Stein, Aurel. Serindia. Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford (Clarendon Press) 1921. 
In the early 1900s, Wang Yuanlu, a Taoist priest acting as the self-appointed abbot of the Buddhist cave shrines at Dunhuang, made a startling discovery. A crack in one of the cave’s brilliantly painted frescoes had revealed a previously walled-up, locked door. Behind it lay a rock-cut chapel filled with thousands of ancient manuscripts, paintings and printed texts, undisturbed for more than 900 years. Among them lay the oldest dated example of a printed book known to exist.
Word of the abbot’s discovery made its way to the village and from there spread out along the ancient silk road trade routes connecting the desert outpost to locations in mainland China and India. One of the first Western scholars to catch wind of the discovery was Sir Aurel Stein, the eminent British archeologist and geographer of Hungarian birth who had recently gained renown for an earlier series of fruitful explorations within the region.
As he recounts in Serindia, the monumental scholarly report detailing the movements and discoveries of his second journey through the region between 1906-1908, enticing rumors of the freshly unearthed manuscript hoard reached his party as he was already underway toward Dunhuang (which he refers to throughout the text as ‘Tun-Huang’, consistent with the transliteration of his time) for a survey of its well-known cave frescoes and ancient Buddhist statuary.
Upon meeting Wang Yuanlu, Stein approached the topic of the manuscripts with great caution. He was deeply aware that the cave shrines, far from being forgotten ancient ruins, were very much still active holy sites of great importance to the local villagers.
As he explained to the Royal Geographic Society during a lecture delivered in March 1909:
“…it scarcely needed the experience of a great annual religious fair which drew the villagers and townspeople of the oasis by the thousands to the “Thousand Buddhas’ just about the time of my return, to make it clear to me that the cave temples, notwithstanding all apparent decay, were still real cult places “in being.”
To his great relief, Wang, though anxious at first that he not disturb or remove relics from the holy sites, proved amenable to persuasion through a mixture of good omens and cold, hard cash. With the assistance of Stein’s guide and interpreter, Chiang-ssŭ-yieh, the two discovered a mutual admiration for Hsüan-tsang (Xuan Tsang), the 7th-century Buddhist monk whose recorded travels had served as the basis for much of Stein’s interest in the region.
In light of their common spiritual patron, the trepidatious priest agreed to show them a handful of sample documents from the vault. By mere chance he struck upon a finely rendered Chinese Buddhist scroll, the colophon of which declared it to have been brought from India and translated by none other than Hsüan-tsang. “Was it not Hsüan-tsang himself,” so argued Chiang-ssŭ-yieh “who at the opportune moment revealed the hiding-place of that manuscript hoard in order to prepare it for [Stein], his disciple from distant India, a fitting most antiquarian reward on the western-most confines of China proper?”
Wang Yuanlu agreed that “the quasi-divine hint” entitled his visitors to a first-hand look at the temple library. Once inside, Stein reveled at the shear magnitude of the cache. Stacked before him, in a room of close to 500 cubic feet (upon subsequent measurement) was a solid block of manuscript bundles rising more than 10 feet. Ultimately, it yielded nearly 40,000 texts dating back from the fifth century to the tenth century, with examples of manuscripts in ancient Chinese, Tibetan, Uigher, Central-Asian Brahmi, Turkic and Syriac representing Buddhist, Taoist, Manichean, Nestorian and Judaic traditions.
The stash also contained a variety of silk banners and paintings, stunningly preserved in their entombment from damage by light, heat, moisture or insects.
In the end, Wang Yuanlu was willing to part with all but the most sacred Chinese canonical texts in exchange for approximately 220 pounds sterling in silver ingots. After paying the tribute, Stein was allowed to gather more than 24 cases of material for removal to the British Museum. Scholars have since determined that his take included an exceedingly old copy of the The Diamond Sutra in a 5th-century Chinese translation of the original Sanskrit Mahayan Buddhist text.
Dated on its colophon with the Chinese calendar date for May 11, 868, the document is now considered the oldest printed book to have survived fully intact to the present day. 1,142 years old at the moment of this blog post, it predates the Gutenburg bible by nearly 600 years.
In the years following, Paul Pelliot, Sergei Oldenburg and other European explorers were able to strike similar bargains for the remaining material, and the Dunhuang manuscripts dispersed to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Berlin Library and the Oriental Institute in St Petersburg, among other institutions. Today, The International Dunhuang Project is seeking to digitally reunite the scattered fragments for more comprehensive scholarly access.
Serindia remains one of the most significant scholarly works published on the Magao caves and the Dunhuang manuscripts. Impressively, however, the incident represents only a fraction of its contents. Weighing in at 5 vols., including more than 1580 pp. text, 344 photographic illustrations on plates in the text volumes, 59 additional plates in the text volumes showing site plans, a plate volume with 155 additional plates (some in color, some folding), and 95 large folding color maps with exquisite detail showing the full geographical context of the expedition, an early reviewer in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland rightly described the work as “monumental”:
“‘Monumental’ is an adjective that is apt to be abused; but few will question its applicability to the present work, which describes in detail the progress and results of what is perhaps the most fruitful archaeological expedition that has been undertaken in modern times.”
The extremely scarce (and far superior) original edition of the work is rightly considered a high point in the scholarly literature on Central Asia, and overall, a landmark in archaeological publishing.
F.A. Bernett is pleased to offer a complete set, in generally excellent condition (most pages uncut) of the Clarendon Press Serindia.
Please contact us regarding its price & availability.
FAB Item I.D. # 46224.
UPDATE: Undiplomatic, Gerard Russell’s generally excellent blog on “life after diplomacy” features an intriguing photograph of Stein’s final resting place in Kabul (where Russell recently spent time in service of the British diplomatic corps and U.N.) The post also sheds light on Stein’s colorful contemporaries and predecessors, including Arminius Vambery.
My thanks to Russell for linking to our Serindia post.