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Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads

Book Pages: Writing

The story of books is often told as a story of steady progress: at first, books are  laboriously written by hand, and then handwriting is replaced by the speedier technology of print.  Yet along the Silk Roads, multiple text technologies flourished at the same time: handwriting; woodblock printing; moveable type. And print does not replace handwriting. Instead, the two text technologies coexist. They serve different functions in different places.


Books and documents written by hand are called manuscripts. These hand-made artifacts may be written on paper made from cloth rags, on palm leaves, on parchment made from animal skins, on birchbark, papyrus, and other substrates. Along the Silk Roads, people often used what was available to them: palm leaves, for instance, were common in Southeast Asia, but would not be used in Central Asia (Jinah Kim, "Painted Palm-Leaf Manuscripts and the Art of the Book in Medieval South Asia," Archives of Asian Art 65 (2015): 57-86).

Handwritten items could range from utilitarian documents to beautiful works of art made from letters. Calligraphic books like this Qur’an from China would be highly valued.

Qur'an Anthology, China, second half of the 18th century, Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper, AKM824

Qur'an Anthology, China, second half of the 18th century.  Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper. AKM824.

Scribes at Work

This sixteenth-century image of a scribal workshop, below, shows many of the technologies of writing by hand in action.  The image comes from a late 16th-century manuscript on Ethics by author Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274) and includes the name of the manuscript painter, Sanju. The artist has chosen to illustrate his own arduous working conditions, depicting a manuscript workshop much like the one where he must have operated, in a Mughal court in Lahore.

At the centre of the image, right, sits the master craftsman, wearing a brown tunic and green shaw. He is depicted as the largest of all the figures to show his authority. He is correcting and instructing a young apprentice, dressed in gold. The apprentice holds a page from a manuscript on a board balanced on his knee. Notice the tools: watercolours in shells, a rectangular pencase, and inks arranged on the ground. Additional members of the workshop toil on other parts of the manuscript production process. Scribes and painters seated in the center copy out text and paintings on fresh pages. Next to the bubbling fountain inside a walled garden, a craftsman burnishes paper by rubbing it vigorously against a board with a smooth stone to create a polished and smooth writing surface. His fellow craftsman, wearing an orange tunic, rubs his wrists and waits his turn to continue the work.

In any language, scribes could choose from various letterforms, depending on the status, content, and quality of their writing. Scribes writing Arabic letters might employ a variety of different scripts and calligraphic forms (Sheila Blair, Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)). One of the most common forms of script, naskhī, developed in the tenth-century in present-day Iran. Naskhī is a cursive script that emphasizes horizontal lines and is used for a variety of purposes, from writing the Qur'an to business documents. Ghubar script, literally meaning "dust," is the smallest of scripts, using letters that are just a couple of millimeters high. Such miniature writing required scribes of the highest skill (Sheila Blair, Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)).

Scribes' Instruments

Beautiful instruments were essential to beautiful writing--as the elegant execution of these scribes' instruments from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Turkey demonstrates below.

These Ottoman tools of the scribe include three pairs of steel scissors and a steel rule inlaid with gold; a silver and gilt pen box and inkwell; two pen rests, one in ivory and the other of gold inlaid steel; a gold inlaid steel pen; a cylindrical holder painted with floral sprays; two inkwells, one brass and the other silver with a turquoise stud; and a silver and gilt pot.

Scissors might be used to re-cut dull pen nibs, or refashion a writing surface. Later steel pens gave scribes reusable tools.  Pen rests were useful for conveniently putting a pen aside without dripping ink. Scribes across the Silk Roads used black ink made from gallnuts, produced by insect nests in trees, mixed with metals (Gerald W.R. Ward, ed., “Ink,” in The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 279–85). This liquid ink would be stored and transported in inkwells, like the ones above.

Lavishly decorated with precious metal inlays or painted designs under varnish, these exquisite tools connect us to scribes and bookmakers of the past.

Woodblock Printing

While each manuscript book is made individually, printing offers book producers a way of producing many books more rapidly. Woodblock printing, the earliest type of printing, first emerged in China in the eighth century. It was, and remains, most popular in East Asia, especially in China and Japan. In particular, Buddhist texts were often printed with woodblocks ("The Invention of Woodblock Printing in the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties," Asian Art Museum,  The earliest surviving woodblock print, currently at the British Library, dates from 868 ("Printed Copy of the Diamond Sutra," The British Library,

Prayer Sheet, China, Dunhuang, 15th day of 7th month / 4 August 947 CE, Woodblock print on paper, On loan from the Royal Ontario Museum, 927.24

Woodblock print on paper:  Prayer Sheet, China, Dunhuang. 15th day of 7th month / 4 August 947 CE. Royal Ontario Museum, 927.24

To make a woodblock print, a printer would first create the design on paper and transfer the design to transparent paper. The transparent paper was laid over a piece of flat, hard wood like cherry, and the design was transferred in reverse to the wood. The printer would then carve the design in the wood. Only the lines that were to be printed in the final impression would be raised; all blank space, from the background to the details of an individual character, would be carved away with a chisel or knife. Next, the printer would coat the surface of the woodblock with ink with a brush. Paper was laid over the inked block, and the printer applied pressure using a smooth, hand-held tool called a baren to help the ink transfer from block to paper. Once peeled away, the reversed image on the block would appear in the correct orientation on the paper (Laura Boswell, Making Japanese Woodblock Prints (Ramsbury, Wiltshire: Crowood Press, 2020)).

