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 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 money values.

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 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.

dipping      couching

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.

separating      drying

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.

two reams

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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