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Tibetan Printing (Review)

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Given the importance of the written word in Tibet – as a spiritual medium as much as a medium of factual knowledge – it is surprising that this volume is the first overview of Tibetan book printing to be published.[1] The production of Tibetan books – their history, fabrication and materiality – carries even more weight than simply the words themselves: as the late E. Gene Smith revealed, through his extraordinary work to preserve and catalogue Tibetan texts, even as those who held the knowledge they contained disappeared from us, the immense political and cultural impact of these stacks of loose leaves, bound perhaps in silk or cotton, still remains in our digital age. Tibetan Printing: Comparison, Continuities, and Change offers us a most valuable and vivid companion to some of the key historical and technical issues in this developing field.
In their introduction, the editors lament the lack of books covering Tibetan printing in contrast to the growing scholarship on the European tradition. That notwithstanding, the importance of Tibet within the Asian cultural milieu is addressed in the first of the collection's three parts, “The Introduction of Printing in the Asian Context”. The papers in this section cover printing and book-production in Mongolia, India, China and Japan. For me, what is especially interesting in this preliminary material is the influence (or lack of it) which printing in one society exerted upon other Asian societies. I found myself especially drawn to Johan Elverskog's essay on the history of printing among the Mongols, which emphasizes the relative lack of importance accorded to printing in Asia: indeed, Elverskog's assertion that “more often than not, printing was recognized simply as rather a low level craft that was considered of very little cultural, social or technological importance” (p25) provides a salutary starting-point for the book as a whole, and for our investigation of the subject within wider, and more complex, contexts.
Yet the efficacy of printing culture, in contrast with manuscript culture, cannot be denied. The contributions of Imre Galambos and Christina Scherrer-Schaub present brief, fascinating analyses of the ways in which both techniques can be read as rendering works for the purposes of individual and group study. Scherrer-Schaub's treatment, in particular, of the contribution to the history of printing in China made by Paul Pelliot is a subtle meditation on how the materiality of printing  influences the reading of history.
The essays in Part 2, “The Introduction of Printing into Tibet”, offer some new insights into how printing was brought to Tibet and into its impact on Tibetan book culture. Porong Dawa's paper in particular presents some interesting new material on the historiographical implications of a new collection of Central Tibetan (primarily from Gung thang and La stod) texts produced recently under his editorship. This essay looks at the sociohistorical clues contained in the colophons of these texts, allowing scholars to better understand the printing process. Of course, it is from the colophons of such texts, wherein are recorded the details of their production, that much of our understanding of the practical background of these texts comes, and from which this understanding can be developed, and the analyses of colophons in this part of the book present much new and challenging historiography about social and cultural interactions.
In the first two parts of Tibetan Printing, much space is given to the influential engagement of women in the printing process. The essays by Kawa Sherab Sangpo and Peter Kornicki show how influential women  promoted and sponsored book production in the Yuan dynasty and in Japan. The first essay, in particular, addresses the role played by Mongolian noblewomen in the production of Tibetan texts during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The part played by Empress Bulughan, whose commitment to Tibetan Buddhism, and especially to its tantric manifestation, seems to have been pivotal to the distribution of texts back into Tibet. Hildegard Diemberger further explores this theme in her investigation of how, in Tibet, female patronage promoted and developed book production throughout the region, and it is in their commitment to innovation in the book arts that these women made a significant and far-reaching impact upon the production of books and the spread of learning.
The materiality of books, the manufacture of papers and inks and dyes, is covered in the third part. These essays present technical analyses of materials within the historical context, and while we should bear in mind Elverskog's comments on the unremarkable nature of the printing process in Asia, we should also remember the time- and labor-intensive process of book production.[2] The scientific study of these materials and processes can also reveal the intellectual and trade relationships which existed between artists and readers, and how these relationships affected the spread of knowledge in Tibet.
For me, the value of this book lies in the connections that it draws between the materiality of the book – its physical make-up and the labor of production – and the sociopolitical and historical impact of the spread and dissemination of the knowledge contained within the books. To understand how this impact plays out in the telescoping contexts of Asia and then Tibet is key to a proper understanding of the region's intellectual and religious history, and the editors are to be congratulated on their innovative and vital contribution to this history.

Simon Wickhamsmith, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (

[1] But see Kurtis R. Schaeffer's excellent book The Culture of the Book in Tibet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009) for a profound and engaging treatment of this subject.
[2] See also the extensive treatment of this process in Agnieszka Helman-Ważny The Archaeology of Tibetan Books (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

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