Cultural Selection: Elements of Exchange Reflected in Early Printed Texts from the Silk Roads, such as the ‘Diamond Sutra’

© British Library

Although occurring at a radically different time in human history, the invention of printing technology was potentially as far reaching and influential as the invention of the wheel. While the wheel improved the ease and speed of transporting people and goods, the invention of the various forms of printing culminating in the Gutenberg Printing Press in the 15th century CE facilitated the rapid and efficient movement of knowledge and ideas. Indeed, combined with the earlier introduction of paper making, printing was one of the most important technological advances in terms of knowledge development and dissemination along the Silk Roads. In particular, printing had profound implications for exchange and knowledge transfer as well as the way in which we engage with texts in general.  

Woodblock printing onto paper began in China around the 7th century CE and was used for printing both text and illustration particularly of the Buddhist canon. Using this technology, private printers flourished as a new form of mercantile activity emerged which included the printing and sale of almanacs and books. The woodblock printing method was adopted by neighbouring cultures to the northwest of China, and East across to Japan, and the Korean Peninsula. The earliest surviving complete printed ‘book’, the ‘Diamon Sutra’, a text which was found amongst the many uncovered at Dunhuang Buddhist cave complex dates from this period. The cave complex, situated in an oasis town at the cross-roads of the northern and southern routes of the Silk Roads in modern day Gansu, north west China, was a Buddhist centre and hub from the 4th to the 14th century CE.  

The Diamond Sutra was found inside a concealed cave and had been stored along with many other manuscripts and paintings sometime in the 11th century CE. In Buddhism, a sutra is a canonical scripture, which usually records the teachings of Gautama Buddha, and this particular one was amongst the most influential of the Mahayana scriptures. The ‘colophon’, a short dedication at the end of the text, revealed that the printing of the Diamon Sutra was financed by a Buddhist devotee in 868 CE on behalf of his parents. In terms of printing technique, the scroll was printed in separate sections using a single wooden block with each section then joined to the others to form a 5 metre long horizontal scroll. The exceptionally high quality of the frontispiece (the decorative illustration at the beginning) which depicts the Buddha, indicates that it was made from highly sophisticated woodblock printing technology. Early printed fragments found in Japan and the Korean Peninsula suggests technology of this quality was developed and diffused across East Asia by at least the 8th century CE.  

Another of the earliest printed texts to survive is the ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani’ (Hyakumantō darani) printed between 764 and 770 CE in Japan. This collection of small texts is the oldest extant example of printing from Japan and like the Diamon Sutra attests to the spread of Buddhism to the region. The word ‘dharani’ meaning charm or prayer to ward off evil comes from Sanskrit, a Classical language of South Asia and liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism. The ‘Million Charms’ include four short texts from the Sanskrit Vimala-nirbhasa-sutra. Each of the texts was printed on a strip of paper and placed inside a small wooden pagoda. There is still some debate amongst scholars concerning the technique used to print the charms. It was previously widely believed that they were made using metal plates, however, microscopic analysis has detected impressions of wood grain on some of the paper suggesting that the texts were in fact printed with woodblocks.  

In contrast, a confirmed example of early metal type printing comes from a commentary on the Ancient Chinese chronicle the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ (from the 5th century BCE) printed in the Korean Peninsula. At the court of King Sejong (1397 – 1450 CE) cast bronze types were used to print the works scholars needed to undertake planned societal and legal reforms. In order to do so, Sejong established a kind of early ‘think-tank’, a term used today to refer to a research institute which focus on one of many of the issues affecting our contemporary world ranging from climate change to economic development or public health. Specifically, Sejong established his think-tank to appraise the suitability of Confucian philosophy and ideals for Korean Society. The work of this think-tank therefore required scholars to have access to a large number of texts from China which were at first imported via the Silk Roads at great expense. However, investment in improving type design and setting methods led to a boom in the commissioning of printed texts on wide ranging topics including Confucianism, Buddhism, literature, education, law, agriculture, medicine, history, mathematics, and astronomy. Another of these improvements in printing technology was the development of ‘kabin’ type which was first produced in 1434 CE and which went on to become the most popular type of the Joseon period (1392 – 1910 CE). ‘Kabin’ type showed clear influences from the work of Chinese calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 CE) whose elegant writing style inspired many imitations among calligraphers and typeface designers along the Silk Roads in the 14th century CE.  

In general, text finds from along the Silk Roads have provided insight into the links between the development, spread, and refinement of printing technology in East Asia, the transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Roads, and the various cross-cultural influences evident in the design of print ‘type’. Some of the earliest printed books from East Asia which survive to the present day, such as the ‘Diamond Sutra’ from China, the ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani’ from Japan, and the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ from the Korean Peninsula reflect these numerous aspects of intercultural exchange.  

This platform has been developed and maintained with the support of:


UNESCO Headquarters

7 Place de Fontenoy

75007 Paris, France

Social and Human Sciences Sector

Research, Policy and Foresight Section

Silk Roads Programme

Follow us