The Lister List

The Origins Of Paper

Paper, Its Nature and Origins

In her posting yesterday (12th December 1997), Janet Hamilton asked if the original purpose of paper was for clothing.

While we cannot be sure that the very first use for paper was clothing, it was certainly one of the earliest uses. I think I can do no better than quote extracts from my two articles on "Paper, Its Nature and Origins", which appeared in British Origami, numbers 183 and 184 for April and June 1997. I hope that they will dispel some of the misconcetions which surround the invention of paper by the Chinese, and especially that they will clarify the date of invention of paper.

Extract 1: from British Origami 183, April, 1997. Cloth is made by one of three basic techniques. One technique is knitting, where the rows of thread are looped to one another. Weaving is another technique in which two rows of threads, usually at right angles are enmeshed together in that under and over technique which is so very familiar. Neither of these two ways of making cloth has anything to do with paper- making. The third type of cloth is felt, which is made by a technique here there are no twisted threads and where the fibres merely adhere to each other. Felt is usually made under pressure. The threads may adhere to each other unaided and merely by reason of the roughness of the fibres, as do wool fibres, or they may, like paper, be helped by a size. Familiar sorts of felt are used for making hats and for cheap kinds of baize for card tables. One of the virtues of felt is that is can be moulded to make shapes like hats.

Paper, too is a kind of felt. And some papers are still used today, like knitted or woven cloth, for clothing. The transition from felt to paper is a gradual one and there are felt-like papers and paper-like felts. It is useful to bear this in mind when considering the origins and history of paper-making.

Extract 2: from British Origami 184, June 1997.

While Egyptian papyrus and Central American and Polynesian writing surfaces may not universally be considered to come within the definition of "paper", people are generally aware of the invention of paper by the Chinese. Most references credit the discovery of paper to Tsai Lun in 105 AD. Tsai Lun was certainly important in the development of paper, but its original invention in China antedated him by some two hundred years. The oldest surviving piece of Chinese paper was discovered in a tomb in 1957. It measures four inches square and has been dated to between the years 140 and 87 BC. The paper was made from hemp fibres pounded to a pulp and then laid out to dry on a mat of fabric. The paper was of rough quality and hardly suitable for writing. It was, in fact, a kind of felt, more like fabric than paper and was used for clothing, wrapping and also, it is said, for "personal hygiene". Paper continued to be used for clothing by the Chinese and a paper hat, a paper belt and a paper shoe dating from 418 AD were recently excavated at Turfan in Central Asia. (There is no indication that the paper hat was made by the techniques of modern origami!)

Although we do not know what sort of paper was envisaged, the Chinese word for paper appears in a dictionary published in AD 69, and paper capable of being written upon seems to have been developed by this time. The oldest surviving piece of paper with writing upon it was discovered in the ruins of a watchtower near Chu-yen in 1942. It bears about twenty-four readable characters. Since the date the watchtower was abandoned is known, the piece of paper can be dated to 110 AD. The fact that it was discovered in such a mundane building as a watchtower and not in a palace or an administrative building is an indication that by that time the use of paper for writing must have already been quite widespread.

Despite this, long tradition ascribes the invention of paper to Tsai Lun who was a Chinese court official. The truth seems to be that while he did not. In 75 AD, he was appointed to be chamberlain to the Imperial Court. Two ears later the Emperor Chang died prematurely and Tsai Lun was entrusted with the political education of his son the young emperor, Ho, then ten years old. This office placed Tsai Lun in a position of considerable governmental authority and among his responsibilities was supervision of the Imperial Library, where he found that there was an urgent need for a more efficient way of recording writing. One writing medium used at the time was strips of carved bamboo, but they were very clumsy and took up considerable space. Silk fabric was also used, but it, too, was far from satisfactory. It came to Tsai Luns notice that craftsmen had been experimenting in an effort to make a paper suitable for writing. So far, they had made progress, but the results of their efforts were far from perfect.

Seeing the potentiality of paper as a surface for writing, Tsai Lun took charge of the experiments and worked intently for several years, experimenting with pulp made from silk, from linen, from hemp, bamboo, reeds, rags and other materials. He finally hit upon a pulp made from the beaten and separated fibres of the mulberry tree. The paper made in this way was good for writing and with Tsai Lun92s encouragement, it began to be used at court and by the Chinese bureaucratic system. It seems, therefore that while he did not invent paper and while, indeed, inferior papers had previously been used for writing, Tsai Lun must be credited with the invention writing paper in its modern sense.

We have no record whatsoever that the Chinese were the first to fold paper in our own meaning of "paperfolding", but neither is there any evidence that they did not. It seems reasonable to suppose that having invented a fine paper, they would be the first to fold it, even if only for practical purposes, or simply because the first thing anyone does when he has a scrap of paper in his hand is to twist or fold it. It is often suggested that there could be commodity. But even when paper was very costly, there would still have been off-cuts and waste which would be available to play with. While we do not have any early examples of paperfolding in the strict sense, from China, there are in the British Museum several artificial flowers of folded and cut paper which were found in Tunhuang during the T92ang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD).They are delicately constructed and apparently made from thin paper.

From China, paper passed to Japan, but not until nearly five hundred years later, and then not directly from China. Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Korea around 550 AD and the Buddhists placed immense value on their sacred texts and the provision of perfect white paper on which to inscribe them. A Japanese chronicle relates that following the introduction of Buddhism, the technique of paper making was introduced into Japan in 610 by a Korean Buddhist priest called Tam-Chi, but whom the Japanese knew as Doncho.

Once they knew the basic techniques of paper-making, The Japanese immediately set out to improve it. In 610 AD, the Prince Regent considered that the Chinese paper of the time was too brittle and he encouraged experiments to be made to try to make it better.. Almost immediately it was found that boiling the fibres with wood ash and also adding a glutinous material made from a certain plant greatly improved the resulting paper and made it better that the Chinese paper.

Since that time, the Japanese have continued to make new discoveries about paper-making and hand-made Japanese papers remain, today, the most sophisticated of all papers, and even qualify as works of art in their ownright. At the same time, the Japanese people have become known as a people devoted to paper and paper has played a greater part in Japanese culture than in any other nation. It is used widely for religious purposes and is important in both the Shinto and the Buddhist religions. In secular life it is used for ceremonial, artistic and practical purposes such as in screfor the subdivision of houses. Paper has been used for a thousand years for the formal ceremonial wrappers known as tsutsumi, and Its use for recreational origami goes back at least four hundred years and probably much longer.

David Lister Grimsby, England.

Something Wrong?

Please provide details below of any issues you may have encountered. Thank you

Rabbit by Stephen O'Hanlon