Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Paper - Its History

Papermaking is one of the Four Great Inventions, along with Gunpowderthe Compass and Printing. These inventions are celebrated in the Chinese culture for their historical and far ranging impact.

This photograph of handmade paper lying out in the sun to dry was taken in the Yunnan province in China, in 2012
Photo Credit: Kaj Iverson
Although the Egyptians created a writing surface by pressing strips of papyrus plant, for which we get the word paper, it was the Chinese that made paper using pulp, as we continue to do today.

Gathering straw material for paper making
Photo Credit: Peter Winter
It is said that the pulp paper making process was developed in the early 2nd century AD by the eunuch Cai Lun, however the oldest paper found was in a tomb, made between 140 - 87 BCE. 

Tool for making pulp out of bamboo
Photo Credit: Alexandra Moss
The Chinese used hemp plants, mulberry bark, bamboo and rice straw for their paper pulp.The material was pounded until it disintegrated, then liquid was added to make a pulp. The pulp was spread evenly over screens to let the liquid drain. The pulp then dried as paper. This process is still used today in China.

This paper, made in the Guizhou region, uses pulverized leaves
Photo Credit: Tim Zachernuk
When paper was first developed in China, it was rough and not used for writing - it was mainly used for wrapping objects. Interestingly, it was also used for making military armor: the paper was folded in pleats with layers of cloth or silk. 

Once the paper is done drying in the sun (see photo at top of post), it is ready to be peeled off of the screens.
Photo Credit: Kaj Iverson
Paper began to be used for writing in 3rd century. Prior to that, writing was done on bamboo strips, which were rolled but bulky and heavy, and on silk occasionally, but this was expensive. The use of paper for writing was much more convenient than bamboo to carry, and more affordable than silk (which in turn increased the production of silk for export). 

Watch a video:

Here's a short clip that shows a quick overview of the making of Xuan paper - famed Chinese rice paper, that continues to be made in the traditional manner. (After about 1min50sec it segues into the invention of printing) 

Below is a longer (approx. 10 min), more detailed overview of the making of Xuan paper created by UNESCO, with some fascinating steps (a few of the 108 steps required!). Note, the narration can be a bit dry for kids - Elle zoned out some of what was said, but loved watching the scenes of China and paper making.

Try your hand at the ancient techniques:

Photo Credit: Angelic Scalliwags
The Angelic Scalliwags made a small piece of paper by pounding soaked hemp and bark pieces into a pulp while studying ancient China in their homeschool. Their extensive studies covered all dynasties, each with fascinating facts and creative, hands on activities. If you would like to learn more about ancient China, you can read all of her ancient China blog posts here. To see how they made hemp pulp and paper, you can read her post about the invention of paper here.

Make recycled paper:

Our finished result - nice thick paper. Though certainly not fine rice paper for Chinese calligraphy!
We decided to try out making paper at home, using scraps of paper destined for recycling. The process is similar, in that a pulp is created, though with the use of scrap paper. The pulp is then spread on a screen and dried to create a sheet of hand made paper. You can read our post and try your hand at making paper here

By the way, the world's first paper money was used in China. 

You can learn more about the Four Great Inventions with our earlier posts:


  1. 'small piece of paper' is about right!! I think even calling it paper is a bit of a stretch!!
    Thanks for the mention, I'm off to read your paper making!

    1. Your hemp paper reminds me of archaeological finds of ancient paper - which is so neat!


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