the XVIe century: the compass, gunpowder, paper and printing. They are all Chinese. To schematize: compass and gunpowder serve to conquer (explore and submit). Paper and printing are essential to the prosperity of countries.

Paper was invented about twenty-five centuries ago in China, in the form of rigid cardboard. Towards the beginning of the Christian era, the nobles used it for their bodily cleanliness – it was not until the middle of the XNUMXth century.e century for the PQ to arrive in Europe. More importantly, papermaking techniques have become refined enough to begin to be written on. If the invention is attributed to the high official Cai Lun around 105, we found traces of real writing paper dating from the year 8 of our era. It will not arrive in Europe (Muslim Spain) until the XIe century.

Major innovation compared to other writing materials (clay tablets, wooden boards, calf or sheep skins in Rome, papyrus in Egypt, dried palm leaves in India, cactus fiber in Central America, etc.): the paper is industrializable. During the Middle Ages, China produced most of the books on the planet.

Buddhism takes root in China at the same time, from the beginning of our era. Since its origins, it has relied on a culture of the letter and debate. The need to preserve multiple teachings leads monks to multiply copies and compilations of sutras, including all types of texts, monastic rules, doctrines, sermons and prayers, on a scale unmatched in the religious world. No wonder if it was in the monasteries that this revolution in writing began: the mass production of identical texts. The gain is extraordinary. When it takes years for a copyist to manually copy a book, a few days or weeks are enough to print it by hand.

Chinese monks invent the printing press

It's in the VIIe century that the Chinese monks took the definitive step. They invented the printing press by using engraved hardwood blocks to mass-produce texts and images – an industry still active in some traditional monasteries. The oldest xylography, now complete, is an image dating from 642, printed on cloth and found in a cave near Dunhuang. Two documents printed on paper – an image of the Bodhisattva of Medicine Bhaisajyaguru dating from the 650s, and a sutra copied around 700 and found in Korea, the Great Sutra of Dharani (picture 1) – are the oldest known printed documents in the world. During her reign from 764 to 770, the Japanese Empress Kôken had this Dharani sutra printed in a million copies!, on 6 x 45 cm sheets which were sealed in small wooden stupas. As for the oldest known printed book, it is a copy of the Diamond Sutra (picture 2) printed in 868.

Le Kaibao Cannon, the first edition of the Chinese Canon of the Three Baskets (Dazangjing), was printed from 971 to 983 in several dozen copies. Gifts of kings. Its copies will be reproduced in series in Japan from 1002, in Vietnam from 1008, in Korea from 1010 and in the kingdom of Western Xia (corresponding to the northwest of present-day China) from 1090. This rapid diffusion underlines the technological capacity of East Asia at that time, and the significant resources that monasteries and donor states could allocate to this production, which remained essentially Buddhist until around the year 1000.

Part of the monasteries, the printing press was to actively participate in societal development. Thus, from 932, at the heart of the Chinese civil wars, the prince and chancellor Feng Dao had the Confucian classics printed in series with the idea of ​​moralizing the country.

During her reign from 764 to 770, the Japanese empress Kôken had the Dharani sutra printed in one million copies!

Song dynasty China (960-1279) will be the first power to use printed paper as currency (picture 3), banknotes which will only be produced in Europe from the end of the XNUMXth centurye century. At the same time, many secular texts, novels, but also technical works were printed, such as agronomy manuals intended for civil servants, to give them practical knowledge to improve agricultural productivity and hydraulic know-how.

In the middle of the XIe century, the ingenious Bi Sheng perfected the printing press with movable type, known since the IXe century and used in particular by Feng Dao. Contrary to what has often been said, the large number of Chinese ideograms did not pose an insurmountable technical limit. The real difficulty remained to measure the pressure of the rubbing board (rubber which, operated manually, dislodges the characters after a few passages), and the solidity of the characters (which risk breaking). Bi Sheeng replaces hardwood (boxwood) with clay characters that he bakes on an iron board. His successors will try bronze characters.

In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg "invented" the printing press in Strasbourg. More precisely, it improves a Chinese invention (known by the accounts of travellers, perhaps already diffused in Europe by the Silk Roads) thanks to… wine. Not by an imagination freed by alcohol, but because the use of wine in Christian Europe (it was necessary to celebrate the mass) had pushed the craftsmen to considerably improve the efficiency of the presses.

Combine these hand presses, which are more efficient than Asian friction presses, with the use of characters based on a lead alloy, a material combining resistance to pressure and ease of modelling, and with persistent inks based on oil (and not water), here is the genius of Gutenberg. He didn't invent the printing press, but he improved it so much that he allowed it to become ubiquitous in our lives. And guess which document he chose to release first? The Bible.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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