Research Roundtable: East Asian Manuscript and Print as Harbingers of the Digital Future

Sponsored by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies together with the  Mount Kuaiji Buddhist Association, the UBC Department of Asian Studies, Centre for Japanese Research, St. John’s College, Library, and Asian Library.



This roundtable examines ways in which the transition from manuscript to print and the development of a range of technologies and reading techniques in premodern Asia may inform our understanding of the current global transition from print to digital media. We will focus on transformations in the culture of writing and reading in East Asia as a “distant mirror” (in the words of the European medievalist Barbara Tuchman) to reflect on current developments in the digital humanities and our changing relationships to texts.

The roundtable takes place at a time when digital media is transforming our daily lives while also shifting the terrain of East Asia Studies. Today, as education moves toward online platforms and newspapers are replaced by blogs, we are experiencing a change not unlike the one faced by our counterparts in medieval East Asia when print took hold amid a strong and enduring culture of manuscripts. Lacking a central authority, today we produce, edit, and distribute online texts that in their fluidity recall the hand-copied productions of our predecessors. At the same time, the printed book, particularly the printed codex, presaged some fundamental revolutions brought about by the internet-based “hypermedia”: an expandable network of sharing and distributing information stored in and transmitted through a specific medium.

The invention of print technology in seventh to eighth-century China and its gradual emergence in other parts of the world brought new access to texts and reading practices, while manuscripts continued to be an important medium of transmission in East Asian religion, art, and literature. The challenges brought by new and competing technologies in medieval Asia can be paralleled with current concerns about the place of digital media in our lives. The explosion of electronic technology has given rise to anxieties—about, for example, the ways genuine “learning” is to be understood in the internet age and pre-existing media of knowledge (such as books) are received—that are not so different from the ones confronted with the emergence of printing in East Asia.

Although the histories of manuscript and print technologies in China, Korea, and Japan have much to teach us, no scholarly effort has yet been made to consider the impact of manuscript and print cultures in East Asia and how such examples may act as harbingers for developments in the digital age. We will build on the work of cultural historians, researchers of religious history, art historians, and literary scholars in considering the larger implications of East Asian historical reading and writing practices on our understanding of the present. The focus on writing and material culture complements new work being done on script in Asia and the spread of classical Chinese (or Literary Sinitic) as a shared language within premodern East Asian religious and literary cultures.

While considering reading, writing, and media today alongside Asian traditions of the past, we will also look ahead toward ways of preserving and transmitting the past, including demonstrations of digitization in the fields of education, library studies, journalism, history, literature, and religion. The roundtable brings scholars, writers, curators, and librarians, into conversation to examine an array of approaches and technologies. Examples from UBC’s own holdings, including the publicly accessible and digitized Tokugawa Maps Collection, as well as the recently completed One Hundred Poets Digital Collection, will also be highlighted. In addition to enabling knowledge sharing, the panels, lectures, and discussions will lead to a publication of edited essays, and will be preceded by events co-organized with the Centre for Japanese Research, Department of Asian Studies, UBC Buddhist Studies Form, and the Buddhism and Contemporary Society program.



This roundtable is structured as a series of panels and discussions that will bring together scholars from different disciplines and geographical regions to consider the role of manuscript and print technologies in East Asian societies. We will focus on aspects that can be applied to our current shift toward digitization, based on the techniques adopted in East Asia during the introduction of print and the enduring role of manuscripts in the fields of religion, art, and literature.

Each panel is designed to provide solutions from across disciplines to questions that shed light on past practices and future approaches. The opening lecture will help frame the larger questions approached by the roundtable while offering a concrete case study in the form of the Dunhuang corpus. Panel 1 considers what the relationship between manuscript and print in East Asia reveals about technological transformations and written culture. Panel 2 asks why the manuscript remained a tenacious presence in Asia after the introduction of print culture. Panel 3 examines the role of manuscripts in the history of art and religion in East Asia. Panel 4 draws from the expertise of librarians, artists, and writers to consider how new technologies have impacted the ways in which we preserve the past, document the present, and shape the future. Panel 5 asks how readers and audiences have shifted over time in China, Korea, and Japan. Our final discussion considers the presentations and discussions fostered over the course of the roundtable and encourages us all to consider the ways in which past cultural practices may inform the application of technology in the fields of art, religion, journalism, and public policy.



