A Brief History of Chinese Paper

Precursors: Writing in China before Paper

While Paper has been a fundamental part of the Chinese visual and literary arts since at least the Han Dynasty, its widespread production was predated by the development of the Chinese writing system. Chinese writing was first developed for ritual purposes, being engraved on bones and tortoise shells. From there, characters inscribed on bronze vessels and other precious objects exposed and explained the ownership and meaning of ritual goods as political and religious tools. By the end of the Warring States Period, writing in pursuit of a textual culture of poetry, history and philosophy was most often carried out on slips of bamboo or wood. Writing and painting on Silk was also common in the elite culture of the Warring States, especially in the production of state banners or funerary goods.

The Invention of Paper in China

Cai Lun (蔡伦/T’sai Lun, 50-121 CE), a court eunuch of the Han Dynasty, is traditionally said to be the inventor of paper production. Although this has long been accepted as fact, it is also quite possible that another person of a lower class, possibly Cai’s assistant Kung Dan, was instrumental in the invention. Nevertheless, the year 105 CE is widely regarded as the year in which paper was invented. Cai was fortunate enough to gain recognition by the Emperor, and was granted title and wealth as a result.

Details regarding the composition or exact process utilized by Cai Lun are lost. However, it appears to have been a paper made from a great number of diverse materials, from bark and hemp to old fishing nets.

The Tradition of Handmade Paper in China – still alive today

Even today, artisans continue to produce handmade paper of very high quality. Many different materials are still in use for the production of paper in this manner: bamboo, rattan, mulberry, grass fibers, hemp and many more. Paper makers will often rely on those materials that are abundant in their locale.

Whatever raw materials are being used, they are first cut and crushed before being retted. Retting is simply the soaking of the raw material to loosen and soften the fibers. Then, the whole mixture is cooked in an alkaline solution to further soften and separate the fibers. These first two steps are crucial in determining the final state of the paper fibers: the longer they are soaked and cooked, the finer and weaker the paper will be. Once the fibers have been rinsed, they are bleached. Sunlight is the traditional bleaching agent. It is said that Kung Dan was inspired to use the Sun for bleaching by observing a piece of sandalwood that had rested for years on the bed of a river. Next, the fibers are beaten and hydrated in a very arduous process that results in the paper pulp. This pulp is then used to pull sheets from using a screen.

The pulling of sheets is by no means a standard process. The traditional frame, however, is usually wider than it is tall. The sieve-like lattice within the frame allows the water to drain away while the fibers remain to form the paper. The lattice is traditionally of fine bamboo slats woven together with silk threads. This results in a very fine, porous surface. The bamboo will often leave impressions in the resulting paper called laid lines that run across the sheets. Likewise, there are often much finer lines running from top to bottom that are the result of the silk threads.

It is possible for a frame to be dipped and pulled from the pulp solution a number of times. This will result in a very sturdy product, and is one of the hallmarks of good Xuan Paper. More than this, the treatment of the frame after it has been pulled may vary widely. Sometimes, the frame is held perfectly still and the water allowed to naturally flow out. Other times, the frame is moved, either quickly or slowly, to more evenly distribute the pulp and water. All of these factors will affect the final product: it is no wonder that there are so many different types of Chinese paper!