Okay, here’s a quiz. Can you tell me the name of the earliest example we have of a printed and dated literary work?
Right, it has nothing to do with Guttenberg; we have to go to China, and it is something philosophical—but what? Something from Confucius? Nope. Maybe something Christian missionaries put together to spread the faith? No, sir. It’s the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist work that played a seminal role in the movement of Buddhism from India into China—‘transmission’ is the word that’s used, a spiritual transmission. Housed right now in the British Library, this particular copy bears the 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—so it appears to have been intended for mass consumption, sort of the Gideon Bible of ancient China. In terms of the European calendar, this is in May 868, roughly 600 years before Guttenberg printed his Bible in Mainz. The edition in question was discovered by a Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, in a cave in western China and then re-discovered (some say, stolen) by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, who shipped it off to the British Museum. The Chinese take on this turn of events is summed up by this catalog entry written in 1961 in Beijing, then known in the English speaking world as Peking: “The Diamond Sutra, printed in the year 868….is 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.” If this is true, they are not listening to the message of the Diamond Sutra.