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The introduction of Zen Buddhism (Ch. Chan) from China occurred in earnest during the Kamakura period. Having won the support of the Hōjō family in Kamakura and of the Kujō in Kyoto, and having overcome the resistance of the Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, Zen became even more of a cultural force, reaching full maturity during the Southern and Northern Courts (Nambokuchō) period with the establishment of five government-sponsored Zen centers in Kyoto and Kamakura known as the “Gozan” (Five Mountains). Zen developed in China as one of the variants of Mahayana Buddhism. It places emphasis on an experiential kind of enlightenment attainable through practice and conversations with a master.
In particular, some schools of the Rinzai sect place great importance on literary expression and the evocative power of the written word. In Zen, master and disciple share the same living space and spiritual development is pursued within the context of everyday life rather than through rational explanation via texts. The two main patriarchs of Japanese Zen, Eisai (1141-1215) and Dōgen (1200-1253), both spent time in China to study under a master and returned to Japan after receiving their teachings. The journey to China remained an important aspect of Zen practice throughout the medieval period.
Meanwhile, the Hōjō family, who had developed a keen interest in Zen, established new Zen temples in Kamakura recruiting eminent prelates from China like Rankei Dōryū () and Mugaku Sogen () as abbots. They taught first at the Kenchōji and at the Engakuji in Kamakura and later at the Nanzenji in Kyoto. This constant flux of people between China and Japan is one of the distinctive characteristics of Zen Buddhism. The Zen monks who spent periods of study China lived and breathed Chinese culture. In Japan, too, Zen temples were built according to Chinese designs and their interiors were filled with Chinese and Chinese-style objects.
Not only did the lifestyle of Zen monks closely imitate continental models, many of them also became highly proficient in Chinese sources and earned a reputation as experts of Chinese studies (kangaku) and writers of literary Chinese. As we shall see, this was to be an important precondition for the spread to Japan of China’s advanced print culture. Books printed in Japanese Zen monasteries during the medieval period are known as Gozan-ban (“Five-Mountain books”). We have noted earlier that temples were already actively printing texts in the Kamakura period. However, these establishments followed the traditional custom of only printing religious works, and moreover, the works they printed imitated the visual appearance of handwritten books. All this was to change with Gozan-ban editions.
Gozan-ban editions took as their model Song and Yuan-dynasty printed books. The pages are ruled and encased in an outer border; the characters are stylized to make both carving and reading them easier, and carefully aligned. Sheets are printed on one side only and folded inwards (the so-called taniori or valley fold) in the middle for binding. In China, commercial printing thrived as early as the Southern Song period (1127-1279) and book design was optimized for the print medium. Visiting students from Japan usually went to the south of China where printed books were most common. Because of the direct influence of Chinese commercial printing on Zen temple presses, this format was adopted in Gozan-ban editions, too.
Here we have a Song-period printed edition of the Tongjian jishi benmo () owned by the Keio Institute of Oriental Classics. As you can see, Song-dynasty printed books have a border running around the entire sheet, and there are lines between each line of text. The design of the characters was standardized and, although modeled on the writing of famous Tang-dynasty calligraphers, it was streamlined and simplified to make the carving easier. The overall appearance is radically different from that of traditional Japanese-style printed books. The binding is the so-called “Butterfly” binding () in which only one side of the sheet is printed on; the sheets are then folded in the middle and pasted together along the crease.
It is essentially identical to the detchōsō () binding common in traditional Japanese bookmaking, but only one side of the sheet is printed on, so you occasionally get pages with no text on. It was called “butterfly” binding because it calls to mind a butterfly that opens and closes its wings. Over here we have a Japanese gozan-ban edition. It is a Japanese replica of a Chinese Chan (Zen) text called Jingde chuandenglu() We know that originally this book was bound in butterfly binding with writing on only one side of the sheets. However, it was later rebound with the sheets folded in the opposite direction (the so-called ‘mountain fold’).
The whole design, with the outer border and the text neatly encased between lines clearly replicated the Chinese design. You will notice that it is nothing like the Japanese books that we have been looking at so far. Whereas previous Japan-made printed books essentially aimed to emulate manuscripts, Zen-temple publications imitated Song and Yuan-dynasty(#) books and thus took a different type of book as their model.




  • 栄西(えいさい)(1141-1215)
  • 道元(どうげん)(1200-1253)
  • 道隆(どうりゅう)(1213-1278)
  • 無学祖元(むがくそげん) (1226-1286)



  1. 通鑑紀事本末(つげんきじほんまつ)1257
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  2. 景徳伝灯録(けいとくでんとうろく)1348、五山版
    [Click to see the image and information]
  3. 叢林公論、五山版
    [Click to see the image and information]
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古書から読み解く日本の文化: 漢籍の受容

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