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Wenzel, Claudia, Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Germany,

The research project ‘Buddhist stone scriptures in China’ hosted at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and headed by Prof. Lothar Ledderose is devoted to the documentation of holy Buddhist scriptures that were carved onto rocks, boulders and stones from the sixth to the eighth century in China. The digital processing and presentation of these stone carved texts offers remarkable benefits with regard to facilitation of the workflow, incorporation of spatial relations, and transparency.

Application of digital tools for enhancing the workflow of transcribing and editing the texts to establish the corpus of carved stone sutras

Traditionally, pre-modern Chinese texts engraved on durable materials like metal or stone were first ‘copied’ by brushing a moistened sheet of paper into the cavities of the carved surface, and applying black ink on all outstanding parts, leaving the traces of the chisel in white on the paper. These transportable rubbings were collected from the eighteenth century on by Chinese epigraphers, who studied their ancient scripts and transcribed them for further publication. However, the rubbings are in no way a faithful copy of what was originally written into stone. The very process of taking them from the stone cut characters already involves a reading and interpretation of less well preserved glyphs.

To avoid such flaws and short-comings of the traditional Chinese procedure of text documentation, our project relies solely on the carved text to provide the lemmas for the corpus of stone sutras. The original stone is documented either by photographs alone, or by both scans and photographs. Then it is collated with several text witnesses, including different versions of rubbings, and different versions of the text extant either in manuscripts, or printed editions of the Buddhist canon, as well as the digital edition of the Buddhist canon, edited by the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA). As a result, the original stone text can be transcribed by reconstructing lost or damaged characters, and can be discussed in text critical annotations.

Digital research and publication helps making this editing process more transparent and replicable. The web application documents each inscription on five levels by providing (1) a scan or photograph of the original stone, (2) one or several paper rubbings of the stone, (3) a transcription in Unicode characters reflecting the original layout of characters in vertical columns on the stone, (4) a transcription in Unicode characters with modern punctuation and reading direction in horizontal lines from left to right, and (5) an English translation of the text including text critical annotations. In this way, text editing is significantly enhanced in terms of correctness as well as transparency, since the user can follow the transcribing of each stone character step by step.

The basis for the transcription process is the documentation of the original stone, which is done ideally by 3D laser scans. After processing, the inscriptions can be viewed either in 2 D or 3 D view by means of an applet developed for the project by the i3 Mainz (University of Applied Sciences, Mainz).1 This applet was already implemented in the workflow of reading and transcribing the text in modern Unicode characters, but it is also available online. It provides various options like zooming, adjusting the light position, or applying colors for better legibility of the carved characters, thereby empowering users to not only better comprehend the editing process, but also to continue research by themselves. The use of this digital tool exceeds by far the possibilities of traditional print media.

Another main challenge of the edition of the medieval stone sutras is their transcription in modern Unicode characters. Many of the ancient carved texts use glyphs not yet encoded in the Unicode standard. Although more Chinese ideographs are being added currently to the Unihan database, the problems of mapping ancient glyphs to Unicode characters are complex, and cannot be solved completely by encoding more glyphs. By programming and implementing a ‘snippet tool’ that is able to search and line up images of the same character connected to a certain Unicode character, we not only provide a tool for an analysis of writing styles, but also bring to light the complexity of the issue of mapping glyphs to unified characters.

Incorporation of spatial relations

For a comprehensive understanding of the historical background behind the creation of stone carved sutras in China, each inscription site has to be seen in its particular topography in which it is embedded. The choice of the site is of religious importance, and infers particular ritual uses. Inter-spatial relations between multiple sites are also of interest. 2 For this reason, all inscriptions and sites were GIS documented and can now be addressed on interactive maps.3 In cooperation with the Institute of Geography of Heidelberg University, more tools for a GIS based analysis have been developed to clarify the spatial history of the creation of inscription sites, the related spreading of Buddhist sutras, and the migration movements of the monks responsible for it.4