Watch the process of printing from a woodblock, as Keizaburo Matsuzaki demonstrates Ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2011).

While early printers only used black, as in the Dunhuang leaf above, later prints might use a variety of colors, as in the leaf from an eighteenth-century Japanese illustrated book, below. In such colorful prints, a separate block was carved for each color (Richard Lane, Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); Margarete Miller Kanada, Color Woodblock Printmaking: The Traditional Method of Ukiyo-e (Tokyo: Shufunotomo, 1989)).

Woodblock Print from an Illustrated Book, Japan, 1720 - 50, Woodblock print on paper, On loan from the Royal Ontario Museum, 916.9.102

Woodblock Print from an Illustrated Book:  Japan, 1720 - 50, Royal Ontario Museum, 916.9.102

Prints allowed craftsmen to combine words and images. While scribes and painters usually performed separate jobs to create handwritten and illustrated manuscripts, the same carver might print an illustrated book with words. Different woodblocks could also be combined, to mix words and images. One of the major benefits of woodblock printing was the ability of book producers to create many pages using one woodblock; books made of printed pages could be mass produced and distributed to a wider audience. A different block would have to be carved for each page of a woodblock-printed book. Additionally, the same block could be used thousands of times over multiple generations. Blocks could be changed over time, perhaps to fix mistakes. Because printers might reuse older blocks and because prints lack some of the datable features of manuscripts, it can be difficult to determine exact dates for certain printed objects.

Moveable Type

In woodblock printing, most components of a sheet are carved and printed together as a single image. Moveable type, by contrast, allowed printers to create texts out of reusable pieces that convey letters, characters, and images that could be recombined for different pages, texts, and books.

"Type" refers to the 3D shape representing an individual character or letter. Such pieces of type can be arranged and rearranged to create whole texts.

Early forms of printing with pieces of type likely originated in China in the eleventh century (Arthur W. Hummel, “Movable Type Printing in China: A Brief Survey,” Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 1 (1944): 18–24; Jixing Pan, “On the Origin of Movable Metal-Type Technique,” Chinese Science Bulletin 43 (1998): 1681–92).

This early type was made out of pieces of clay and was fragile. By the early thirteenth century, printers in the Goryeo dynasty in Korea had developed moveable type made out of metal, drawing on earlier Chinese innovations. Some scholars claim that the earliest surviving book made with moveable type dates to 1103 from the Tangut kingdom in present-day northwestern China (Imre Galambos, “Manuscript and Print in the Tangut State: The Case of the Sunzi” Tibetan Printing: Comparison, Continuities, and Change, ed. Hildegard Diemberger, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, and Peter Kornicki (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 135–52.). Others claim that the oldest extant book is the Baegun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeo (The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings), made in 1377 in Korea. Whichever is the oldest, it is clear that printing with type had spread around East Asia many centuries before it reached Europe. By 1392, the Korean government established an office to regulate publication and the creation of type, making printing with moveable type a national institution (Cheong Early Printing Museum, Early Printing Culture of Korea (Cheongju City: Cheongju Early Printing Museum, 2004)).

Because it was faster than xylography, printing with moveable type could be used to produce longer works at a larger scale. The technology soon moved westward: by 1493, printers had established business in the Ottoman Empire.

Early printers experimented with type made from different materials such as wood and ceramics. However, metal type proved to be the most durable and efficient. Bronze was commonly used, drawing on methods used to make coins and small statues. Metal was better able to withstand the repeated ink and pressure applied to pieces of type. To create metal type, individual characters would be cast. Next, these would be arranged in a frame, coated with ink, and pressed to sheets of paper. The characters could be rearranged in different orders to create the text for a new page. Unlike later European printing, early printers in China and Korea did not use mechanical presses.

"The pen is a key that opens the door to the necessities of life," writes Iranian poet Jami (d. 1492) in his poem Subhat al-abrar (The Rosary of the Righteous). Along the Silk Roads, our books testify to the many doors to the necessities of life--humble doors to majestic gateways--opened by the pens of scribes, the woodblocks and moveable types of printers, the instruments wielded by artisans of the book across centuries.

Works Cited

The Asian Art Museum. "The Invention of Woodblock Printing in the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties."

Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Boswell, Laura. Making Japanese Woodblock Prints. Ramsbury, Wiltshire: Crowood Press, 2020.

The British Library. "Printed Copy of the Diamond Sutra."

Cheong Early Printing Museum. Early Printing Culture of Korea. Cheongju City: Cheongju Early Printing Museum, 2004.

Doyle, Kathleen and Patricia Lovett. “How to make a medieval manuscript.” British Library.

Galambos, Imre. “Manuscript and Print in the Tangut State: The Case of the Sunzi.” Tibetan Printing: Comparison, Continuities, and Change, ed. Hildegard Diemberger, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, and Peter Kornicki. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 135–52.

IDP (International Dunhuang Project). and ).

Kim, Jinah. "Painted Palm-Leaf Manuscripts and the Art of the Book in Medieval South Asia," Archives of Asian Art 65 (2015): 57-86

Matsuzaki, Keizaburo.  "Ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking with Keizaburo Matsuzaki." Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2011.

Ward, Gerald W.R., ed. “Ink.” In The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 279–85.