Sub-project Chinese Studies

The Word of Buddha and the Intent of the Benefactor: Media Difference and Text Variance in Sutra Colophons and Votive Inscriptions of Early Chinese Buddhism (4th - 7th C)

Principal investigator: Prof Dr Michael Friedrich

Research associate: Dr Wang Ding

A considerable share of the manuscripts found in Central Asia consists of sutra copies. Some Mahâyâna sutras speak of the merit that can be transferred to other living beings and generated by copying them, and also state that they should be revered as the Buddha himself. Many manuscripts bear dated colophons which give an insight into their production and function, as well as the social status and motives of the commissioners or scribes.

The most common motive was quite clearly people's concern for deceased members of their family, with the colophons appearing to have adhered to various rules. For the most part, it is unclear how these rules originated and which factors were decisive in allowing any deviations for individual cases, although the worship of certain texts and of certain Buddhas and Bodhisattvas certainly played a significant role here.

A similar vocabulary can be found in votive inscriptions on steles, mostly with images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, dating from the 5th century onward in Northern China. On the one hand, this is hardly surprising as both the sacred word and the sacred image essentially serve the same, or at least similar, purpose, namely the cultivation of merit. On the other hand, there are marked differences in both the production and the function of the two forms: apart from the different writing supports used (paper or stone), the overwhelming majority of steles were offered by groups, whereas the manuscripts were often written or commissioned by individuals.


First of all, the vocabulary of the sutra colophons and their underlying patterns or models, and deviations from these must be clarified. The variances should be systemised with regard to their form and content, and interpreted in the cultural context of both local and Indian or Central Asian traditions, while paying particularly close attention to the production and functions of such manuscripts. The results will then be compared to the findings from the more deeply researched corpus of Chinese Buddhist epigraphy from the middle of the 1st millennium.

This sub-project should not only serve to provide information on the degree of 'sinicisation' of Buddhist manuscript production, but should chiefly contribute to answering the question as to which factors are responsible for the variance in the colophons and, furthermore, how they relate to the votive inscriptions in the medium of stone.

Manuscript cultures in China

The oldest records of the Chinese script can be found on 'hard' writing supports: oracle texts on tortoise shells and ox bones since approx. 1200 BC, and then inscriptions on bronze ritual vessels from the 11th century BC. More common and less costly materials might also have been in use from even earlier times, despite the fact that the oldest datable bamboo manuscripts come from the 5th century BC. Bamboo appears to be the dominant material used for writing up to the 3rd or 4th century AD when it was gradually replaced by paper, the use of which can be dated back to the 1st century AD. The manuscript culture of ancient China also includes, at least indirectly, stone inscriptions, as their handwritten originals were transferred as accurately as possible to stone which could, in turn, be used as the model for paper rubbings.

From the 7th century, pictures and texts were reproduced using the woodblock printing technique, while the first state-sponsored prints of the Buddhist and the Confucian canon can be dated to the 10th century. The ever-increasing spread of printing in the 11th century did not lead to the demise of the manuscript. Just as paper had long been highly expensive, printing also remained very costly. This was not to change until the 16th century when costs fell rapidly due to the new techniques, the work-sharing organisation of printing and a sharp rise in demand. Scholars and academics, however, maintained an elite manuscript culture well into the 20th century.

Research into other, regionally and culturally peripheral manuscript cultures of the later imperial period has thus far been limited. This includes the literary traditions of religious and ethnic groups who were not recognised by the state, as well as other groups inhabiting remote and barely accessible regions. The problems that the characteristics of the Chinese script encountered with the onset of type printing meant that lithography retained relative importance after the introduction of Western printing techniques up to the 20th century, as was the case in Iran. It can therefore be argued that the manuscript represents the 'leading medium' of the Chinese book culture.