Archive for the 'printing' Category

The earliest printing

10 November 2011

We have two copies of the great Song Dynasty encylopaedia Cefu yuangui, which was begun in 1005 and completed in 1013:

冊府元龜 一千卷目錄十卷 / (宋)景德二年[1005]王欽若等奉敕編
線裝300冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 81

冊府元龜 一千卷目錄十卷 / (宋)景德二年[1005]王欽若等奉敕編. –
洋裝50冊(原線裝200冊) ; 26公分
Sinica 2709

Both are of the late Ming edition made by Huang Guoqi, which is not at all rare. The Backhouse copy is a fairly early printing. The Sinica copy is later, and has been spoiled by the application of a western binding of the worst sort: glued and rounded. It was formerly in the Faculty Library (now the Chinese Studies Library), and was among the substantial collection of books acquired from Peking during the professorship of Homer H. Dubs. All were treated in this way, which greatly detracts from their value as objects and is already causing serious conservation problems.

In a roundabout way, this gives me cause to reflect on the very origins of printing.

It is well-known that the world’s earliest complete surviving printed book is Kumarajiva’s translation of the Diamond Sutra 金剛般若波羅蜜經 in the British Library, which was printed in AD 868.

By “book” I mean an assemblage of printed sheets – there are single-sheet items and printed fragments that are believed to date as far back as the 7th century, some eight centuries before the first appearance of printing in Europe. There is also good reason to believe that the printing of texts was commonplace by the 8th century, as the practice had already spread to other parts of East Asia by that time. This is evidenced in Korea by the printed dharani (Buddhist charm) discovered in the base of a stone pagoda in Pulguksa erected in 751 in Kyongju, and in Japan by the million dharani 百万塔陀羅尼 commissioned by the Empress Shōtoku in 764 in gratitude for the suppression of a rebellion, of which many copies are extant.

Less well-known (and it does not follow) is the fact that the world’s earliest textual reference to printing is also Chinese. It is found in the Old Tang history 舊唐書 (17下), the first version of the “dynastic history” of the Tang, completed in 945. It refers to an event that took place in 835:


On the day dingchou of the 12th month (29 December), the order was given to the circuits and prefectures to disallow the private production of printing blocks for calendars.

The text of which this is a summary is preserved in full in Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜  (160:5b). The reason is this. The sections of Cefu yuangui which deal with the Tang and Wudai periods quote the “veritable records” 實錄 of those dynasties, which are no longer extant. The “veritable records” were used to compile the “dynastic histories”, which are a very much condensed account. This episode not only illustrates the process perfectly, but also demonstrates the value of Chinese encyclopaedias in preserving lost texts. The entries in Chinese encyclopaedias are not digests, as in western encyclopaedias, but direct quotations from their sources. So although this extract refers to something that happened almost two centuries before the Cefu yuangui was compiled, there can be no doubting its authenticity:

九年十二月丁丑, 東川節度使馮宿奏准勑禁斷印曆日版。劍南兩川及淮南道,皆以版印曆日鬻於市。每歲司天臺未奏頒下新曆,其印曆已滿天下。有乖敬授之道。故命禁之。

On the day dingchou of the 12th month of the 9th year [of Taihe] (29th December 835), Feng Su, military commandant of Dongchuan, submitted a memorial to the throne requesting that the printing of calendars from wooden blocks should be prohibited. From the two commanderies of Jiannan (Dongchuan and Xichuan, west of Chengdu) as far as the Huainan circuit (around Yangzhou in the east), block-printed calendars were for sale in the marketplace. Each year, these printed calendars could be found everywhere, before the Board of Astronomy had submitted the new version to the Emperor for official distribution, in violation of the correct practice for promulgating the calendar. Consequently the order was given to prohibit it.

[The commandery of Dongchuan 東川 was situated at Zizhou梓州 (modern Santaixian 三台縣 in Sichuan 四川 province). The 劍南兩川 were the commanderies of Jiannan Dongchuan 劍南東川 (see above) and Jiannan Xichuan 劍南西川 which was in Chengdufu 成都府. 敬授 is an allusion to 敬授人時 which occurs in the 書經 “to deliver respectfully the seasons to be observed by the people” (Legge, Shu King, p. 32). 有乖敬授之道 therefore might be rendered “in violation of the practice of issuing the calendar”. 《書•堯典》:“乃命羲和,欽若昊天,曆象日月星辰,敬授人時”。蔡沈集傳:“人時,謂耕獲之候”。]

“From the two commanderies of Jiannan as far as the Huainan circuit” is in fact almost the entire length of the Yangze. So this report shows not only how early printing was taking place, but also how widespread it was.

Furthermore, it is highly significant that the printing referred to is of calendars, the production of which was one of the most important functions of the central government throughout the entire history of dynastic China. In fact the two characters jingshou 敬授 in the expression that I have here paraphrased as “the correct practice for promulgating the calendar” are taken directly from a passage in the second book of the Confucian canon, the Book of History 書經 (堯典).

In this most sacred of texts, fixing the calendar is among the duties of the sage king:


Thereupon Yaou commanded He and Ho, in reverent accordance with their observation of the wide heavens, to calculate and delineate the movements and appearances of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the zodiacal spaces; and so to deliver respectfully the seasons to be observed by the people.



The emperor said, “Ah! you, He and Ho, a round year consists of three hundred, sixty, and six days. By means of an intercalary month do you fix the four seasons, and complete the determination of the year. Thereafter, in exact accordance with this, regulating the various officers, all the works of the year will be fully performed.”

[tr. Legge, The Chinese classics IIIi (1865), 18, 21-22.]

I shall return to the theme of the calendar, and the solemn duty of compiling it, in a future posting.