Errors and misconceptions about the history of paperfolding
The following text appears in “Design”, a desktop publishing computer program published by Adobe. A copy was posted to Origami-L, the Origami Internet List on 3rdSeptember, 2003 by a subscriber from Australia who said that the “Design” program had Origami as the theme for many of its chapters, including photographs and the following text on the history of Origami.
A short history of origami from “design”
”The name origami was coined in 1880 for the [Japanese] words ‘oru’ (to
fold) and ‘kami’ (paper). It started in the first century AD in
China. They say that's when papermaking started, and with papermaking came
paper folding. The Chinese developed some simple forms, some of which survive
to this day. Buddhist monks brought Origami to Japan in the sixth century AD.
It caught on quickly throughout the culture: paper was used in architecture
and in many everyday rituals. Many of the earliest designs have been lost,
since there was
“Origami flourished in other parts of the world, as well. Arabs brought
“Modern origami owes its existence to a man named Akira Yoshizawa. In
As origami evolves, elaborate folding techniques produce amazing models. In our class, Judith specialized in creature fish and sea creature origami. During the first two weeks of training, she produced a horseshoe crab, a goldfish, a strikingly beautiful seahorse, a so-so squid, and a lopsided clam basing her patterns on Barbour, Andreozzi and Robinson.
COMMENTS ON THIS ARTICLE by DAVID LISTER
My original comments were posted to Origami-L on 3rd September, 2003. They evoked comments from two subscribers, Haori Koshiro and Kenneth Kawamura, which I have incorporated as far as possible in the following revision of what I originally wrote.
This piece gives me an opportunity of commenting on and, I hope, refuting, some misconceptions about the history of Origami which appear all too frequently and which get repeated from article to article and publication to publication without any checking of their accuracy. So here are my comments. I give first a section of the article from “Design” and then my comments on it.
1. Statement: The name origami was coined in 1880 for the Japanese words “oru” (to fold) and “kami” (paper).
Comment: The word "Origami" was coined in Japan as long ago as the Western middle ages - I cannot give it a precise date, but Hatori Koshiro suggests that it must be sometime in the late 12th Century. "Origami" was originally used for a horizontal, rectangular sheet of paper called “tategami” which was folded in half latitudinally. (If it was cut in half it was called “kirigami”.) Origami of this kind were originally used for lists and letters and are still used for the list of formal betrothal gifts. In the Edo era, the a folded origami if this kind was used for a certificate (such as a certificate of the authentic manufacture of a Japanese sword). Curiously, this usage is much the same as the Greek word “Diploma”, which means a folded document and which is used as a certificate. Today it is used for a certificate of academic qualifications.
In the 18th Century” the word “Origami” was occasionally used in Japan as a term for ceremonial paperfolding and once or twice for recreational folding. However, “Origami” was not normally used for recreational paperfolding until the end of the 19th Century. Common words for recreational paperfolding were "orikata" and "orisue", although these words were also used fro ceremonial paperfolding. In the 1890s, "origami" informally came to be adopted as the word for paperfolding in the traditional Japanese schools in contrast to the German-inspired kindergartens which used words like "tatamigami", probably because the traditional schools were trying to emphasise the native tradition of paperfolding.
2. Statement: [Paperfolding] started in the first century AD in China. They say that is when papermaking started and with papermaking came paperfolding.
Comment: The first rough paper was made in China around 100 BC. The Chinese made improved paper in the first century AD and no doubt it was suitable for folding. But there is not the slightest shred of evidence to indicate that paperfolding (as opposed to paper making) started as early as this.
3. Statement: The Chinese developed some simple forms, some of which
Comment: Paperfolding could well have stated in China - or in Korea or Japan or, so far as we can tell from the absence of evidence of any kind - anywhere else in the Old World. Most people (including me) incline to think that the Chinese were the first to fold paper, but I must emphasise that it must be accepted that this is mere conjecture. Presumably, wherever and whenever paperfolding started, the first forms would be simple.
4. Statement: Buddhist monks brought Origami to Japan in the sixth century
Comment: Buddhist monks brought paper making with them from Korea to Japan
around 550 AD. But paper making is something entirely different from
Paper has always been used in a variety of ways in the Shinto religion. Apart from the use of paper for scriptures, there are a few instances of the use of paperfolding in Buddhism, but in comparison with the use of paper in Shintoism, they are very few.
5. Statement: Paper was used in architecture and in many everyday rituals.
Comment: When I was a child I was told that the Japanese built their
We know nothing of the use of paper in early everyday rituals. We can only
Ocho and Mecho Butterflies, which were used to decorate flsks and kettles for rice wine or sake may possibly date from the Heian, but probably came later, in the Kamakura era ( 1185 - 1333) or the Muromachi era (1333 - 1568).
6. Statement: Many of the earliest designs have been lost.
Comment: Since we do not know what the earliest designs were, we are in no
7. Statement: - since there was nothing written down about origami until
Comment: The correct romanised spelling is Sembazuru Orikata, although some writers prefer the spelling "Senbazuru". This printed book, which appeared in several editions was the very first book of recreational paperfolding in Japanese. It gives instructions on how to fold multiple cranes from a single sheet of strong paper cut into smaller squares and connected at the corners. This was a new and almost unique kind of paperfolding and it has little to do with ordinary recreational folding, except that it incorporates the basic design of the classic crane which had been known as single fold since long before 1797.
