Notes on Printing Press and Pali Literature in Burma
AbstractBeginning with a general reflection on the meaning of “printing revolution”, this paper offers a series of meditations about the role of printing culture in Buddhist Burma. In China and in Tibet, an indigenous printing tradition based on woodblock printing developed over the centuries, much earlier than in Europe. A similar technology, however, was also used in pre-Gutenberg Europe for printing the so-called “Bibles for the poor” (Biblia pauperum). I argue that we should differentiate the Gutenberg printing press from other reprographic means, even movable types. Burma has an almost uninterrupted history of relationships with China. Notwithstanding this vicinity, Burma has not developed any kind of reprographic technology. Manuscript culture, on the contrary, has been intensively cultivated at least since the Pagan period, 11th-13th centuries C.E. To judge from epigraphic records, the production of written texts in medieval Burma was extremely costly, for it demanded a great quantity of human labor. The profession of scribe was well known and well appreciated. Monasteries were usually endowed with scribes who would care for the replenishment of the library. The writing tradition was not static. It gained in strength over the centuries. And at the time of British annexation, literacy rates in Burma were higher than in England –without any intervention of the printing press. Even in modern times, two hundred years after the introduction of printing technology in Burma, the name for “literature” in Burmese continues to be “palm-leaf text” (sa-pe) and the manuscript imaginaire is still deeply related to Buddhism. The aim of this paper is to problematize printing culture from a particular, local perspective, and link it to the nature of its preceding manuscript tradition.
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