Tag Archive: Books

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)

In the 1890’s when a Taoist monk named Wang Tao-shih moved into one of the caves he found beneath the dust and grime some elaborate frescoes on the rock walls.  The rear wall of the cave, however, had been plastered and some of the plaster had crumbled away, revealing a brick wall.  Wang Tao-shih’s curiosity led him to remove some of the bricks.  Through the opening he made, he saw a small room crammed with bundles of sewn-up bags.  Opening one of the bundles, he was perplexed to find scrolls and texts which appeared to be quite old.  He realized his find might be valuable and he didn’t know what to do.  If his discovery became known, robbers would try to steal it.  And he did not trust government officials; he feared they would seize the treasure trove and sell it for personal gain.

Wang concluded that his best course was to keep the find secret until he found someone who was qualified to evaluate it, someone he could trust.  Carefully concealing the opening in the brick wall, he continued his simple life.  Nevertheless, the concern he showed for his cave soon became apparent to the others in the community and rumors spread that there was something about the cave he was keeping secret.

Some years later, about the turn of the century, noted British explorer and archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein, set out to explore the old Silk Road.  At Tun Huang he visited “The Caves of the Thousand Buddha’s” and heard rumors that Wang Tao-shih possessed something he would not talk about.

Stein had learned in his long experience to investigate rumors.  He sought out Wang who readily showed him the frescoes.  When pressed, Wang was polite but would not admit there was anything else significant about his cave.  Yet Stein felt that Wang was not telling all he knew.  He decided to cultivate the monk in an attempt to learn more.

The two men shared many cups of tea as Stein told Wang about his efforts to learn all he could about ancient China.  Wang, impressed with the explorer’s erudition and sincerity, gradually came to have confidence in him.  Perhaps, Wang thought, Stein was the man he had so long awaited.  In the end he told Stein of his discovery and agreed to let him examine what was hidden behind the brick wall of his cave.

The first bundle that was opened contained a biography of a monk named Huan Tsang, a man Wang knew of and admired.  He saw this as a good omen.  With great care the other bundles were brought from the cave where they had lain hidden for some 850 years.  A total of 1130 bundles each in a cloth bag, contained thousands of scrolls, texts, and documents; too many to list and identify on the scene.

Stein realized he had found a rich treasure and began negotiating with Wang to purchase the bundles.  Only silver had any value in that remote place and Wang would accept only silver in payment.  Using all the silver he could spare, Stein was able to purchase a large number of the bundles.  With his treasure, including The Diamond Sutra, Stein set off on the long journey home, eventually depositing the oldest printed book in the world in the British Museum, where it is today.

As for Wang, he continued to dedicate himself to the welfare of others, as befitted a poor Taoist monk.  He used the silver for other’s benefit, restoring some of the caves, planting trees, having wells dug and building a hotel for travelers.

The ancient texts brought to Europe by Stein attracted wide attention and led to Wang’s loss of the material remaining in his cave.  While most of Stein’s treasure went to museums and libraries, some 3,000 texts went on sale in France and aroused the attention of Chinese imperial authorities.  Government officials soon seized all the material that had remained with Wang, and he received no payment.  These texts, so far as history knows, were lost.