The story appears on

Page B1

October 19, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Saving sutras

ONE of the world's very few places where Buddhist sutras are still printed from wood blocks is a small publishing house in Nanjing. Its founder was called the father of China's modern Buddhist renaissance. Yao Minji pays a visit.

Hidden in the busy Xinjiekou commercial area of Nanjing, capital city of neighboring Jiangsu Province, is a traditional Chinese-style building with enormous dark red doors bearing big bronze fittings.

Behind the doors, which almost never open, is one of the treasures of Chinese Buddhism: a museum and publishing house that prints sutras using wood blocks that are hand-carved with scriptures.

The Jinling (old name for Nanjing) Sutra Publishing House contains the country's largest collection of hand-carved wood blocks for printing sutras, including some that are several hundred years old. The publishing house is still in operation.

It takes a letter from the local Buddhist association to get inside; the entrance is a much smaller door a few meters from the imposing red gates.

The small printing house is listed by UNESCO as a site of World Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is one of the world's very few wood-block sutra text publishing houses. Its works have been distributed to Buddhist temples around China.

The publishing house contains around 125,000 wood blocks of various types, used to print more than 1,500 sutras, which are religious texts or scriptures, such as the words of Buddha and commentaries.

Many of the blocks are one of a kind, the oldest is more than 300 years old. Most were collected by the founder of the publishing house, Yang Wenhui (1837-1911).

The majority of the collection was destroyed, along with the house, during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), when Red Guards rampaged through the structure, using shelves and wood blocks as firewood and texts as kindling and toilet paper.

The local government rebuilt the house, which was Yang's residence, repaired some wood blocks and collected others from around the country.

The tiny entrance in a long wall of dark bricks leads to a small but surprisingly vivid courtyard, filled with trees and colorful flowers.

An exhibition room in the middle of the courtyard displays rare texts, wood blocks and historical photos of the house and its original owner and publisher Yang.

The room opens to another, much smaller rear courtyard containing Yang's grave and a Buddhist stupa, or spiritual monument, almost 9 meters high.

On the right side of the courtyard are the workshops where a dozen craftsmen are meticulously carving characters into blocks, carefully printing one sheet at a time, sorting and aligning, binding and labeling. The wood is soaked in a preservative that also makes it resistant to insects.

Yang Wenhui, also known as Yang Renshan (a courtesy name), is considered the father of the modern Buddhist renaissance in China. He started his press to spread scriptures that had been destroyed over the years.

Buddhism as a religion reached its peak in China in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907); it gradually declined in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) since many Song emperors admired and practised Taoism.

But Buddhism, Confucianism and Chinese folk religion all suffered during the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864 against the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The leader, a heterodox Christian convert, established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (taiping means peace), with its capital in Nanjing.

As the Taiping army advanced, they killed Buddhist monks, burned texts and damaged temples. Around 20 million people died before the rebellion was put down.

Yang, founder of the printing house, became interested in Buddhism in his 20s after reading the "Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana." A native of Anhui Province, Yang moved to Nanjing in 1895 to take part in government-rebuilding projects after the rebellion was crushed.

He found that most Buddhist texts and wood blocks had been burned and the few remaining monks were not well-educated; many didn't even study the texts, though there were few to study.

Yang and his friends founded the Jinling Sutra Publishing House in his own house, at the current address. They repaired damaged wood blocks, bought new ones and hired workmen to carve others.

During his visits to the United Kingdom and France, Yang met Japanese Buddhist Nanjo Bunyu, through whom he imported more than 300 sutra texts from Japan, as a starting point. Later, he hired famed calligraphers, painters and sculptors to make delicate wood blocks for text and illustrations. Yang himself also made some.

He founded a Buddhist school in the same place, gave lectures and invited guest speakers. Many of his students later became well-established Chinese Buddhist philosophers.

When Yang passed away in 1911, his home and publishing house contained more than 40,000 wood blocks. In his will, he said his home should remain as the Jinling Sutra Publishing House and he requested his sons to support it financially.

Most of his good work was undone during the "cultural revolution" when the house was occupied by Red Guards who burned wood blocks and shelving and planned to destroy all evidence of religion, which was considered backward.

They were stopped after the Buddhist Association of China reported the desecration to higher authorities.

Again it was time to rebuild and restore.

Address: 35 Huaihai Rd, Nanjing

Tel: (025) 8454-2531

How to get there: From Shanghai, take a high-speed train to Nanjing (within two hours) and the sutra publishing house is 20 minutes' away by taxi. It takes a letter from the local Buddhist association to get inside.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend