Try to imagine life without paper. Even in the era of emails and digital books, paper is all around us. Paper is in shopping bags, money, store receipts, cereal boxes, and toilet paper. We use paper in so many ways every day. So, where did this marvelously versatile material come from?
According to ancient Chinese historical sources, a court eunuch named Ts'ai Lun (or Cai Lun) presented the newly-invented paper to the Emperor Hedi of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 105 CE. The historian Fan Hua (398-445 CE) recorded this version of events, but archaeological finds from western China and Tibet suggest that paper was invented centuries earlier.
Samples of even more ancient paper, some of it dating to c. 200 BCE, have been unearthed in the ancient Silk Road cities of Dunhuang and Khotan, and in Tibet. The dry climate in these places allowed the paper to survive for up to 2,000 years without entirely decomposing. Amazingly, some of this paper even has ink marks on it, proving that ink was invented much earlier than historians had supposed.
Writing Materials Before Paper
Of course, people in various places around the world were writing long before the invention of paper. Materials such as bark, silk, wood, and leather functioned in a similar way to paper, although they were either much more expensive or heavier. In China, many early works were recorded on long bamboo strips, which were then bound with leather straps or string into books.
People world-wide also carved very important notations into stone or bone, or pressed stamps into wet clay and then dried or fired the tablets to preserve their words. However, writing (and later printing) required a material that was both cheap and lightweight to become truly ubiquitous. Paper fit the bill perfectly.
Early paper-makers in China used hemp fibers, which were soaked in water and pounded with a large wooden mallet. The resulting slurry was then poured over a horizontal mold; loosely-woven cloth stretched over a framework of bamboo allowed the water to drip out the bottom or evaporate, leaving behind a flat sheet of dry hemp-fiber paper.
Over time, paper-makers began to use other materials in their product, including bamboo, mulberry and different types of tree bark. They dyed paper for official records with a yellow substance, the imperial color, which had the added benefit of repelling insects that might have destroyed the paper otherwise.
One of the most common formats for early paper was the scroll. A few long pieces of paper were pasted together to form a strip, which was then wrapped around a wooden roller. The other end of the paper was attached to a thin wooden dowel, with a piece of silk cord in the middle to tie the scroll shut.
The Spread of Paper-Making
From its point of origin in China, the idea and technology of paper-making spread throughout Asia. In the 500s CE, artisans on the Korean Peninsula began to make paper using many of the same materials as Chinese paper-makers. The Koreans also used rice straw and seaweed, expanding the types of fiber available for paper production. This early adoption of paper fueled the Korean innovations in printing, as well. Metal movable type was invented by 1234 CE on the peninsula.
Around 610 CE, according to legend, the Korean Buddhist monk Don-Cho introduced paper-making to the court of Emperor Kotoku in Japan. Paper-making technology also spread west through Tibet and then south into India.
Paper Reaches the Middle East and Europe
In 751 CE, the armies of Tang China and the ever-expanding Arab Abbasid Empire clashed in the Battle of Talas River, in what is now Kyrgyzstan. One of the most interesting repercussions of this Arab victory was that the Abbasids captured Chinese artisans, including master paper-makers like Tou Houan, and took them back to the Middle East.
At that time, the Abbasid Empire stretched from Spain and Portugal in the west through North Africa to Central Asia in the east, so knowledge of this marvelous new material spread far and wide. Before long, cities from Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) to Damascus and Cairo had become centers of paper production.
In 1120, the Moors established Europe's first paper mill at Valencia, Spain (then called Xativa). From there, this Chinese invention passed to Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe. Paper helped spread knowledge, much of which was gleaned from the great Asian culture centers along the Silk Road, that enabled Europe's High Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, paper was used for an enormous number of purposes. Combined with varnish, it became beautiful lacquer-ware storage vessels and furniture. In Japan, the walls of homes were often made of rice-paper. Besides paintings and books, paper was made into fans, umbrellas, even highly effective armor. Paper truly is one of the most wonderful Asian inventions of all time.