The oldest printed book in the world is The Diamond Sutra, a short Buddhist scripture printed in AD 868. Historians have been able to date the book because the Chinese Buddhist named Wang Chien, who had the book printed, had the foresight to add at the end of the text: “Dedicated to the honor of his parents and made for universal distribution by Wang Chien in the ninth year of Hsiang Tung on the fifteenth day of the fourth month.” The ninth year of Hsiang Tung, 15th day, fourth month, according to historians, is May 11, AD 868.
The existence of the book was unknown until about 100 years ago when a copy was removed from a cave in the far northwest corner of China. It was one of some 15,000 texts dating from the fourth to the 10th Centuries which had been hidden in the cave about AD 1035 during a period of political uprisings. The cave is located in an extremely dry region so that all the hidden material was well-preserved.
The Diamond Sutra antedates by nearly 600 years the first book printed in the Western world which was the Bible, printed in 1456 in Mainz, Germany, by Johannes Gutenberg. The latter was printed with movable metal type, however, while The Diamond Sutra was printed with wooden blocks, each page carved on a single block. The pages were then pasted together side-by-side, making a scroll about 16-feet long. One of the pages bears a finely carved picture of Buddha and some of his followers.
The cave from which The Diamond Sutra came is one of “The Caves of the Thousand Buddha’s” located near Tun Huang, once an important Buddhist center. Tracing the history of the town and the caves takes us back to the First Century BC when Chinese forces were dispatched to put down hostile tribes in Central Asia where Buddhism had flourished since about 500 BC.
Their success led to the expansion of Chinese control into Turkestan and the opening of a road that joined trade routes into the Roman Empire. Along this road silk from China was introduced into the Western World, and the new luxurious product quickly came into great demand in Roman cities. As caravans began to move great quantities of silk from China to Western markets, the road became known as the “Silk Road.”
One of the trade routes the new road joined as it crossed into Turkestan was a route to India, the cradle of Buddhism. During the ensuing centuries Buddhism flourished along the Silk Road and other trade routes. Some Buddhist monks remained in Tun Huang, living in caves in a precipitous cliff. About the Fourth Century they began carving hundreds of small Buddha images on the face of the cliff and the place became known as “The Caves of the Thousand Buddha’s.”
Tun Huang flourished as a Buddhist center until the Eighth Century when the Moslems gained control of central Asia, disrupting the traffic on the Silk Road. As trade lessened, Tun Huang reverted to a small hamlet, the Buddhists abandoned their caves and only poor peasants remained. The only reminders of Tun Huang’s past significance were the abandoned “Caves of the Thousand Buddha’s.”
(end of Part I)