INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PAPER HISTORIANS
Report on the IPH expedition to China
10 April-2 May 1999
On the 10th of April a small group of 14 people from 7 countries (USA, Holland, Germany, France,
Denmark, Switzerland and Canada), half of whom are members of IPH, gathered in Shanghai for a two-weeks
tour to central and northern China. Ten of the participants stayed for a third week, travelling
to Yunnan Province in the South-West of China. The objective of this 'expedition' - staying in
four star hotels for the most part, the trip didn't really deserve this denomination evocating images of
adventure and hardship - was to visit sites where paper is still made by hand in the traditional
way, to meet Chinese friends and colleagues involved in historical paper research, and to visit
museums and historical sites.
Mrs. Elaine Koretsky, director of the Museum of Paper History and the Research
Institute of Paper History and Technology, both in Brookline, Massachusetts (USA), had enthousiastically offered to organize this trip for
members of IPH. The offer was readilly accepted because Elaine Koretsky has done such 'papermaking
pilgrimages' several times before, not only to China, but also to other South-Asian countries
like Thailand and Burma. With this experience and so many contacts in China already, and being
one of IPH's most knowledgeable members of hand papermaking in Asia, she was the ideal leader
of this expedition. Her husband Dr. Sidney Koretsky added an extra
dimension to the trip, not only for his broad knowledge of papermaking - and visually documenting
the processes - but also for his great storytelling and sense of humor (see ill.).
The group also had some excellent local guides at its disposal, as well as a most proficiant and
charming national guide - rather the national guide as far as the participants were
concerned - mrs. Hu Nai Qin (christianed "Jennifer" Hu), director of the Beijing Tourism College
Travel Service (e-mail TCTS@263.net). Having already guided
World-VIP's like former US President Jimmy Carter, the IPH tour seemed peanuts to the experienced
and fluently English speaking Jennifer (see ill.), but IPH President Albert Elen turned out to be equally
demanding, so this was again a real challenge for her. And she really did a magnificent job.
Paper conservation in the Shanghai Museum
Apart from the tourist sites in Shanghai, on April 13th the group visited the newly built Shanghai Museum,
which houses the largest collection of Chinese cultural relics. We were greeted by Chen
Yuansheng (see ill.), research fellow and head of the biochemical group of the museum's Research Laboratory
for Conservation & Archaeology, who gave us an exclusive tour through the paper conservation
department (see ill.).
The museum has a state-of-the-art presentation of Chinese paintings on silk and Xuan Zhi paper (fine paper made from bark fibers).
According to the museum the oldest paper is made of sandlewood fibres approximately 2000 years ago.
Chinese painting developed from the period of the Warring States (475-221 BC) and silk was used
first. The paintings are displayed in climatized glass cases with an ingenious lighting system
with sensors activating the light whenever a visitor passes it. The lighting is max 160 lux and
the items are on display for three to four months at maximum.
Xi'an conference and traditional papermaking in Shaanxi
In China's first capital and starting point of the famous Silk Route, Xi'an, the group was
invited to participate in the Seminar on the Origin of Paper Making in China, organized by Li
Fang, secretary-general of the Papermaking Profession Committee of the Public Relations Association
of Shaanxi Province (see ill.).
The Xi'an seminar was officially opened on April 15th in the Science Centre of the Shaanxi
Teachers University with a lot of media attention. China is justly proud of being the cradle of
papermaking and a number of cities or regions claim a
prominent place in its early history. Representatives of several cities and organizations
involved in Chinese paper history were present (see group photograph), including the Fujian Technical Association of
Paper Industry (Chen Qi Xin, vice-chairman and secretary-general), Shaanxi
University (Yang Juzhong, assoc. professor), Yanxian Cailun Academic Research Association
(Lei Yude and Duan Juigang), and Shaanxi History Museum (Yang Dongchen, professor) and last-but-not-least the Pulp and Paper
Industrial Research Institute of China (IPH-member mrs. Wang Ju Hua, senior engineer)(see ill. with mrs. Wang, Elaine Koretsky and Albert Elen).
The discussions on Saturday April
17th concentrated on the earliest paper in China. One group of Chinese favours the emperor's eunuch
and director to the imperial secretariat, Cai Lun as the traditional inventor of paper around the year 105 AD, whereas another group points to
archaeological findings and historical records which in their opinion prove that paper was
already made one or two centuries earlier during the Western Han Dynasty.
One of the most prominent speakers was professor Chen Xuehua (see ill.), who was involved in the finding
of early paper fragments, made from hemp fibres mixed with a small amount of ramie, during
excavations in the Baqiao township, a suburb of Xi'an, back in 1957. He strongly believes paper was
made and used for several daily purposes in the Western Han Dynasty (202-24 BC), long before the
legendary Cai Lun stimulated the Chinese emperor to require the use of paper for the dissemination
of all imperial edicts in the year 105 AD. The latter's main contribution was that he advocated
the use of paper as a writing material, but he was not himself involved in papermaking.
