Printing Technologies

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Since at least the eighth century c.e., printing technologies have been used to promulgate Buddhist teachings, preserve Buddhist literature, and protect Buddhist people and their sacred sites and possessions. Most of the techniques that will be discussed below were not developed originally by Buddhists, but were an outgrowth of the rich cultural, intellectual, and religious traditions of China and their spread eastward to Korea and Japan and, subsequently, to the West.

Dhāraṇī and the origin of Buddhist print culture

The earliest technique employed for printing Buddhist texts was xylography, which used reverse-image characters carved on woodblocks to print pages of text. The exact process that led to the development of woodblock printing is unknown, although the earliest advances in print culture and technology took place in medieval China after the invention of paper in about 105 c.e. Printing from blocks of wood is commonly considered to be the first true printing technology, although printing with stamps and seals (yin), from

which the common term for printing is derived, had long been performed. The process leading to the development of xylography is presumed to be an extension of the practice of cutting wooden Daoist charms in order to make impressions on clay (early fourth century c.e.) and, later, covering them with the red ink of cinnabar or vermilion to make imprints on white paper (early sixth century c.e.).

The earliest examples of Buddhist printing involve a type of charm or spell called a dhĀraṆĪ. To date, the oldest printed material that has been discovered is the Korean Mugu chŏnggwang taedarani kyŏng (Chinese, Wugou jingguang datuoluoni jing; Great Dhāraṇī Scripture of Flawless, Pure Light), a scroll, nearly twenty feet long and three and a half inches wide, produced from about twelve woodblock pages printed on bamboo paper. Executed with great skill, it was rolled together and placed in the relics container of a stone pagoda at Pulguk Monastery in Kyŏngju, Korea, in 751, and was discovered in 1966. Scholars believe that it was printed sometime between 704 and 751 in either Kyŏngju or Luoyang, China. The next oldest examples of printed material are the remnants of the Japanese Hyakumantō darani (Dhāraṇī of the Hyakuman Pagodas), which were printed around 770 to commemorate the end of a long civil war. These dhāraṇī are copies of the first four of the six dhāraṇī included in the Great dhāraṇī Scripture of Flawless, Pure Light. They were made from copper blocks printed on small scrolls of yellowish hemp paper. Although technically inferior to the Korean dhāraṇī, the Hyakuman-tō darani was a great achievement; 3,076 of the printed dhāraṇī are preserved at HŌryŪji in Nara, Japan.


Most Buddhist texts in traditional East Asia were printed using xylography or woodblock printing. After the dhāraṇī scriptures, the Diamond SŪtra (Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra) of 868, which was discovered at Dunhuang in 1907, is the oldest known printed book. It was printed for merit and for everyday use on seven woodblock pages and pasted on a foot-wide scroll sixteen feet long. Other dhāraṇī texts and versions of the Diamond Sūtra that were placed as relics in Buddhist sculptures and pagodas during the tenth and eleventh centuries have been discovered in China, Korea, and Japan. Pasting printed pages onto scrolls gave way to the folded book in the ninth or tenth century. Stitched books, bound with such materials as bamboo and horsehair, were introduced in the tenth or eleventh century and are still used for some Buddhist writings.

The impetus for carving the entire Buddhist canon on woodblocks may be traced to an imperially sanctioned xylographic edition of Confucian classics made between 932 and 953 under the auspices of the Later Shu state in Sichuan. During the early Song period, an official edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon was carved on woodblocks between 972 and 983 in Chengdu—5,048 volumes in 130,000 blocks. A dynastically sponsored printing revolution followed in Asia for the next several hundred years. The Khitans, Jurchens, Tanguts, and Koreans all carved and printed Buddhist canons either in Chinese characters or in native scripts.


Long before the development of xylography, exact copies of important literature and beautiful calligraphy were produced by making rubbings from stone inscriptions. The Confucian classics were carved in stone in 175 c.e. The first stone carvings of Buddhist scriptures were made during the Northern Qi period (550–577) around the capital at Ye. A grand project of preserving the Buddhist scriptures was begun during the end of the Sui period (581–618) at Yunju Monastery on Fangshan in northern China southwest of present-day Beijing. In dread of the impending decline of the dharma (mofa) and the corruption and loss of the Buddhist religion, the monk Jingwan (d.639) vowed to carve the entire canon of Buddhist scriptures onto stone as a means of preserving them for all time. The stone tablets were stored in mountain caves and underground caches near the monastery at Shijing shan (Stone Scripture Mountain). The project continued through the Tang (618–907), Liao (907–1125), and Jin (1125–1234) dynasties due to both imperial and local support. More than four thousand stone tablets from nine caves and ten thousand buried tablets of the Fangshan lithic canon have been identified.