Preceding Events


Friday, February 5                 Japanese Rare Books Workshop   

Lillooet and Dodson rooms (IK Barber Learning Centre)

10:00 am – 4:00 pm    Workshop led by Sasaki Takahiro (aimed at graduate students, curators,

                                          librarians, faculty, and others interested in the history of Japanese books)


Wednesday, March 16 Exhibition opening

Asian Centre Lobby (1871 West Mall)

5:00 pm                       “MEM: memory • memorial no.11 scriptorium” Book Art Installation by Naomi Kasumi



Thursday, May 26

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Seminar Room 307 (6331 Crescent Road)

5:30 – 6:00 pm                        Welcome refreshments


6:00 – 6:30 pm                        Opening lecture by Stephen F. Teiser (Princeton University), “The Beginning

                                                     and End of Dunhuang Manuscripts”


6:30 – 7:30 pm                        Discussion and Dinner


Friday, May 27

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Seminar Room 307 (6331 Crescent Road)

9:00 am – 9:10 am        Welcome from organizers Jinhua Chen (UBC) and Christina Laffin (UBC)


9:10 am – 10:40 am     Panel 1           

Technological Transformation and Written Culture Seen through the Manuscript-Print Relationship in East Asia

Discussant: TBD

Barend ter Haar (University of Oxford), “Manuscript Variation as a Sign of Oral Tradition?: The Case of the                   Scripture of the Five Lords

Ross King (UBC), “From Manuscript to Print and Back Again: The Advent of Printed Vernacular Exegeses of Buddhist Texts and their Impact on Korean Reading and Glossing Practices”

Mickey Adolphson (University of Alberta), “Document Cultures in Medieval Japan”


10:40 am – 10:50 pm  Coffee Break


10:50 am –12:20 pm   Panel 2           

The Tenacity of the Manuscript in the Age of Print

Discussant: Stephen F. Teiser (Princeton University)

Bruce Rusk (UBC), “Aspects of Manuscript Culture in an Age of Print”

Yong Wang (Gongshang University of Zhejiang & Fudan University), “From Manuscripts to Printed Texts: Several Possibilities”

Sinae Park (Harvard University), “From Manuscript to Print: Yadam Narratives at the Turn of the Twentieth-century Korea”
12:20 pm – 1:30 pm    Lunch


1:30 pm – 3:00 pm      Visit to Rare Books and Special Collection/Museum of Anthropology   


3:00 – 5:00 pm                        Public Colloquium

CK Choi 120 (1855 West Mall)

Moderated by Christina Laffin (UBC)

(1) Peter Kornicki (University of Cambridge), “‘Though an Angel Should Write, Still ’tis Devils Must Print’: The Long life of Manuscript Culture in East Asia”

(2) Lewis Lancaster (University of California, Berkeley), “Two Epochs of Communication: Manuscript and Digital Imaging”


5:00 – 6:00 pm                        Reception and refreshments


6:30 pm – 8:30 pm      Dinner


Saturday, May 28

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Seminar Room 307 (6331 Crescent Road)

9:00 am – 10:45 am     Panel 3           

The Role of Manuscripts in East Asian Art and Religion

Discussant: Jinhua Chen (UBC)

Michael Friedrich (University of Hamburg), “What Can Manuscript Studies Contribute to the Study of East Asian Religions?”

Eugene Wang (Harvard University), “Mawangdui Manuscripts: What Do They Teach Us About Art?”

James Robson (Harvard University), “The Persistence of the Pen: Handwritten Manuscripts in the Print and Digital Age”

Fuyubi Nakamura (UBC), “The Infinite Possibility of Words: Contemporary Art from Asia”


10:45 am – 11:00 am   Coffee Break


11:00 am – 12:30 am   Panel 4           

Digitization, Preservation, and the Impact of New Technologies

Discussant: Katherine Kalsbeek (Acting Head, Rare Books and Special Collections, UBC)

Saeko Suzuki (Tateuchi Cataloger for Japanese Retrospective Conversion, University of Washington), “Practices and Issues in the Digitization of Japanese Premodern Materials in Academic Libraries”

Naomi Kasumi (artist; Seattle University), “The Handwritten and Printed Word in a Digital Age: Book as Art & Art as Book, an intimate relationship with hand-held objects”

Michael Bourne (poet and freelance writer): “Shifting Technologies and Local News Coverage”


12:30 pm – 1:30 pm    Lunch


1:30 pm – 3:00 pm      Panel 5           

The Evolution of Readers/Practitioners, and Reading Practices in East Asia

Discussant: Ross King (UBC)

Imre Galambos (University of Cambridge), “Writing Texts by Dictation: The Oral Aspect of Dunhuang Manuscripts”

Mimi Yiengpruksawan (Yale University): “Canons and Cults: The Chinese Tripitaka in Heian Japan”

Zhan Ru (Peking University), “Between Dunhuang and Chang’an: The Ximing Monastery Viewed through the Perspective of Manuscript Culture”


3:00 pm – 3:15 pm      Refreshments


3:15 am – 4:45 pm      Discussion     

Past Cultural Practices as “Distant Mirrors”: Envisioning Our Digitized Futures

Moderated by Jessica Main (UBC)


4:45-5:00                     Closing remarks from Jinhua Chen and Christina Laffin (UBC)


5:00 – 6:30 pm                        Tour downtown and Stanley Park


6:30 – 8:30 pm                        Farewell dinner