One of the supporters of the Cai Lun doctrine, Chen Qi-Xin (see ill.), the author of several articles
on this issue, argued that, judging from the wording of the characters inscribed on them,
early fragments of paper found in 1982 were not from the Western Han Dynasty but the Eastern
Han Dynasty, that is Cai Lun's time.
Other speakers, like Duan Jigang, questioned the
excavation methods of the archaeologists and their dating of the Baqiao paper fragments and
presented other arguments in favour of Cai Lun as the inventor of paper. After sometimes vehement discussions, it was clear that the debate will continue for some time.
In the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an we had the opportunity to study the above-mentioned
remnants of early paper excavated from bricks and tile works in a Han tomb in the Baqiao township
and proudly presented by the museum as the earliest plant fibre paper in the world. From or
through Xi'an the craft of papermaking spread by way of the Silk Route to Samarkand, Bagdad,
North Africa, and ultimately to Europe, more than a millennium after its invention in China.
Papermaking in Bei Zhang village (Xi'an)
In between the opening of the seminar and the discussions, the group visited Li Fang's
hometown Bei Zhang village near Xi'an, where his family still makes paper by hand in the
traditional way, using mulberry fibres and a dipping mould and screen to form the sheets
(the oldest method of sheet formation is pouring dispersed fibres on a mould). The Bei Zhang paper
is made in a darkbrown spring variety and two white winter varieties. The sheets measure
approximately 41 x 43 cm. and 35 x 40 cm. respectively. A ninety-year old relative of Li Fang
demonstrated how paper was made standing in a pit outside the courtyard from a vat which is actually
dug out in the ground (see ill.).
Papermaking in mountain villages south of Xi'an
On April 16th we had our first real expedion day: a six-hours drive into the mountains south
of Xi'an, where we visited two villages in the Li Bien Xiao Ling township where paper is still
made by hand. The raw material used by the papermakers family in Chen Jia Wan
village in Zha Shui County is the inner bark of the mulberry tree. We witnessed a special beating
method with two men jumping up and down with a wooden stamper. This paper is used primarily
in the wine and liquor business to wrap the jars. It is also used to line the six interior sides
of coffins and to wrap the dead for burial. In this village more than 30 families are involved
in papermaking. In the other village bamboo is the primary material for papermaking.
The yang tao plant root is used as a formation aid.
We were able to see how the raw material was processed (cooking, washing, stamping) and study the
method of sheet formation (dipping mould). The screen is divided by wires to make nine
sheets at a time. The purpose for which the paper in these villages is made is ceremonial
burning at funerals. In one of the papermaking sites the paper is actually blind-stamped with
Dun Huang paper remnants studied in Lanzhou
In Lanzhou, the next stop on the Silk Route, the group visited the Institute of Archaeology for
Cultural Relics and the Museum of Gansu Province. In the institute we were welcomed by director
Yang Xiong and curator professor He Shuangquan (see the ill. of our hosts together with Elaine Koretsky and Albert Elen). They showed us the archaeological findings from
the excavations in Dun Huang in North-West China (below the Gobi desert) in 1990-92, which will
be published soon. The 400 remnants of early paper, the oldest known made of linen fibres, were
excavated from a building near a beacon tower. They are dated around 110-90 BC, on the basis of
other cultural relics found in the same layer dating from the reign of the emperor Wen Di (Western Han
Dynasty). The experts in Lanzhou do not believe the paper was actually made in that area, but
came there by way of the Silk Route. The paper fragments are well preserved because of the desert
climate and the fact that they were covered by solid soil instead of sand. The basic size of the
paper was probably around 33 x 22 cm and some fragments still show the impression of the screen.
Meeting paperhistorians in Beijing
In China's capital Beijing the group was invited by Huang Runbin (see ill.), the executive
vice-president of the China Technical Association of the Paper Industry (CTAPI) and met some of
the members of CTAPI's Paper History working group, who all belong to the Cai Lun school of
thought. The Association has recently supported the erection of a monument and the writing of
an opera devoted to the legendary Cai Lun.
During the meeting at CTAPI Mrs. Wang Ju Hua (see ill.), a member of IPH and also present at the seminar
in Xi'an the week before, argued against the conclusions of the Lanzhou archaeologists that
the paper remnants found in Dun Huang date from the Western Han Dynasty. According to her it is
impossible to distinguish between Western and Eastern Han on the basis of earth layers. In her
opinion the fragments are of much later date.
On another occasion in Beijing we also met Pan Jixing, professor of the history of science
at the Academia Sinica. Professor Pan Jixing (see ill.) was our guest of honor at the farewell diner in one of the
Peking Duck Restaurants as he is a long-time member of IPH and the author of an important book
on the history of papermaking, which will be published in a revised English translation later this year.
