The Woman Who Discovered Printing, by TH Barrett

Did a Buddhist bestseller launch the age of print?
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The Independent Culture

Clever writers know how to add perspective to their narratives, much the same way good draughtsmen create depth to their drawings. TH Barrett is a clever writer. At the beginning of The Woman Who Discovered Printing, a study of what may have been the pivotal role of the Tang dynasty Empress Wu in the early development of printing in China, Barrett boldly depicts the Venerable Bede (a contemporary of Wu) having an imagined dream in his Jarrow monastery. The ecclesiastical historian sees a Chinese monk bowing before the Empress with a printed Buddhist text in his hand. Wu is embedded in the grandeur of her palace, and the inference is that the text has been commissioned by her.

By juxtaposing two figures (Bede and Wu) who cannot conceivably have had a clue as to each other's existence, Barrett highlights the effulgence of Tang China, contrasted to a backward Anglo-Saxon England (and by extension, Europe). Equally, the same conceit enables him to underscore the religious context of the story he tells.

Wu Zetian was the only woman who ruled over the Chinese empire in her own name, following the death of her husband Gaozong in 683. She endeavoured to supplant the Tang Li dynasty with her own. Eventually obliged to abdicate in 705, she has received a bad press ever since. Chauvinist Tang chroniclers demonised her as wantonly cruel. Her female rivals were horribly dispatched – mutilated, chopped into pieces, and thrown into the Yellow River or a vat of wine.

Other sources bespeak a more complex character. While there is little doubting the gruesomeness of her vendettas, the "Sage Mother" sought solace in religion while using it to enhance her power-base with Machiavellian statecraft. Cashing in on the enthusiasm for Buddhism in 7th-century China, she propagated a version of "wheel-turning" kingship derived from the Indian Buddhist ruler, Ashoka. This "Chakravartin" kingship was at odds with a Daoist theory of legitimacy promulgated by the Li. Barrett postulates that, as a last throw of the dice, Wu ordered 100,000 copies of the "Great Spell of Unsullied Pure Light" printed and distributed.

The fly in the ointment is that not one copy has survived - otherwise the proven "invention" of printing in China could be taken back by a century and more. But for Barrett that is no deterrent. The restored Tang would have destroyed every copy they could lay hands on. They would have distrusted printing as uncomfortably demotic and, with whole armies of copyists available, the tried-and-tested method of creating documents with pen, ink and paper stood them in good stead.

Why sanction a new technology that threatened to undermine their power? And why – shades of Tibet here – encourage a religion that went against the grain of imperial tradition, whether Daoist or Confucian? In a sense, the want of clinching evidence is neither here nor there. As Barrett says, his conclusions are speculative, and likely to remain so for a while. The real thrust of his beautifully compact but formidably well-researched book lies in its thoughtful investigation of Wu and her milieu. Indeed, so literate is The Woman Who Discovered Printing that it belongs immediately to that fine tradition of English writing about China initiated by Arthur Waley.

Justin Wintle's biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, 'Perfect Hostage', is published by Arrow