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This Fleeting World, and the Dunhuang caves

This Fleeting World coverIt’s hard to believe that it took me this long to discover that the verse from which we got the title This Fleeting World comes come from a text discovered in the desert of Western China, in the Dunhuang caves. I have now learned that the Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest printed book, in fact. What could be more perfect? But there’s more to it than the conjunction of China, world history, and publishing. Dunhuang is, for my kids and me, a magical and almost mythical place where we spent a mere 36 hours or so en route between Xi’an and Almaty, in Kazakhstan, in 2001. We remember the Buddhist caves, the sand dunes, and the hotel restaurant where we ate wonderful meals. We remember how much we hated to leave. Dunhuang is also memorable as the place where the kids gave sugar Easter eggs to the very young waitresses. Here are the lines from which David Christian’s wonderful book’s title comes:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

The title was intended for David’s big book on big history, but that became Maps of Time, with University of California Press, so I proposed we use it for our very small book, which has proved so welcome and successful that we’ve had to reprint.


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