Printing and Religion in China: Some Evidence from the Taishang Ganying Pian

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Taylor & Francis


The oldest extant edition of the well-known morality book, the Taishang ganying pian [Treatise of the Most High on Action and Retribution, hereafter Treatise] dates from the 11th century. Numerous editions have succeeded that one, variously packaging the short tract with prefaces, instructions, miracle tales, and ledgers of merits and demerits. Taken together, this succession of editions forms a coherent textual lineage, thin in some periods but thick in others, spanning centuries of significant religious changes, including the impact of print technology on religious literature. For this reason alone, the Treatise can offer some interesting evidence for the distinctive interaction of religion and printing technology in China. While morality books (shanshu) in general are certainly among the most valuable genres for exploring this issue more fully, the Treatise itself provides something of a bird's eye with which we might establish some preliminary and tentative orientations. This is the spirit of the argument that follows. The main virtues of its conclusions are that they are eminently testable against other sources of evidence, and they attempt to focus an argument that has lain unformulated in many discussion of printing, literacy and religion.