The Oldest Printed Text in the World - The Diamond Sutra

The walled city of Dunhuang (Sha-chou) was an outpost on the northwestern frontier, whose importance was due primarily to its location for it was a military base on the Silk Road connecting China with Central Asia and the Western world. More recently it has attracted attention because of the Thousand Buddha caves and the Diamond Sutra.

In the 840s, with the resurgence of the old Confucian and Taoist ideas, China turned against foreign religions. Buddhism, always criticized by the Confucianists, came under an imperial ban in 845; over 4,600 temples and monasteries were shut down and their devotees barred from the religious life. Two decades later the new emperor rescinded the ban, however Buddhism never revived in quite the same form. In 1127, the Hsi-hsia, a nomadic tribe from the north, invaded Dunhuang. The caves, however, retained their importance as a religious site for several centuries more. The site fell into general neglect during the late Ming era and lay buried in the desert sands for many years.

At the time of the Hsi-hsia invasion, some person or persons unknown chose one of the caves as a hiding-place for thousands of Buddhist sutras and other manuscripts. In the centuries that followed, all memory of this vast storehouse seems to have been lost, but the precious artifacts survived in safety until the 20th century, when they were rediscovered by an appreciating world. Among the manuscripts was perhaps the oldest printed book - actually a scroll - in existence, the Diamond Sutra, dated 868.

At the beginning of the 20th century, an abbot named Wang Yuan-lu came to Dunhuang area, discovered the sand covered stone grottoes, took up residence in one cave and began to clear out the others. Eight hundred and fifty years had elapsed since Hsi-shia had invaded this territory.

In 1900, the secret library (Cave 17) was discovered by Abbot Wang when he was sweeping out sand and dust from a cave (Cave 16). The secret library is a small stone room contained well over 10,000 manuscripts and silk paintings, many of which were Hsuan-tsang's own translations of Buddhist texts, patiently copied and preserved by Buddhist monks. No one knows when or who bricked over and whitewashed the door and painted murals on it.

In march 1907, a British expedition under Sir Aurel Stein arrived at Dunhuang and visited Wang in his cave. Stein took away total of twenty-four cases, heavy with manuscripts, and five boxes of paintings, embroideries and art relics, which all had only cost him 130 pounds.

According to National Library of Peking in 1961, the Diamond Sutra is described as: "The Diamond Sutra, printed in the year the world's earliest printed book, made of seven strips of paper joined together with an illustration on the first sheet which is cut with great skill." The writer adds: "This famous scroll was stolen over fifty years ago by the Englishman Ssu-t'an-yin [Stein] which causes people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred." It is currently on display in the British Museum. The scroll, some sixteen feet long, 17 an half feet long and 10 and half inches wide, bears the following inscription: " reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long (May 11, 868)"

Who and why hid such treasures in the cave after all? It remains a mystery.

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