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Book Review 119 Journal of Chinese Religions 36 (2008) The Woman Who Discovered Printing T. H. BARRETT. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008. xiv, 176 pages. ISBN 978-0-300-12728-7. US$25.00 hardcover. The extent to which China could once boast the world’s foremost culture of books has in recent years become increasingly apparent, as scholars have built on the pioneering work of Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien (Written on Bamboo and Silk),1 vastly expanding our knowledge of the history of printing and the book trade, especially for late imperial and early modern China.2 The Woman Who Discovered Printing is an ambitious foray into the first two centuries of printing in China, the seventh and eighth centuries, in search of the elusive first spark that made the subsequent history of printing possible. At the heart of this book is a story, rich in personal psychology and happenstance, pieced together from scattered passages in a variety of sources, that leads us ultimately to the woman in the book’s title: Empress Wu (Wu Zetian 武 則天). The story runs as follows: in the seventh century, Empress Wu, familiar with stamps on paper used for administrative purposes in the Tang court, and troubled by the appalling acts of violence she had employed to secure power, determined to make up for her past actions by distributing hundreds of thousands of small stupas, each containing a spell printed on paper. Though she died before completing the project, the eminent monk and eventual patriarch of Huayan 華嚴 Buddhism, Fazang 法藏—himself wracked by guilt at having betrayed his former patron Empress Wu when she fell from favor—carried out this project after her death, in this way demonstrating the value of wood-block printing and inspiring the development of printing in the centuries that followed. The evidence for each of the elements of this account is scant: Did the Empress in fact feel remorse at the murders she ordered in her ascent to power? One recently uncovered text suggests the possibility, but it is formulaic rather than specific—a general “confession” for any bad karma she might have picked up along the way rather than a genuine expression of guilt for particular acts. Did Fazang really betray her, and, more importantly, did he in fact carry out her vow to print hundreds of thousands of spells on her behalf? No printed spells or miniature stupas from the project have been found and identified as such. Nor is there a clear link between these supposed events and the later history of printing. In short, it is far from 1 Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). 2 For instance, Lucille Chia, Printing for Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th -17th Centuries) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Print Capitalism 1876-1937 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004); Cynthia J. Brokaw and Kai-wing Chow, eds., Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Joseph P. McDermott, A Social History of the Chinese Book. Books and Literati Culture in Late Imperial China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006); and Cynthia J. Brokaw, The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). 120 Journal of Chinese Religions certain that Empress Wu was in fact the woman who invented printing. Barrett is well aware that his narrative is stitched together with speculation, and argues, reasonably, that just this sort of informed speculation is necessary if our understanding of the murky early days of printing is to advance, at the same time lamenting, in the final pages of the book, the dearth of researchers in the field of the early history of Chinese printing who might prove or disprove his hypothesis. Barrett is equally aware that in the end no one person can be credited with “discovering” printing. After all, the idea of seals goes back to very early times in Chinese history. And in fact, much of the book is taken up with examining the evidence for forms of printing in the century before...