Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Printing: Tang Dynasty and the Diamond Sutra

Front piece of the Diamond Sutra 
Printing is one of the greatest innovation that changed mankind's history. It allowed the mass production and spread of knowledge in a massive scale. Without it, mankind's progress would have been slower. Printing traced its origins from the old style woodblock printing, which began wide usage during the time of the Tang Dynasty in China.

The Tang Dynasty was a period unprecedented peace, prosperity, and sophistication. At the heyday of its rule, China was the largest Empire in the world. When Europe was ravaged by chaos after the fall of Rome, Tang China became the experienced its golden age. Economically, politically, militarily, it was the greatest Empire at that time. Technologically, Tang Dynasty saw the introduction of one of the most influential innovation that mankind ever saw – the printing press.
Cai Lun

The start of the printing press was made possible by an early innovation – paper. During the Han Dynasty, Cai Lun made paper that changed the way how the Chinese wrote. Paper allowed an easier way to write, communicate, or express ideas and thoughts. All benefited from all walks of life with the invention of paper.

Expressing ideas and thoughts in writing was one thing; spreading it widely was another. To spread knowledge back then required painstakingly copying the text over and over again by hand. The process was slow and time consuming. It took another seven hundred years for a solution to appear.
It was during the Tang Dynasty that wood block printing changed the history of mankind. Evidence suggested that it was during the Tang Dynasty that wood block printing became widely used. It allowed the mass publication and wide distribution of information and literary works.

Woodblock printing used during the Tang Dynasty was simple in concept but cumbersome in achieving it. Woodblock printing or engraving printing or whole page printing began with a block made of wood from a pear or a Chinese jujube tree. Then, the characters of the desired text would be written in the wood in reverse or mirror image. It served as the guide when the wood carving process began. The carving process was long as the carver must direct carefully carve his way through the smallest details of the complicated Chinese characters.  When the carving process ended, the engraving panel or board would be ready for use. To use the board, the printer must apply ink to the whole panel. Then after, the paper would be placed on top of the wood carving. The printer just needed to apply little amount of pressure and wait until the ink sets to the paper. After the whole process, the result was a god copy of the desired text. In addition, the panels were reusable and multiple copies of the same text could be produced in a short period of time.

There were great examples how woodblock printing was used during the Tang Dynasty.  In 636, during the reign of Emperor Taizong, Empress Zhangsun’s Paradigm of Womanhood was printed and became widely read. In 835, the wide use of woodblock printing was best exemplified with ban on private printing. The ban was caused by the widespread dissemination of unofficial calendars throughout the empire. The spread was mainly caused by wood block printing being simple enough for the public to use at their wish. Another impact of woodblock printing was the start of paper money. But the best example of a beautiful text created out of woodblock printing was the Jin Gang Jing or the Diamond Sutra. Discovered in Dunhuang, China, it was made in 868 during the reign of Emperor Yizong. Its printing was made possible by a certain Wang Jie. It consisted of seven sheets stick together to create a five meter long scroll. The woodblock printed Diamond Sutra was a work of art. Complete with calligraphy and beautiful religious illustrations.

Thanks to woodblock printing, Buddhism spread quickly across China under the Tang Dynasty. With the Diamond Sutra as an example, Buddhist monks were able to print or mass produce copies of Buddhist text. Numerous text that allowed many to read, to understand, and to embrace Buddhism in a short period of time.

The technology of woodblock printing continued to develop. Centuries later, transition from simple woodblock printing to a printing press would emerge. And to the credit of the Silk Road, the knowledge of printing press reached Europe and allowed the technology to develop further.

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Holocombe, C. A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2011.

Gosling, A. Asian Treasures: Gems of the Written Word. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2011.

Yang, H. & X. Yang. Chinese Publishing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.