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The history of Tibetan printing

An EU team traced the evolution of Tibetan book printing technologies and social effects. The study showed establishment of certain texts as standard authorities and recognised individual artists and the text styles of particular printing houses.
The history of Tibetan printing
New digital technologies have expanded the definition of books. Such developments also raise questions of whether a book is its content alone and the cultural impact of books in relation to media innovation.

The EU-funded TIBET (Tibetan book evolution and technology) project explored such issues with regard to Tibet. The multidisciplinary study employed new methods to examine 15th and 16th century prints from south-western Tibet. The work aimed to trace innovations in Tibetan book printing technologies, while placing such improvements in the context of that country and broader social changes of the period.

In collaboration with various experts, the project researcher examined Tibetan prints in terms of their production and use. Work addressed the historical introduction and spread of xylographic (woodcut) techniques.

Results indicate that printing seems not to have transformed Tibetan culture as in Europe. Yet, its introduction did contribute to language fixation and establish certain texts as classics, leading to solidification of a set of new conventions and standards. Such new authority aided the political rise of certain religious schools and literate forms of Buddhism. The study concluded that Tibetan printing of the period was more complex than previously believed.

Researchers correlated observable print style features to determine the origins of woodcut prints lacking explicit origin information. The stage excluded ductus as identifying features, being too complex and variable. Results show that text style features were probably more indicative of printing houses than particular artists.

Nevertheless, woodcut illustrations may enable separation of individuals. The team identified nine painters who worked on 16th century prints and prepared biographical information on each. Eight woodcut carvers who worked on the same prints were also identified and seem to have slightly influenced painters' styles. Researchers proposed the existence of a general iconic language, which complicates identification of individual artists. Particular iconic elements were identified.

So far the Project identified the provenance and dating of 65 prints thanks to information extracted from colophons, characteristic features and artists involved in the production. The provenance and dating of further xylographs can be traced by using the proposed identifying features as well as the biographical information prepared by the Project on several artists, sponsors, masters and other people involved in printing projects (so far over 200 entries).

The project participated in Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas exhibit about Buddhist books. The associated talks and workshops helped researchers reach a non-academic audience.

TIBET refined knowledge of Tibetan printing. In addition, the consortium repatriated digital versions of certain Tibetan texts that had been lost, thereby also smoothing relations with China and neighbouring countries.

Related information


Tibet, book printing, text styles, layout, book evolution, woodcut, block printing
Record Number: 180977 / Last updated on: 2016-04-06
Domain: Industrial Technologies
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