The Buddha preaching his aged disciple Subhuti

About 40,000 paper manuscripts, printed documents and fragments were found in the Dunhuang cave. Four-fifths are Buddhist and among these is the earliest dated printed document in the world. This is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, a famous Buddhist text, printed on fine yellow paper and dated AD 868, several centuries before printing or the use of paper was known in the West.

But the collection is a treasury not only for the Buddhist scholar but also for anyone who wishes to get a glimpse into religious and secular life in the thriving communities on the Silk Road. Early contracts for sale and hire: of donkeys, bolts of silk and slaves; poetry: some, like the famous ninth century narrative poem lamenting the sack of the Chinese capital by rebels, previously thought to be lost for ever; illustrated medical texts; census documents; personal letters; children's writing exercises -- the whole world is here.

The cave was accidentally discovered by a monk who had settled at Dunhuang in the 1890s. He was determined to restore the murals, and in June 1900, in the course of this work, he uncovered the hidden door. He soon distributed several of the finest paintings and manuscripts to local officials, hoping thereby to secure government funds for his work. These were not forthcoming, and when a series of foreign archaeologists arrived he handed over great quantities of the documents in return for restoration funds.

Jin gang ban ruo bo luo mi jing. (The Sanskrit Vajracchedika-prajnaparamitasutra, translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva.) The Diamond Sutra of AD 868.

This scroll was found in 1907 by the archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein in a walled-up cave at the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”, near Dunhuang, in North-West China. It was one of a small number of printed items among many thousands of manuscripts, comprising a library, which must have been sealed up in about AD 1000. Although not the earliest example of blockprinting, it is the earliest which bears an actual date. The colophon, at the inner end, reads: “Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e. 11th May, AD 868]”.

The technique of blockprinting had been known in the Far East for well over 100 years by 868, and the quality of this illustration makes it clear that the blockcutter had a considerable period of experience and skill behind him. It is not known where the printing was carried out, although Sichuan, in south-west China, is known to have been a centre of printing activity at this time.

Reference:The British Library