Right from the start, the project has generated 3D models of larger inscription sites that have been integrated into the project’s web-application. At first, we made use of these models to provide map-like views of the general layout of inscriptions at particular sites. In one case, the course of a pilgrim’s path was simulated in a flash animation. More recently, the visualization with 3D models has become even more rewarding for a particular type of inscription sites, namely those hosting stone sutras inside caves. Now the user can find the inscription site on a map, zoom in, select a particular cave, and by means of a panoramic view, approach the inscriptions inside the digital cave and read them herself by means of high-resolution photographs. In this respect, digital space is not only a synthesis of traditional documentation with rubbings, photographs, and printing, but offers a new level of close-to- reality documentation.5

(Future6) digital publication of research results and their transparency for the community

All data of the project are stored in an open source XML database called eXist (; the mark-up of texts follows TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) standards. On the basis of the same set of data, a web application as well as a print publication is generated. For the latter, the data is being transformed by XSLT. The digital as well as the print publication are set up similarly. The scheme of documenting each inscription on the aforementioned five levels pervades the digital and the print publication. While the purpose of this structure is to provide maximum transparency about the editing process for the reader/user, the electronic publication is in this respect even more efficient. By integrating the aforementioned digital tools (Mainz applet, snippet-tool, GIS analysis tools) into the project’s web-application, the (future) user is enabled to replicate the editing of stone scriptures, and to continue research herself.


This work was supported by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften), Germany. The development of digital tools mentioned was supported by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within a program on interdisciplinary research between natural and social sciences, namely the research project ‘3D-Sutras: A web based atlas of laser scanned Buddhist stone inscriptions in China,’ co-operated by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, the Department of Geography of Heidelberg University, and the Institute for Spatial Information and Surveying Technology, i3mainz, of the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz.


Auer, M., B. Höfle, S. Lanig, A. Schilling, and A. Zipf (2011). 3D-Sutras: A web based atlas of laser scanned Buddhist stone inscriptions in China. 14th AGILE International Conference on Geographic Information Science, Utrecht, The Netherlands 18-21 April 2011.

Lanig, S., A. Schilling, M. Auer, B. Höfle, N. Billen, and A. Zipf (2011a). Interoperable integration of high precision 3D laser data and large scale geoanalysis in a SDI for Sutra inscriptions in Sichuan (China). Geoinformatik 2011– Geochange, Münster, Germany.

Lanig, S., B. Höfle, M. Auer, A. Schilling, H. Deierling, and A. Zipf (2011b). Geodateninfrastrukturen im historisch-geographischen Kontext – Buddhistische Steinschriften in der Provinz Sichuan/China. AGIT 2011. Symposium Angewandte Geoinformatik, Salzburg, Österreich.

Ledderose, L. (2012, in print) Fünf Perspektiven auf Steinerne Sutren. In I. Reichle and V. Lepper (eds.), Perspektiven. Berlin: Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften 2012.

Schmidt, N., R. Schütze, and F. Boochs (2010a). 3D-Sutra – Interactive Analysis Tool for a Web-Atlas of Scanned Sutra Inscriptions in China. Proceedings of the ISPRS Commission V Mid-Term Symposium Close Range Image Measurement Techniques, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom.

Schmidt, N., F. Boochs, and R. Schütze (2010b). Capture and Processing of High Resolution 3D-Data of Sutra Inscriptions in China. Heritage, Notes in Computer Science 6436: 125-139, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-16873-4_10, Limassol, Zypern

Tsai, S., and C. Wenzel (2009). The Stone Inscriptions of the Six Mountains of Zoucheng. Die Steinschriften der Sechs Berge von Zoucheng. In Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst Köln und Forschungsstelle der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Buddhistische Steinschriften in Nord-China (eds), The Centenary of the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne. The Heart of Enlightenment. Buddhist Art in China 550-600. 100 Jahre Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst in Köln. Das Herz der Erleuchtung. Buddhistische Kunst in China 550-600. Köln, pp. 24-37.


1.Schmidt et al. 2010b: 3-9; Schmidt et al. 2010a: 2-5.

2.Tsai & Wenzel 2009: 24.

3.Auer et al. 2011: 2-5; Lanig et al. 2011 b: 3-4.

4.Lanig et al. 2011a: 4-5; Lanig et al. 2011b: 7-8.

5.Ledderose 2012.

6.According to the agreement of the Chinese-German co-operation project, a print publication has first priority; the digital publication has to follow afterwards. For this reason, the project’s web-application at is to date still password protected. Access will be granted by request; please contact