What is the world’s oldest surviving printed document?

In October, 1966, the world’s oldest woodblock print was found in the Seokgatap pagoda of the Bulguksa temple in the Korean southern city of Gyeongju. It was the Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong, a Buddhist scripture printed in the early 8th century in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BC – AD 935). The scripture was found inside the pagoda during its restoration.

Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong is on a scroll that connected 12 pieces of 52cm by 6.7cm mulberry paper. Each line contains 7~9 characters printed with woodblocks. Its presumed date of printing is sometime before 751, when the pagoda was built. It is earlier than China’s Diamond Sutra (868) and Japan’s One Million Pagoda Dharani Sutra (776). How was Silla able to print the world’s oldest existing document?

Korea had a papermaking technology from early on. Around the 6th century, it had already produced paper from paper mulberry trees. Monk Damjing of Goguryeo delivered Goguryeo’s papermaking technology to Japan in the early 7th century. Silla’s mulberry paper was widely known to China for its excellent quality. Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong was also printed on mulberry paper. Silla’s papermaking technology was further developed by the later Korean kingdom of Goryeo (918 – 1392).

In the 34th year of King Munjong (1080), Goryeo officially exported 2,000 rolls of paper and 400 ink sticks to Song China. Song merchants also imported a lot of paper and ink sticks from Gogryeo. During Goryeo, Jikji was printed in 1377 at the Heungdeoksa temple in Cheongju. It is the world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type. Korea has many world-class documentary heritage items, including the Goryeo Daejanggyeong (Tripitaka Koreana) and the Joseon Wangjo Sillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty).