A Woodblock-Printed Rarity: Remnant Of A Time Before The Gutenberg Bible

We know the Gutenberg Bible was the first printed piece of mass media in western society. But what about other civilizations around the world? If we take a look at Asian print history, we can find even older examples of printed manuscripts.

Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg‘s ground-breaking inventions the way for intellectual, political and religious changes was paved. Today, his invention is considered a trigger for one of the greatest revolutions in human history. He truly is the original pioneer of printing. But the Gutenberg Bible was of course not the first book to ever be printed, although it was the first piece of mass media printed with the metal movable type. 40 years before the book was printed in 1454 by Johannes Gutenberg, a Tibetan book was printed in Beijing.

A Rare Artifact

To find old and truly impressive examples of printed books requires one to look beyond the borders of Europe: a Sino-Tibetan concertina-folded book was for example printed in China, back in 1410. The detailed printing predates Gutenberg’s famous – and revolutionary – invention by 40 years. The text is written in the Tibetan and Nepalese Rañjanā script and woodblock-printed using a bright red ink on heavy white paper. It contains a selection of Sanskrit dhāranīs and illustrations of protective mantra-diagrams and deities.

The content of the artifact is “a sequence of Tibetan Buddhist recitation texts,” or chants, “protected at front and back by thicker board-like wrappers, covered in fine pen-drawings in gold paint on black of 20 icons of the Tathāgatas,” printed twice on each side of the every spread to be read in the traditional Indo-Tibetan manner.

Incunabula

The book caught the eye of book lovers from all around the world on social media. Incunabula, a Twitter user named after a term referring to early books, offered a rare glimpse into the ancient book in a six-tweet thread on the 15th century Sino-Tibetan rarity, presenting its breathtaking pictures with descriptions of the remarkable artifact’s in- and exterior.

“During the early Ming, close relations were established between Tibetan monks and the imperial court in Beijing. Although not directly part of the Buddhist canon, this work relates closely to the manner of woodblock carving employed for the production of the Sino-Tibetan Kangyur,”

the collector writes.

The self-proclaimed bibliophile has posted extensively about other Buddhist texts from other times and places before, among them a Mongolian manuscript from the same period, an even older Japanese Buddhist printing predating Gutenberg’s invention by 150 years and an 8th century Khotanese amulet scroll.

A Part of Print History

Even though the Gutenberg Printing Press revolutionized western society, we shouldn’t forget that printing techniques have been around for a long time in other parts of the world. Gutenberg enabled literacy among the lower classes and allowed for a fluent transfer of knowledge instead of the previous culture of gathering books in monasteries – education was no longer limited to the higher classes or available as part of the religious path. Still, discoveries like these show that humanity has always been questioning their origins and developed different perspectives on their role in the universe, as both the ancient-printings of Incunabula and the Gutenberg Bible are religious texts, recorded with printing techniques for future generations.

What is your favorite part of print history? Are there any early examples of printings you enjoy?