The World’s Oldest Woodblock Print

by Matthew Jackson on 4 January, 2009 updated 10 September, 2012

in Art history | Buddhism | Historical

Matthew Jackson explores another of Korea’s contributions to world culture

The first printing presses were made out of wood. The process of woodblock printing emerged in the East during the 8th century.

For some time, the earliest woodblock print was believed to be a copy of the Diamond Sutra, discovered at Dunhuang in China by the British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein, printed in AD 868.

In 1966, the Great Dharani Sutra of Undefiled Pure Radiance was discovered in the Shakyamuni Pagoda of Pulguksa Temple in Kyongju, Korea. The building in which it was enshrined was constructed in AD 751, implying that it predated the Chinese Diamond Sutra by at least 117 years.
dharani-sutra
In the midst of a storm of academic controversy, analysis revealed that the Dharani Sutra had in fact been produced even earlier than AD 751. This was seen initially from the appearance of certain words in the text known to have become obsolete by the mid-8th century.

An inscription found on a nearby sarira relic indicates that the Sutra was enshrined at the same time as the reliquary, dating it as far back as AD 706. Analysis has revealed that the inscriptions were made by the same person.

The printed letters of the Dharani sutra also compare favourably with the Chinese Diamond Sutra, as does the thin Hanji paper. It was an early sign of the innovations in the field of printing that were yet to come in Korea, including of course moveable metal type, which will be discussed in the next article.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

G De Soriano April 20, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Korea has a fascinating history, and has made contributions to arts and the sciences which we are still discovering. I would like to learn more about these peoples. Can anyone direct me to a source to view korean woodblock prints from pre-1800?

Matthew Jackson April 21, 2013 at 10:21 am

Hello Gretchen,

Is it pictures that you would like to view online, or would you like to know museums in Europe where you can find them?

I think that Paris is the best place to see Korean manuscripts, but UK and Germany may also have them as well. Let me know what you are looking for and I can help you find out.

Best regards,

Matthew

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