The Art of Chinese Paper Making
How is paper made?
Over hundreds of years, the techniques for making paper in China have changed drastically. The most common procedure in which paper is made is very time consuming process. It began with gathering birch leaves which are then drained of their mucilage. Mucilage is a sticky and gummy substance that plants produce which acts as an adhesive to paper. The mucilage keeps the paper smooth and even which is later on very important. The bamboo is husked, with a mortar and pestle it is ground, and is then put in a pool of lime and soaked for multiple days. After this process, the ground bamboo is put into a large kiln to boil for thirty-five days. After this time period, the Chinese would rinse the ground and boiled bamboo in river water and would then put it back into the kiln for another ten days. The bamboo is ground into smaller pieces and placed into a tub of water where the mucilage from the birch leaves is added. It is then strained with a coarsely woven cloth and hung out to dry. As time went on, paper has slowly been developed to serve different purposes in China just like it did during the Tang and Song Dynasties.

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Over thousands of years, the secrets to Chinese papermaking were slowly revealed. The first countries to find out about this procedure included Korea and Vietnam. Two Chinese prisoners reluctantly described the process and the ingredients after being captured by Arab Abbasid conquerors. However, Korea, Vietnam, and the Arab Abbasid conquerors could not keep the papermaking process to themselves. Not long after, most of Asia knew how to make paper as well. Ts’ai Lun lived in the Hang Dynasty around 104 CE and was said to be the inventor of Chinese paper. According to a legend, he stripped the bark off of a mulberry tree and then mixed this bark with bamboo fibers and water. Then, Ts’ai Lun poured the mixture onto a coarsely woven cloth. He then used several wooden tools to help him distribute the mixture evenly, making sure that it was smooth and flat. The water in the mixture seeped through the holes in the cloth leaving only the fibers remaining. Over the next several days, these fibers slowly dried. Ts’ai Lun realized that he had just produced a smooth writing surface. A year later, he presented this to Emperor He Di who approved of its worthiness. The Chinese could now record important documents, inventions, and historical events on this lightweight and portable material. Historians have relied upon these recordings to better understand the Chinese culture and their way of life, thousands of years ago.

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The properties of different materials are what allow different types of paper to be made. The first types of paper were made with hemp left suspended in waste water to get the pulp to create the paper. As technology and knowledge advanced new types of fibers were found and the processes to turn them into paper discovered. Though the processes varied for different plant fibers used and type of paper created, all of them had a similar foundation for each. During the Han Dynasty, due to availability and technology at the time, the plant fibers used as materials most often were bark and hemp. This changed during the Wei and Jin dynasties for they started to make mulberry bark paper and cane paper leading to the conclusion of new materials and processes. Bamboo became the most widely used and most successful material during the Tang Dynasty. It was and ideal material because it grows in incredibly large quantities and the because of the nature of its fibers. The plant fibers in bamboo are strong in comparison to other plants. Ancient Chinese scientists continued to try to find a better material however due to the one downside of bamboo fibers being the high complexity and difficulty level of turning the bamboo fibers into paper. Zhi Yao, also known as paper medicine, was a glue like solution used to prevent plant fibers sticking together causing it to become rough and uneven. This process of fibers sticking together is also known as viscidity. The Zhi Yao was made of the mucilage squeezed out of specific plants with yellow holly, carambola cane, rose of Sharon, and birch leaves being among them. Each of these plants had its mucilage used for specific styles of paper. For example, the Zhi Yao made from birch leaves was used primarily for the paper called zhuma. Zhuma means bamboo hemp, which it is called due to the plant fibers used in its creation. Zhuma paper is a particularly absorbent and clean paper, causing it to be an excellent material for wrapping corpses in for burial. Chinese paper making would not have been possible if not for the specific qualities that the available materials posses.
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Life in a papermaking workshop was a year round task, which meant working day in and day out. The workshops were extremely large which allowed several people to work at a time. The workshops were equipped with a lander hollander beater. This was a device that mixed bamboo and mulberry bush fibers together which resulted in a much pulpier mass. A hydraulic press, which is a machine that smoothed, flattened and pressed out excess water from the paper was often seen in a papermaking workshop. The workshops were powered by the water mills which were very useful during those times. The workshops also housed a large kiln that was used for boiling the husked bamboo after it was soaked in a lime substance to soften it. In the province of Guizhou, papermaking has been a tradition in several local towns for hundreds of years. Many of the papermaking workshops are well-preserved and continue to make paper in small quantities today.
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Subtopic Ideas
  • Workshops
  • Materials
  • History
  • How is paper made?


Nicole Busa
Jillian Lurie
Robert Silvia
Andrea Cadigan