"Printed in 1085"
For Gilded Age tycoons, the Gutenberg Bible was ground zero for literary culture. A two-volume Gutenberg Bible on deluxe velum is thus the starting point of Henry Huntington's collection of rare books. Less well known is that Huntington's library has a printed book from China that is 370 years older. It's being displayed for the first time in "Printed in 1085: The Chinese Buddhist Canon from the Song Dynasty" (through Dec. 4, 2023).
China invented woodblock printing in the 7th century. By the 11th century there was a thriving book trade in which manuscripts and printed books coexisted. The Huntington Canon is the result of a Song Dynasty initiative to assemble and publish a Buddhist Wikipedia. The Canon is a compendium of virtually every important commentary on Buddhist thought, sourced from throughout the known world and translated into Chinese. Chongzhen, an abbott at the Dongchan Temple, Fuzhou, oversaw a team of about 5850 monks and artisans producing 165,000 woodblocks. No complete Canon exists anywhere, and only fragments are in American collections.
The book at the Huntington is a very small part of the whole, being volume 45 of the Scripture of the Great Flower Ornament of the Buddha, itself a molecule of the 5850-volume Great Canon of the Eternal Longevity of the Chongning Reign Period. The Huntington volume is printed on both sides in accordion-fold format and is 31 ft long when fully extended. A clever installation design reveals both sides of the compete work in one long vitrine in the Library's West Hall. Tea-brown and riddled with wormholes, it has an aura of history transcending language.
|Volume 45 of the Scripture of the Great Flower Ornament of the Buddha (small detail), 1085 AD. Burndy Library Collection, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Dibner Family|
That this book is at the Huntington is due to industrialist Bern Dibner and UCLA professor of Chinese literature Richard C. Rudolph. Dibner assembled the spectacular history of science, medicine, and technology collection that came to the Huntington in 2006. Like Huntington's collection, Dibner's was Western and secular. Rudolph persuaded Dibner of the global importance of early Chinese printing. In a letter on view, Rudolph wrote Dibner: "I am more or less conducting a crusade against ignoring the Far East when it comes to book collecting. Hence, I am always curious to know whether a specialized (or even a general) library excludes Japanese and Chinese books 'because of the language barrier,' which is no excuse at all."
Dibner bought the Canon from Rudolph in 1984, presumably for its significance in the history of printing. Chinese woodblock books required scribes able to write a whole page quickly so that the page could be pressed against a block of wood while the ink was still wet. The wood would then be carved around the ink impressions.
Gutenberg employed movable type. This was a crucial, labor-saving innovation, jump-starting the Renaissance explosion of literary and scientific culture. But never bet against China as being the first. Chinese engineer Bi Sheng invented moveable type about 1040 AD.