Movable type

Although movable type was invented in China, Korean artisans perfected the techniques associated with this method of printing. In China, movable earthenware type was made in the mid-eleventh century; later, type made of tin was cast, but it is not known whether these were used by Buddhists. Movable wooden type was invented by the beginning of the fourteenth century (at the latest), but examples of printing by this process are difficult to differentiate from xylography. Pieces of a wooden Uigur-script font were found at Dunhuang and dated to about 1300.

The type mold was invented in either China or Korea, probably during the early thirteenth century prior to the Mongolian invasions. The earliest reference to printing with movable metal type is found in the colophon to a woodblock print of the Korean Nammyŏng Ch'ŏn hwasang song chŭngdo-ga sasil (Buddhist Master Nammyŏng Ch'ŏn's Laudatory Commentary on the "Song Verifying Enlightenment"). The colophon says that the text was originally printed with cast metal type in Korea in 1234. The oldest extant example of metal type printing is the Pulcho chikchi simch'e yojŏl (Essentials in which the Buddhas and the Patriarchs Point to the Essence of the Mind), which was printed in 1377 at Hŭngdŏk Monastery in Ch'ŏngju in central Korea. The type was made using the lost-wax typecasting method, which seems to have been the earliest process for making movable metal type. One drawback to this method is that each piece of type has a slightly different shape, so the printed result lacks aesthetic balance.

During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a more advanced method of casting metal type using wooden models, called mother type (moja), was developed by the Chosŏn government of Korea. The precision of the wooden mother types was such that the shapes of all the pieces were alike. The technology of movable metal type was transmitted from Korea back to China and later to Japan. The first book printed with movable type in Japan was made in 1595. After the creation and promulgation of the Korean alphabet in 1446, some of the earliest books published with movable metal type in the Korean vernacular were episodes of the Buddha's life and hymns honoring Śākyamuni written and printed in 1447 and 1448. During the ensuing centuries in Korea, metal type editions of Buddhist scriptures and illustrated vernacular expositions of Buddhist scriptures were produced, the most common being the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra), the Diamond Sūtra, and the Fumu enzhong jing (Sūtra on the Profound Kindness of Parents; Korean, Pumo ŭnjung kyŏng). These same scriptures, as well as the Shiwang jing (Sūtra of the Ten Kings), were also printed widely in contemporary China and Japan, usually from woodblocks, with a few printed from movable type.

Computer-age print culture

Computer technology's coming of age at the end of the twentieth century has created new possibilities for preserving Buddhist literature, and making it accessible electronically over the Internet. Many web sites provide access to Buddhist scriptures in a variety of canonical languages and vernacular translations that are machine readable and easily searchable. The development of unicode fonts and digital imaging in the late 1990s made it possible to digitize the Chinese Buddhist canon. The Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association ( has developed a searchable electronic text of the Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (Revised Version of the Canon, Compiled during the Taishō Era, 1924–1935). The Research Institute of the Tripiṭaka Koreana ( has created an electronic font that duplicates exactly the calligraphy of the Koryŏ taejanggyŏng (Korean Buddhist Canon or Tripiṭaka Koreana), enabling researchers to view the texts of the canon as though they were original woodblock prints.

See also:Canon; Merit and Merit-Making; Relics and Relics Cults; Scripture


Carter, Thomas Francis, and Goodrich, L. Carrington. The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward, 2nd edition. New York: Ronald Press, 1955.

Hickman, Brian. "A Note on the Hyakumantō dhāraṇī." Monumenta Nipponica 30, no. 1 (1975): 87–93.

Lancaster, Lewis R. "The Rock Cut Canon in China: Findings at Fang-shan." In Buddhist Heritage: Papers Delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies in November 1985, ed. Tadeusz Skorupski. London: Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1989.

Ra Kyung-jun. "Early Print Culture in Korea," tr. Richard D. McBride II. Korean Culture 20, no. 2 (1999): 12–21.

Twitchett, Denis. Printing and Publishing in Medieval China. New York: Frederic C. Beil, 1983.

Richard D. McBride II