Buddhism, which became a state religion in China during the Sui dynasty (589–618), teaches that commissioning and reproducing sacred texts and images is a way to receive blessings and accumulate merits. Consequently, the faith was a driving force in the early development of Chinese printing. As the inaccurate transcription of sacred texts and images might reduce their efficacy, printing assured a safer way of reproduction than hand copying. It helped not only to spread Buddhism but also to standardize the canon.
All the prints in this section of the exhibition were discovered in a Buddhist cave temple near the oasis town of Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Datable to the late seventh through the tenth century, they document the technical progress that occurred during the first stage of woodblock printing. While the earliest works—multiple impressions of the same Buddha image—appear crude and stiff, later figural representations and texts closely resemble the fluidity of actual paintings and calligraphies, also on view in this section of the exhibition.
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes linking China and West Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Merchants, Buddhist pilgrims, and other travelers would have stopped at Dunhuang to rest, trade goods, give thanks for survival, and pray for their journey ahead.