Mystery in the stacks: Dating a rare Chinese Buddhist book in the Gunst Collection

September 25, 2018
Joshua Capitanio

I was very interested when recently a colleague from Green Library, David Jordan, alerted me to the existence of several Chinese and Japanese items within the Gunst Collection, also known as the Morgan A. and Aline D. Gunst Memorial Library of the Book Arts.  As the name suggests, this collection, which was donated to Stanford Libaries in 1963 and contains over four thousand volumes, is devoted to works that showcase the role of books as artifacts.  As I was browsing through the short list of East Asian materials belonging to this collection, I was intrigued by one item in particular, which was described as an eleventh-century print of a Chinese Buddhist scripture.

Curious to see if this was indeed an eleventh-century book, David and I visited the Field Reading Room to take a closer look.  The item was accompanied by a brief description that had been provided by the seller, and it became evident that this description was the basis for the eleventh-century attribution.  The book, which is a woodblock print bound in accordion style, measuring approximately 30.5 x 12 cm, is clearly very old and many of the pages suffer from worming and are quite fragile.  As we looked through the volume, I observed several short notes that had been added as marginalia on a few pages.  The notes appear to have been carved into the original blocks and my first thought was that they might contain donor information.  The printing of religious texts such as Buddhist scriptures in China was often sponsored by lay donors, who would be given ackowledgment so that they could receive the karmic merit accrued from such virtuous acts.  So, I took a few photos and attempted to decipher these notes.  In a stroke of luck, it turned out that my initial reaction was correct.  The marginalia were acknowledgments of donor contributions, and they contained information that allows us to more accurately date this book.

The first note, which was printed on the first page of this text, read 泉州陳晉接追薦亡室孺人葉氏捨四片, which I tentatively translate as "Chen Jinjie 陳晉接 of Quanzhou 泉州, as a donation on behalf of his late wife, the lady Madame Ye 葉氏, offers four pian."  My lucky streak continued: I visited the China Biographical Database (CBDB) and entered in the name Chen Jinjie, and discovered that Chen Jinjie was in fact a minor official and thus there existed some historical information about him.  Following the information given in the CBDB record, I was able to look him up in a biographical dictionary of Song dynasty figures, which provided references for two local gazeteers that made mention of Chen.  As both of these gazeteers had been digitized and were available through the Chinese Text Project, I was able to find them fairly easily.  From these materials, I learned that Chen Jinjie was originally from Yongchun 永春 in Quanzhou prefecture, Fujian province.  He passed the civil service exam and earned his jinshi 進士 degree in 1232, after which he held a few different positions in the Zhedong 浙東 circuit (near Shaoxing in present-day Zhejiang Province).  Thus, the woodblocks for this printing must have been carved sometime in the mid-thirteenth century. 

It is unclear what exactly Mr. Chen had donated - pian 片 is a measure word that refers generally to items that are long and flat.  When initially translating the inscription I thought that it could refer to "sheets" of paper, but four sheets of paper seemed like a rather meager donation.  Moreover, since the acknowledgment appears to have been carved into the woodblock, it must have been made prior to the actual printing.  After some consideration and consultation with other specialists, I decided that it more likely refers to the woodblocks themselves (or possibly the wood from which the blocks were cut). 

