When you ask what the oldest printed book is at The Huntington, some might assume it’s the Gutenberg Bible. Appearing around 1455, the Bible is the first substantial book printed with movable type in the West. But there’s a much older printed book in The Huntington’s collection that dates back to 1085—almost 1,000 years ago!
In the above video, Li Wei Yang, curator of Pacific Rim Collections, searches The Huntington’s Library for the first documented connections between the great printing cultures of China and Europe.
View the exhibition “Printed in 1085: The Chinese Buddhist Canon from the Song Dynasty,” now on display in the Library West Hall through Dec. 4, 2023.
About the Exhibition
More than 900 years old, the Scripture of the Great Flower Ornament of the Buddha is part of the 5,850-volume Great Canon of the Eternal Longevity of the Chongning Reign Period. Produced during the Song dynasty (960–1279) between 1080 and 1112, the accordion-style book fully unfolds to a length of 31 feet. It is one of the longest sutras, or collection of aphorisms, in the Buddhist canon and is a compendium of doctrines and ritual practices widely followed throughout East Asia. The text presents a vision of the entire universe as consisting of elements that all interpenetrate (like mirrors reflecting in mirrors) within the body of the Cosmic Buddha. “In short, it reflects the notion that ‘I am you, you are me; we all are Buddha,’” Yang said. It is not known whether the Buddha himself actually spoke the words found in the Scripture of the Great Flower Ornament. Rather, it is likely that his followers, over centuries of adaptation and interpretation, incorporated the essence of his teachings into this and many other Buddhist works that have survived.
“Printed in 1085” shows the connection between religion and China’s printmaking, which had been practiced centuries before the first use of movable metal type in Europe. Emperor Taizu, who ruled from 960 to 976 CE, wanted to disseminate Buddhist teachings, which led to the acceleration of woodblock printing in China. During the creation of the Scripture of the Great Flower Ornament, Chongzhen—an abbot at the Dongchan Temple in Fuzhou, China—led a large team of monks and artisans to cut and ink more than 165,000 woodblocks, printing 5,850 volumes of the Great Canon of the Eternal Longevity of the Chongning Reign Period, or the Chongning Canon. It was one of the most time- and resource-intensive printing projects ever undertaken in China’s imperial history. Today, there are no remnants of the Dongchan Temple or the original woodblocks, and incomplete collections of the Chongning Canon volumes are scattered in libraries and private collections throughout Asia, Europe, and North America, all of which makes The Huntington’s volume of the Chongning Canon an especially valuable historical artifact.
Support for this exhibition is provided by Josephine and Tony Yeh and the Robert F. Erburu Exhibition Endowment.