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The World’s Oldest Printed Book

Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra is an ancient Buddhist sermon that generation of Buddhists have memorized and chanted since at least the fifth century. The sutra, which meditates on the illusory nature of the material world—the central theme of Buddhism, was originally written in Sanskrit in India, from which it was translated to Chinese in 401 AD. It is said that the teachings of The Diamond Sutra “cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting.”

A copy of this original translation, printed on an 18-feet-long, yellow-dyed scroll of paper, is housed at the British Library in London. The last few lines of the text, the colophon, identifies who printed it, when and why. It reads: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, 11 May 868.”

The precise date makes this particular edition of Diamond Sutra the world’s oldest printed and dated book in existence. The explicit public domain dedication is also the first in the history of creative work.

The Diamond Sutra was printed using woodblock printing—a technique where the text to be printed is carefully carved as a relief pattern on a block of wood, and then stamped on paper or fabric after dipping the block in a pool of ink. The scroll comprises of seven panels of paper, each of which was printed from a single block and stuck together to create a single scroll. While individual sheets of woodblock-printed paper have been found dating to the early Tang Dynasty (7th century), the Diamond Sutra is the earliest complete book to be found intact.

Marc Aurel Stein

Photograph of Aurel Stein with his expedition team in the Tarim Basin, circa 1910.

The scroll was discovered by a monk inside a sealed-up cave at a site called “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” near Dunhuang, in northwest China. The dry desert air provided the perfect conditions for the preservation of the paper and the silk scrolls inside. The yellow dye used on the scrolls comes from the Amur Cork Tree which has insecticidal properties. This contributed to the preservation of the scrolls.

The Diamond Sutra was among more than 40,000 scrolls and documents hidden in the secret cave about a thousand years ago when the area was threatened by a neighboring kingdom. When the British-Hungarian archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein heard about the scrolls, he bribed the guards in charge of the cave and smuggled away thousands of documents, including The Diamond Sutra. The British hailed him for his effort and even knighted him, but Chinese nationalists called him a thief.

The International Dunhuang Project is now digitizing those documents and thousands of others found on the eastern Silk Road.

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