I spoke in my last post about a symposium on Chinese Rare Books at which Dr. Soren Edgren of Princeton University spoke extensively. Dr. Edgren also shared some bits and pieces about the history of the book in China, and of the introduction of the book to Japan.
Left: A Chinese bamboo book, open and unfolded to display the contents. This copy of The Art of War (on the cover, “孫子兵法”) by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside. The cover also reads “乾隆御書”, meaning it was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons & used under the Creative Commons license.
Likely the earliest format of written materials in China that we might describe as a “book” was that of bamboo strips bound together, as seen in the image above. A famous example of this comes from the excavation of the Han Dynasty tomb of the Marquis of Dai and his wife “Lady Dai,” at Mawangdui. I had always assumed that such bamboo strips would be folded together like Tibetan books, which also with very long, narrow pages. However, Dr. Edgren suggested that, instead, such documents would be rolled up, like a bamboo sushi-making mat.
“The world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book” is a Chinese work, dated to the 15th day, 4th month, of the 10th year of the reign of Emperor Yizong of Tang, or, on the Christian calendar, May 11, 868. This copy of the Diamond Sutra is today in the collection of the British Library.
It was around this time, or a few centuries earlier in fact, that Buddhism was first introduced to Japan via China and Korea, and along with it, the technologies and styles of printing and bookbinding. The oldest extant Japanese printed works today are copies of the Hyakumantô Darani, or “One Million Pagodas and Dharani Prayers,” produced in 764-770. But I guess those don’t count as “complete dated works,” so the Chinese Diamond Sutra from a century later counts as the oldest. In any case, as with so many other things, older forms of bookbinding survive today in Japan while in China they continued to develop and/or be phased out.
Dr. Edgren noted that, sadly, many Chinese, especially younger people, have very little interest in Japanese collections of Chinese books or other artifacts, mistakenly believing that everything Chinese in Japan got there as the result of WWII-era looting, and that, essentially, one need not leave China to find anything one is looking for – if it exists, there will be examples of it in China. China is, after all, a huge, massive country, with a very long history, tons of artifacts, the Middle Kingdom, the Center of the World. In fact, there are a great many examples of Chinese books, artworks, and other artifacts which made their way to Japan in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and earlier, through (more or less) peaceful amicable commerce, diplomatic gifts and the like. Also, China has seen much turmoil over the centuries, and much development and change in its cultural forms – many things do indeed survive in Japan that have been lost in China, and in fact there have been found examples of objects in Japanese collections that are no longer extant in China at all, such as, to take just one example, early 17th century Chinese erotica books, with certain specific types of multi-color printing techniques, or particular uses of gold or silver that are not seen in any examples extant today in China.
I have already mentioned the 8th century Hyakumantô Darani and 9th century Diamond Sutra, but, returning to the matter of the introduction of the book to Japan and jumping back in time, the Analects of Confucius is known to have been first introduced to Japan via Korea around the 3rd century CE. By the 6th-7th centuries, books, in one format or another (probably mostly orihon? I guess?) were certainly being introduced into Japan, through trade, and especially in the hands of Chinese Buddhist monks traveling to Japan, and Japanese Buddhist monks returning from China.
Shôtoku Taishi is credited with writing a manuscript annotated copy of the Lotus Sutra, known as the Hokkei Gisho, in 615 CE. This manuscript remains extant today, the oldest extant copy of any Japanese text; it was held at the Hôryû-ji temple in Nara for roughly 1000 years, before being presented to the Meiji Emperor in the late 19th century. A number of Chinese texts from around the same time remain extant in Japan as well – many of these are of types not found in China, adding to the diversity of types of texts available (i.e. not only political or religious texts) for researchers to better understand Tang Dynasty documents.
During the Heian period (794-1185), monks such as Saichô and Kûkai, today exceptionally famous and significant historical and religious figures, founders of some of the most prominent Buddhist sects in Japan, traveled to China and returned with various religious texts. The monk Chônen, who traveled to China in 983-986, brought back the first printed copy of the full Buddhist canon to be seen in Japan.
A similar set of objects, the Tripitaka Koreana (Korean printed, i.e. not handwritten manuscript, copy of the full Buddhist canon) and Fuzhou Tripitaka are still held today in the Kyoto temple of Nanzen-ji, along with the 14th century Yuan Dynasty lacquer trunks in which they were originally shipped to Japan.
Printed books began to really take off in China in the Song dynasty (960-1279). I don’t know that much about this period in detail, and I have a hard time imagining publishing, distribution, and literacy being as widespread in 10th-13th century China as in, for example, the extremely vibrant and truly early modern (read: developments in transportation and communication, a certain level of urbanization, etc.) Edo period in Japan (1600-1868), but in any case, by the standards of the 10th-13th century, and certainly as compared to earlier periods, the Song dynasty can definitely be said to have seen a dramatic expansion of publishing and of relatively widespread access (within the cities at least, and within the upper classes) to printed matter.
In 1248, the Japanese monk Tankai had printed in Kyoto a copy of the 「梵網経菩薩戒」, or Brahma’s Net Sutra, which he obtained in China in 1244. This 1248 copy, today in the collection of the New York Public Library, is quite possibly the only remaining copy of a no longer extant Chinese original. The document includes a colophon which explains the document’s own origin, i.e. that Tankai traveled to China in 1244 and printed this copy in Kyoto in 1248.
Later, the Zen temples of Kyoto and Kamakura would produce printed reproductions of Chinese works (mainly religious texts). These came to be known as “Gozanban” (五山版), or “Five Mountains Versions,” as the top five Zen temples in Kyoto, and the top five in Kamakura, were known as the “Five Mountains” or “Gozan.”
Many Chinese books also entered Japan during the Muromachi period (1333-1573) as a result of the vibrant trade between the Chinese port of Ningpo and the Japanese port of Sakai. In 1533, a Sakai merchant family published a commentary-free copy of the Analects of Confucius, for which the blocks are not only still extant, but still in quite good and usable condition; they are stored at the temple of Nanshûji in Sakai.
Around the same time, the Ashikaga gakkô, a Confucian academy established in the 7th or 8th century in what is today Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture, generated a great demand for Chinese books, as Deputy Shogun (kantô kanrei) Uesugi Norizane (1410-1466) worked to restore and revive the school.
Skipping ahead, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the Manchu Qing Dynasty banned many books, for one reason or another, and banned books began flowing into Japan. Though the Tokugawa shogunate never managed to establish any formal diplomatic relations with the Qing (mainly because of Japan’s refusal to kowtow to Chinese superiority/authority within the traditional Sinocentric world order tribute system), by this time unofficial or illegal trade was booming in Nagasaki, as it would continue to do throughout the Edo period.
Dr. Edgren’s lecture left off there… As we get into the Edo period, the Japanese domestic publishing industry takes off. Chinese books continue to be imported, along with Western materials via the Dutch, and other materials as well. I am not sure exactly when it ramps up, but at some point in the Edo period, Japan begins publishing more books than any other country in the world (in terms of number of titles, if not sheer volume of fascicles printed, bound, and sold), a position that I believe it continued to hold continuously through to the present day. Entire academic books have been published on the history of the book in Japan, and I have yet to read them, so that will have to be a story for another day.