He belongs to the group of Chinese scholars who are convinced that
paper was made much earlier than Cai Lun. In his opinion Cai Lun may have improved rather than
invented the papermaking technique and played an important role in its spreading.
Answering questions by The China Daily, China's English newspaper, IPH
president Dr. Albert Elen (see ill.) made the following statement: "There is world-wide unanimity about
where paper originated: in China. The question remains where it was first invented in China and
when. The present debate between Chinese historians and archeologists centres on whether paper
was invented by Cai Lun around 105 AD or whether it was produced one or two centuries earlier in
the Western Han Dynasty.
The International Association of Paper Historians (IPH), which also
has distinguished Chinese members, does not officially support either of the two theories. Let
scholarly arguments based on archaeological finds and historical documents point out which theory
is the most convincing. In my opinion the debate has just started."
"First of all it is imperative that a clear definition of paper is agreed upon: paper is made of
vegetable fibers (cellulose, excluding silk which is protein), which are beaten or macerated,
mixed with water, bound by hydrogen iron bonding, placed on or dipped from a vat with a screen
(mould), which allows the water to drip out, forming a sheet to be dried and used. This definition
intentionally leaves out the purpose for which paper was made. Paper was probably first made for
all kinds of daily purposes and only later on for its main purpose for the centuries to come:
writing, drawing, painting and, eventually, printing".
"I have invited the Chinese experts and all others working in this field to present their
scholarly arguments to a world audience. It is one of the goals of my association to stimulate
and facilitate the information and communication in the field of paperhistory and I therefore
welcome articles and English abstracts of publications in Chinese for publication in IPH's
bulletin. In addition, IPH's internet website www.paperhistory.org is also available for news
items on early papermaking in China. The origins of papermaking in China could also be the topic
of one of the future biennial international congresses of IPH. Suggestions to this effect have
already been made."
A papermaking pilgrimage to Yunnan
The third week of the expedition we travelled to the southern province of Yunnan. By way of the
provincial capital Kunming and the small town of Dali we moved northward. Travelling over both brandnew highways and
bumpy mountain roads we visited two small villages up in the mountains where paper is still being
made by hand. Our tour through Yunnan would not have been possible without the support of Guan Kaiyun, director of
the Kunming Botanical Garden and professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Associate professor Xiao Cheng acted as our indispensable local guide.
In Dadian village in Liuhi County near Hiu-In paper is made by the sixth or seventh
generation of papermakers. The mulberry paper is made with a dipping mould and a flexible bamboo
screen on it. As a formation aid the roots of the pine tree (pinus chinensis) are used.
Because the paper is used for painting and calligraphy a kind of resin is added to the pulp.
Unfortunately, we were not able to see the actual process of papermaking because
for lack of clean water in the village the papermakers were away to a creek somewhere down
the valley to wash and clean the mulberry bast used as the basic material. It would have taken
us too long to get there, so we stayed at the papermakers courtyard in the little village where
we were joined by most of the inhabitants who were as curious about us foreigners as we were about
their craft. The village chief demonstrated the beating of the pulp and the special way of drying
the paper sheets on the outside of an oven specially made for this purpose. In the other village,
which we visited the next day, we were luckier.
The first papermakers' site along a small stream
near the entrance of the village was unfortunately not in use (see illustrations above), but the
common papermaking site in the centre of the village, nicely layed out on the borders of the rice
fields with splendid rural scenery in the background, was in full operation. In this village
bamboo is used as basic material for the fibers (see illustrations below).
Under the low roofs protecting them from the sun, four men and women were working at the vats, using relatively
small papermoulds with characteristic handles on the righthand side. We were told that they each
produce around 3000 sheets per day. Here we were able to see most of the papermaking process.
At two of the vats a yellow powder was added to the pulp in order to give the paper a colour
similar of gold, as it is made for ceremonial purposes: to be burned as a replacement of paper
money at funerals. In the courtyard of the papermaker's family we were allowed to see how the wet
sheets were separated and dried.
The way of drying the paper in the attic of the house on cords
is the same traditionally used in Europe since the earliest times.
Even a T-shaped stick is used to hang the wet sheets on the cords,
like in Western paper mills (see ill.). The reams also look
very similar (see illustration); the ream wrappers, however, were
reused pieces of cardboard.
The expedition was a real success. Unfortunately, papermaking by hand is a vanishing craft.
It is to be feared that hand papermaking will die out within the next decade,
when the great changes in Chinese society will also reach these remote villages.
In Yunnan Province, the botanist's Mecca, we noticed how fast the infrastructure
has been improved during the last years. The Burma Road has been renewed, new highways
and airports are being built. Thus the tourist industry will eventually gain access
to the rural sites and change life there forever.
This is an electronic web version of an article Copyright 1999 by Albert Elen. Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted with or without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on services, or to redistribute to lists, requires specific permission and/or a fee.
this report will be further enriched with illustrations
as soon as they become available,
so do revisit this page again around August 30th!
last revision: 15 August 1999
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