The world’s earliest dated printed book, a copy of the Diamond Sutra, was created in China.

The book itself is actually a scroll measuring just over 5 meters, and which was made from seven separate strips of yellow-stained paper pasted together. The printing itself was done using large wooden blocks and, although earlier printed books have survived, this copy of the Diamond Sutra is the oldest that bears a specific date.

This date is given in the colophon, the short statement at the end of the manuscript that provides publishing details. This states that it was ‘Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong’. This makes it nearly 600 years older than the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be printed with moveable type.

Although the Diamond Sutra itself is a Buddhist sacred text that originated in India, this particular scroll was printed in Chinese. This dissemination of the religion is explained by some historians as being due to the Silk Road trade route. Sutras were sermons given by the Buddha, and the text of the Diamond Sutra is a record of the address he gave to a disciple called Subhuti. It gets its name from the Buddha himself, who said that it would enable followers to cut through worldly illusions of reality like a diamond blade.

This particular manuscript was sealed-up in what is known as the ‘Library Cave’ near the city of Dunhuang in north-west China during the 11th century. The cave, containing numerous documents and artefacts, was rediscovered by Taoist abbot Wang Yuanlu in 1900. Seven years later Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein bought a number of the manuscripts, including the Diamond Sutra, from Wang. It is now kept in the British Library in London.

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© Scott Allsop