Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Largest, Heaviest Book Volume 49 Number 3, May/June 1996
by Arlette P. Kouwenhoven

A German China specialist has brought to light the largest and heaviest book in the world, nearly 14,300 stone tablets inscribed with Buddhist scriptures found in caves near the Yunju monastery, 15 miles south of Zhoukoudian in Beijing Province. Though known to a small group of monks at the monastery, the tablets were unknown in the West because they had been hidden in the caves for centuries.

Sixteen thousand monks took more than 1,000 years to chisel some 35 million Chinese characters into the tablets, which include not only Buddhist scriptures but also extensive commentaries. The tablets, inscribed on both sides, range in size from two by one and one-half feet to eight by two feet.

A monk named Jingwan began the book in A.D. 605 in an effort to preserve Buddhist scriptures in the wake of book burnings and persecutions. Sixteen successive generations of monks continued his work until 1644. The smaller tablets were kept in caves under the southern pagoda of the monastery, while the monks dragged the larger ones uphill and hid them in nine caves that were cut into a steep cliff 1,200 feet above sea level. In 1942 an invading Japanese army destroyed the Yunju monastery and carried off several of the small tablets. After the war the monastery was rebuilt, and the remaining smaller tablets were stored in a shed near the monks' quarters. The larger tablets remained unknown to the West until Josef Guter, director of the Volkshogeschool in Bremen, Germany, was allowed to visit the caves. Convinced that the book is a valuable resource showing the evolution and history of Buddhism in China, Guter is now trying to get it included on UNESCO's world heritage list and made available for public viewing.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America