Who invented paper? Ancient China and the history of paper


Paper, a thin unwoven material made from milled plant fibers, is primarily used for writing, artwork, and packaging; it is commonly white. The first papermaking process was documented in China during the Eastern Han period (25–220 AD), traditionally attributed to the court official Cai Lun. During the 8th century, Chinese papermaking spread to the Islamic world, where pulp mills and paper mills were used for papermaking and money making. By the 11th century, papermaking was brought to Europe. By the 13th century, papermaking was refined with paper mills utilizing waterwheels in Spain. Later European improvements to the papermaking process came in the 19th century with the invention of wood-based papers.

Although precursors such as papyrus and amate existed in the Mediterranean world and pre-Columbian Americas, respectively, these materials are not defined as true paper. Nor is true parchment considered paper used principally for writing, parchment is heavily prepared animal skin that predates paper and possibly papyrus. In the twentieth century with the advent of plastic manufacture some plastic “paper” was introduced, as well as paper-plastic laminates, paper-metal laminates, and papers infused or coated with different products that give them special properties.

Impact of paper

According to Timothy Hugh Barrett, paper played a pivotal role in early Chinese written culture, and a “strong reading culture seems to have developed quickly after its introduction, despite political fragmentation. Indeed the introduction of paper had immense consequences for the book world. It meant books would no longer have to be circulated in small sections or bundles, but in their entirety. Books could now be carried by hand rather than transported by cart. As a result individual collections of literary works increased in the following centuries.

Textual culture seems to have been more developed in the south by the early 5th century, with individuals owning collections of several thousand scrolls. In the north an entire palace collection might have been only a few thousand scrolls in total. By the early 6th century, scholars in both the north and south were capable of citing upwards of 400 sources in commentaries on older works. A small compilation text from the 7th century included citations to over 1,400 works.

The personal nature of texts was remarked upon by a late 6th century imperial librarian. According to him, the possession of and familiarity with a few hundred scrolls was what it took to be socially accepted as an educated man.

According to Endymion Wilkinson, one consequence of the rise of paper in China was that “it rapidly began to surpass the Mediterranean empires in book production.”During the Tang dynasty, China became the world leader in book production. In addition the gradual spread of woodblock printing from the late Tang and Song further boosted their lead ahead of the rest of the world.

From the fourth century CE to about 1500, the biggest library collections in China were three to four times larger than the largest collections in Europe. The imperial government book collections in the Tang numbered about 5,000 to 6,000 titles (89,000 juan) in 721. The Song imperial collections at their height in the early twelfth century may have risen to 4,000 to 5,000 titles. These are indeed impressive numbers, but the imperial libraries were exceptional in China and their use was highly restricted. Only very few libraries in the Tang and Song held more than one or two thousand titles (a size not even matched by the manuscript collections of the grandest of the great cathedral libraries in Europe).

However despite the initial advantage afforded to China by the paper medium, by the 9th century its spread and development in the middle east had closed the gap between the two regions. Between the 9th to early 12th centuries, libraries in Cairo, Baghdad, and Cordoba held collections larger than even the ones in China, and dwarfed those in Europe. From about 1500 the maturation of paper making and printing in Southern Europe also had an effect in closing the gap with the Chinese. The Venetian Domenico Grimani‘s collection numbered 15,000 volumes by the time of his death in 1523. After 1600, European collections completely overtook those in China. The Bibliotheca Augusta numbered 60,000 volumes in 1649 and surged to 120,000 in 1666. In the 1720s the Bibliotheque du Roi numbered 80,000 books and the Cambridge University 40,000 in 1715. After 1700, libraries in North America also began to overtake those of China, and toward the end of the century, Thomas Jefferson‘s private collection numbered 4,889 titles in 6,487 volumes. The European advantage only increased further into the 19th century as national collections in Europe and America exceeded a million volumes while a few private collections, such as that of Lord Action, reached 70,000.

European book production began to catch up with China after the introduction of the mechanical printing press in the mid fifteenth century. Reliable figures of the number of imprints of each edition are as hard to find in Europe as they are in China, but one result of the spread of printing in Europe was that public and private libraries were able to build up their collections and for the first time in over a thousand years they began to match and then overtake the largest libraries in China.

Paper became central to the three arts of China – poetry, painting, and calligraphy. In later times paper constituted one of the ‘Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio,’ alongside the brush, the ink, and the inkstone.