Breathtakingly-Detailed Tibetan Book Printed 40 Years Before the Gutenberg Bible

The Guten­berg Bible went to press in the year 1454. We now see it as the first piece of mass media, print­ed as it was with the then-cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy of met­al mov­able type. But in the his­to­ry of aes­thet­ic achieve­ments in book-print­ing, the Guten­berg Bible was­n’t with­out its prece­dents. To find tru­ly impres­sive exam­ples requires look­ing in lands far from Europe: take, for instance, this “Sino-Tibetan con­certi­na-fold­ed book, print­ed in Bei­jing in 1410, con­tain­ing San­skrit dhāranīs and illus­tra­tions of pro­tec­tive mantra-dia­grams and deities, wood­block-print­ed in bright red ink on heavy white paper,” whose “breath­tak­ing­ly detailed print­ing” pre­dates Guten­berg by 40 years.

That descrip­tion comes from a Twit­ter user called Incunab­u­la (a term refer­ring to ear­ly books), a self-described bib­lio­phile and rare book col­lec­tor who posts about “the his­to­ry of writ­ing, and of the book, from cave paint­ing to cuneiform tablet to papyrus scroll to medieval codex to Kin­dle.”

Incunab­u­la’s six-tweet thread on this ear­ly 15th-cen­tu­ry Sino-Tibetan book includes both pic­tures and descrip­tions of this remark­able arti­fac­t’s inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or.

Its text, writ­ten in the Tibetan and Nepalese Rañ­janā script, “is print­ed twice, once on each side of the paper, so that the book may be read in the Indo-Tibetan man­ner by turn­ing the pages from right to left or in Chi­nese style by turn­ing from left to right.” The book’s con­tent is “a sequence of Tibetan Bud­dhist recita­tion texts,” or chants, all “pro­tect­ed at front and back by thick­er board-like wrap­pers,” each “cov­ered in fine pen-draw­ings in gold paint on black of 20 icons of the Tathā­gatas.”

Incunab­u­la has also post­ed exten­sive­ly about Bud­dhist texts from oth­er times and lands: a Thai fold­ing man­u­script from the mid-19th cen­tu­ry telling of a monk’s jour­neys to heav­en and hell; a Mon­go­lian man­u­script from the same peri­od that trans­lates the Čoy­i­jod Dagi­ni, “a pop­u­lar Bud­dhist text about virtue, sin and the after­life”; an exam­ple of “Japan­ese Bud­dhist print­ing 150 years before Guten­berg”; an “8th cen­tu­ry Khotanese amulet­ic scroll from the Silk Road.” The cre­ators of these texts would have meant the words they were pre­serv­ing to sur­vive them — but our mar­veling at them hun­dreds, even more than a thou­sand years lat­er, would sure­ly have come as a sur­prise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Old­est Book Print­ed with Mov­able Type is Not The Guten­berg Bible: Jikji, a Col­lec­tion of Kore­an Bud­dhist Teach­ings, Pre­dat­ed It By 78 Years and It’s Now Dig­i­tized Online

The World’s Old­est Mul­ti­col­or Book, a 1633 Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy & Paint­ing Man­u­al, Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online

The World’s Largest Col­lec­tion of Tibetan Bud­dhist Lit­er­a­ture Now Online

Free Online Course: Robert Thurman’s Intro­duc­tion to Tibetan Bud­dhism (Record­ed at Colum­bia U)

Tibetan Musi­cal Nota­tion Is Beau­ti­ful

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Guido Buldrini says:

    Well, it would be inter­est­ing to know how the “print­ed in Bei­jing in 1410” was deter­mined: is there an “imprint”? Then anoth­er Chi­nese inven­tion, if it were not pre­ced­ed by 28 years (1377) from a col­lec­tion of Bud­dhist teach­ings print­ed in Korea. The source is always “Open cul­ture”

  • Deborah says:

    Guten­berg did not invent print­ing. He invent­ed move­able type. Print­ing using carved blocks is very old.

  • Rajan Menon says:

    You are right, Deb­o­rah.
    Wood block prints were promi­nent in Chi­na and Japan long before Guten­berg invent­ed move­able type.

  • Austin says:

    This is sur­pris­ing­ly sim­i­lar to the Ram Dass’ Be Here Now.

  • Joachim Karsten says:

    The 1410 kan­jur was pri in Nan­jing, not Bei­jing! And, yes, it was print­ed upon dem.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.