First Book Printed

Although other books had been printed in previous centuries, the Chinese Diamond Sutra of 868 is the earliest extant and complete printed book.

Summary of Event

Like papermaking, the technique of woodblock printing (xylography) was first discovered in China. Though scholarly consensus exists on the Chinese provenance of the printed book, less agreement exists on what constitutes a book. The word “book” has come to have many meanings, including a rolled scroll or a set of paper sheets bound together. Some of today’s publishers distinguish a book from a pamphlet by limiting the term “book” to works of more than sixty-four pages, but this would eliminate the Jin gang jing (868; Diamond Sutra, 1912) Diamond Sutra as the first printed book as it was only seven pages long. The sutra was translated into Chinese from the Sanskrit version, the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. [kw]First Book Printed (868)
[kw]Book Printed, First (868)
[kw]Printed, First Book (868)
Book, first printed
China;868: First Book Printed[1010]
Communications;868: First Book Printed[1010]
Literature;868: First Book Printed[1010]
Wang Jie
Feng Dao

As in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, books proliferated in China because they fulfilled a need to transmit to others what people had thought and felt about a variety of subjects. The book became a repository of human knowledge, an important means of communication, and an instrument of socialization. Because the development of block printing in China was gradual, pinpointing its exact date is problematic. From the sixth century, the Chinese were printing pictures, such as portraits of the Buddha, from wooden blocks, and during the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), several methods were invented in Buddhist monasteries for the reproduction of sacred texts. The Sinologist Joseph Needham emphasized the Buddhist desire for multiple copies of devotional works as being responsible for early printed books. Although many early books were related to the three traditional religions of China—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—secular books were also printed. Buddhism;printing and

The story of the earliest extant printed book is fascinating. Nine miles (fifteen kilometers) south of Dunhuang Dunhuang , a Chinese town near Turkistan, is a great cliff containing numerous caves. Beginning in the fifth century, holy men lived in and pilgrims visited these caves, known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. During a turbulent period in the eleventh century, some monks collected many sacred texts and concealed them in a walled-up chamber to prevent their destruction. These treasures remained undisturbed for nine hundred years, until 1900, when a Daoist priest restoring one of the caves discovered the plaster of a fresco had eroded to reveal not the expected stone wall but layers of brick. After removing the bricks, he found a secret room piled high with thousands of wrapped scrolls.

Information of this important find gradually diffused to Europe, stimulating the British archaeologist Aurel Stein to travel to Dunhuang in 1907. He examined many of the 13,500 scrolls (along with numerous fragments), and he purchased about three thousand rolls as well as more than five thousand fragments from the Daoist priest. Stein brought these scrolls and fragments back to England, where they eventually became part of the British Museum’s collection. Most of the documents were written in Chinese, though some rolls were in Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other languages. The scrolls averaged around 16 feet (5 meters) in length, though some were more than 90 feet (27 meters). The scrolls had been written over a period of six centuries, and the most important one had a Chinese date that was equivalent to November 5, 868. This scroll was a Chinese version of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, whose subject was a series of discourses by Buddha to a disciple on the ephemeral nature of material reality.

Because of the dry climate and isolation from the elements, the Diamond Sutra was well preserved. The scroll is 17.5 feet (5.3 meters) long and about 1 foot (30 centimeters) wide. It consists of seven sheets of paper pasted end to end, six of them containing the text and a short seventh sheet containing a woodcut of Buddha as a teacher. Each 2.5-foot (77-centimeter) sheet of the scroll was printed using a large block on which the Chinese ideograms were carved. An inscription on one of the sheets reads that Wang Jie Wang Jie printed this book for the enlightenment of ordinary people.

Though the Diamond Sutra is the most famous of the cave scrolls, the others also proved interesting to scholars. About eight thousand of the scrolls ended up at the National Library in Beijing, and the remaining scrolls went to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and other archives. Because of the sophisticated printing techniques exhibited in many of these scrolls, which date from the ninth and tenth centuries, scholars realized that less sophisticated books must have existed before them. Some evidence of such books has surfaced, for example, fragments of books printed in Sichuan. Furthermore, the scroll was not the only form for the printed book. Some books were folded into accordion pleats, and they, like the scrolls, were printed on only one side.

In Chinese history, the most famous printed books were the Confucian classics. These works, so influential in Chinese religious, political, and intellectual life, emphasized ethical precepts needed for the proper functioning of society. In the tenth century, the emperor ordered all these works to be inscribed on wooden blocks and multiple copies to be printed. Feng Dao Feng Dao and his associates completed the twenty-one-year task of printing the 130 volumes of the Confucian corpus in 953. For many years, the Chinese wrongly attributed the invention of printing to Feng Dao. In the West, he has been compared to the fifteenth century German printer Johann Gutenberg. Block printing and typography existed before Gutenberg, but his printing of the Bible ushered in a new era of European civilization. Similarly, printed books existed in China before Feng Dao, but his printing of the Confucian classics ushered in the renaissance of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279).


Though the Chinese developed xylography Xylography in the Tang Dynasty and typography Typography;China (movable type printing) in the Song Dynasty, the revolutionary significance of the printed book has often been attributed to fifteenth century Europeans. Because of the ideographic nature of the Chinese language and the alphabetic nature of European languages, xylography was more important in the East and typography was more important in the West. Similarly, the impact of the printed book on China was different from its impact on Western countries. The Chinese language has been and continues to be spoken differently in various regions, but the written language is the same everywhere. It was therefore difficult for books to have the fragmenting effect on Chinese regions that mass-produced books had on European countries during the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, handwritten books in Latin helped unify Christian European civilization, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, books written in different languages began circulating widely, and these helped establish national identities and foster nationalism.

Because of the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century, it has been customary to credit the printed book with great powers of cultural change and individual liberation. On the other hand, some scholars have seen the printed book as an instrument of servitude. For example, books continued the domination of the illiterate by the literate. Despite these critics, most scholars recognize the importance of books for the enrichment of life, work, and leisure.

Further Reading

  • Carter, Thomas. The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward. Rev. ed. New York: Ronald, 1955. First published by Columbia University in 1925, this is a historical analysis of papermaking and printing in China. Carter thinks it is likely that European block printing came from China, and it is possible that European movable type was influenced by Chinese techniques, especially through the reports of travelers. Each chapter has notes and an extensive bibliography. Includes a chronological chart and an index.
  • Shubao, Luo, ed. An Illustrated History of Printing in Ancient China. Kowloon, Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 1998. Beautifully illustrated chronicle of the history of printing in China from its origin to its later development. Index in English and Chinese.
  • Soeng, Mu. The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2000. Part 2 contains a translation of the Diamond Sutra into English. Part 1 analyzes the historical and cultural context of this great Buddhist text, including Aurel Stein’s discovery of its significance in the history of the printed book. Bibliography and index.
  • Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin. Paper and Printing. Part 1 in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Vol. 5 in Science and Civilisation in China. Translated and edited by Joseph Needham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Unlike previous volumes in this series, this book was not written by Needham. Though the emphasis is on the origin and development of papermaking and printing in China, the author also discusses early books, printed scrolls, and the influence of Chinese books on East and West. Illustrated with substantial bibliographies and a detailed index.