Paper, Print, And Prayer


The Dunhuang Library, discovered in a cave in western China in 1900, housed “more than five hundred cubic feet of bundled manuscripts” dating from the 5th to 11th centuries. Jacob Mikanowski considers the origins of these long-preserved artifacts:

The profusion of paper in Dunhuang … makes it a perfect place to study the development of this often overlooked technology. Paper was developed in China, originally as a wrapping material, and only gradually spread west, first to Central Asia, then to the Islamic world, before finally arriving in Europe in the fourteenth century. The library itself may owe its existence to the scarcity and preciousness of the material. Researchers from Japan and Britain have recently suggested that its manuscripts were offerings, donations left to honor the memory of a notable monk. When the little room that held them filled up, it was closed, and then forgotten.

The paper items preserved in the Library also shed light on the origins of another information technology: print. The Diamond Sutra, one of the most famous documents recovered from Dunhuang, was commissioned in 868 A.D., “for free distribution,” by a man named Wang Jie, who wanted to commemorate his parents. In the well-known sermon that it contains, the Buddha declares that the merit accrued from reading and reciting the sutra was worth more than a galaxy filled with jewels. In other words, reproducing scriptures, whether orally or on paper, was good for karma. Printing began as a form of prayer, the equivalent of turning a prayer wheel or slipping a note into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but on an industrial scale. This might be the most enduring lesson of Dunhuang: the whole “Gutenberg galaxy” of paper and print didn’t begin in Europe. Print was a Buddhist invention, and its aim was salvation, not profit.

(Image: 5th century Chinese manuscript via Wikimedia Commons)