I also noticed an interesting and touching connection between the donation and the contents of this text.  The Buddhist sūtra of which this particular volume is just one short fascicle, the Great Jewel Heap Discourse (Da baoji jing 大寶積經, Mahāratnakūṭa-sūtra), is a composite text that includes a number of Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures, many of which also circulated separately.  The particular fascicle which Chen Jinjie donated resources to help print contains a brief but very well known scripture called the Discourse on the Lion's Roar of Queen Śrīmālā (Śrīmālādevī-siṃha-nāda-sūtra), which has been translated and studied by the Buddhologist Diana Paul.  It is one of the few Indic Buddhist scriptures in which the central character is a woman.  Queen Śrīmālā, the eponymous protagonist of this text, is the virtuous ruler of the kingdom of Ayodhyā who, upon hearing about the Buddhist teachings from her parents King Prasenajit and Queen Mallikā, both patrons of the Buddha Śākyamuni, immediately engenders great faith and has a vision of the Buddha, who confers upon her a prediction that after many lifetimes of devoted practice she will attain Buddhahood.  The remainder of the text consists of a series of sermons that the queen preaches on behalf of the Buddha, who occasionally interjects to question her further or confirm the veracity of her teachings.  At the end, all those who hear her speak are moved to convert to Buddhism, and the Buddha describes the great merit that will come from studying, copying, and disseminating these teachings.  Because this is one of the few Buddhist scriptures in which a woman plays a central role, not only demonstrating a high degree of understanding of the particularly complex Buddhist doctrines presented in these teachings but also teaching these doctrines on behalf of the Buddha and receiving a prediction of her own future enlightenment, it seems particularly fitting and poignant that Chen Jinjie should have chosen this text to dedicate to the memory of his late wife, who we might surmise was herself a devout Buddhist laywomen. 

The second note is a little less obvious and can be found in the accordion fold between two pages in the middle of the text.  It reads: 福建路安撫趙大卿俸賓捨刊換, which I tentatively translate as "Zhao Daqing 趙大卿, Military Commissioner 安撫 of the Fujian circuit, has respectfully made offerings for printing expenses."  Despite holding what would seem to be a fairly high-level position as a military commissioner, I could not find any specific biographical information on Zhao Daqing (also known as Zhao Songhe 趙松壑), although he is mentioned in passing in several Song sources.  In particular, he appears within two Chan Buddhist "discourse records" (yulu 語錄), the Discourse Record of the Monk Xishou (Xishou heshang yulu 希叟和尚語錄) and the Discourse Record of the Monk Xiyan (Xiyan heshang yulu 西巖和尚語錄), associated with the monks Xishou Shaotan 希叟紹曇 (fl. 1254) and Xiyan Liaohui 西巖了慧 (1198-1262), both of whom were active in Southern China during the mid-13th century.  In both texts, he appears as a visitor who has a brief conversation with the monks, suggesting that he was involved to some extent in the local Buddhist community.

Other donors mentioned in shorter notes include Zeng E 曾噩 (1166 - 1226), an official from the Guangdong Transport Commission 廣東運使寺正, and Shi Bohou 史伯垕, an Administrative Assistant from Tingzhou 汀州判官 who was active during the Jiading 嘉定 period (1206 - 1224) and is mentioned in gazetteers from Tingzhou and Min, both regions in Fujian province.

Thus, on the basis of this evidence, I think that it is safe to suggest that the blocks for this book were carved somewhere in the Fujian area in the early to mid-thirteenth century.  Presumably, the book itself was also printed around this time.  Much more research remains to be done on this rare item - I was not able to fully investigate the backgrounds of all the individuals mentioned above, and there may be additional donor notes that I missed, so it is possible that by further researching the backgrounds and life histories of these individuals, one would be able to figure out when they might have all been in the same region around the same time.  This would allow us to better fix the printing date and possibly also determine where the woodblocks were carved - possibly under the auspices of a monastery that was frequented or patronized by all of these local officials.  Because there are so many known individuals associated with this printing, about whom further information can be found in sources such as local gazetteers and official histories, a project such as this would be well suited for the application of a digital humanities methodology such as social network mapping.  Interested researchers can view this item in the Field Reading Room at Green Library Special Collections by requesting it through Searchworks.

Update: A colleague informed me that there is a short article on this item in the Chinese-language work Meiguo Sitanfu daxue tushuguan zang zhongwen guji shanben shuzhi 美國斯坦福大學圖書館藏中文古籍善本書志 (A Descriptive Catalog of Chinese Rare Books in the Stanford University Libraries), p. 142-144.  The author of that piece, Ma Yuehua 馬月華, identifies this work as possibly belonging to the Chongning zang 崇寧藏 edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon, which was first printed in 1103 but continued to be reprinted through the Yuan dynasty.