The two printed sheets of paper known as "Chushingura Orikata" (it is not a book) also date from 1797 and apparently from the same source. They show instructions for folding simple human figures which are much closer to ordinary recreational folding than the multiple canes of “Senbazuru Orikata”.
However, there was an earlier Japanese book of folding. This was, however, not about recreational paperfolding but about ceremonial paper folding and knotting. This was "Tsutsumi musibi no ki" by Sadatake Ise (1717 - 1784) which was originally published in 1764. In 1865, a reprint was published in two volumes, one of tsutsumi wrappers and one of ceremonial mizuhiki knots.
8. Statement: The Kan no mado (Window of Midwinter), a comprehensive
Comment: The so-called Kan no mado is a private manuscript compilation of
In about 1922 a facsimile copy was prepared by hand for Professor Frederick Starr of Chicago University. This remarkably accurate facsimile is now in the Library of Congress in Washington, but it is only a modern copy and has no historical authority.
The compilation is understood to have been put together in 1845, but it is
The name of this encyclopaedia has been a subject of much discussion. The
The modern Japanese prefer to use the name "Kayaragusa", which is
9. Statement: Origami flourished in other parts of the world, as well.
Comment. Perhaps or perhaps not! Let us see the evidence before we assent
10. Statement: Arabs brought the secrets of paper making to North Africa,
Comment: The Arabs learnt paper making from Chinese paper makers captured during a conflict at Samarkand in 751 AD. It spread through the territories conquered by Islam. By 1036 AD the Moors had brought paper-making to Cordoba in southern Spain, which was still occupied by them. Paper was first made in a Christian-controlled part of eastern Spain near Valencia in 1144. The possibility that the Moors had a knowledge of paperfolding cannot be absolutely ruled out but there is no evidence whatsoever that paperfolding accompanied the knowledge of paper making or that the Moors introduced paperfolding into Spain.
11. Statement: The Moors, devoutly religious, were forbidden to create
Comment: Despite general assumptions, it is not true that the Koran or the
12. Statement: Their paper folding was a study in geometry.
Comments: The Islamic peoples developed most intricate geometrical designs with which to decorate their buildings. To study them is a delight. And they employ their own kind of geometry. I have several books devoted to the subject. But the interlacement of lines in Islamic patterns is wholly different from the crease patterns of paperfolding and consequently Islamic pattern could not have given rise to paper folding. Incidentally, Moorish pattern often resembles Celtic patterns of knotting.
In "Folding the Universe", page 26, Peter Engel gives a reproduction
13. Statement: After the Moors were driven out of Spain during the
Comments: The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united under King
The word "Papiroflexia" was one of the words devised by Dr. Vicente Solorzano Sagredo in Argentina in the 1930s and he wrote many books with "papiroflexia" in the title. Other words devised by him (he published a long list of his own neologisms) were "papiorola" for a paperfolded model and "deltoidology" for the science of paperfolding, from the shape of the classic bases when collapsed flat.
14. Statement: Anyway, this technique is still popular in Spain and Argentina.
Comments: Yes, paperfolding is now popular in Spain and Argentina. But this popularity is largely to be attributed to Miguel Unamuno, (1864 - 1936) the Spanish philosopher and poet, and Rector of Salamanca University, whose paperfolding anticipated, in some respects, the work of Yoshizawa thirty or forty years later, and inspired many followers in both Spain and Argentina. But we cannot say that this popularity derived from the Moors. There are vague reports that paperfolding was popular in Spanish villages and even in prisons in the 19th Century, but when people came to search for this traditional folding, it had vanished without trace or it had merged into the folding of the followers of Unamuno. Did it really ever exist? The Spanish like to claim that they invented paperfolding. But taking paperfolding in Europe as a whole, I find it difficult to see that Spanish paperfolding before Unamuno was any different from paperfolding in the rest of Europe. Spanish paperfolding has now merged with the international paperfolding movement, but you will rarely catch the Spaniards using the word "Origami" except when they are off guard!
15. Statement: Modern origami owes its existence to a man named Akira
Comments: Yoshizawa was born in 1911 and started folding when he was aged about 3 years old. He was mainly self-taught. I firmly believe that although Unamuno started folding creatively at the end of the 19th Century, Yoshizawa was the principal originator of modern creative origami. He was certainly making new discoveries in the 1930s, but whether he created "thousands" of models in the 1930s is a statement open to question. We owe much to him and in many ways, including the emphasis on uncut paper, new bases, a creative approach to origami, wet folding and his system of diagrams using lines and arrows. (But Robert Harbin also identified the common bases and named the basic moves of folding. Then in “The Art of Origami” (1961) Samuel Randlett pulled everything together into the standard system we use today in the West.).
16. Statement: Yoshizawa exhibited his work throughout the west in the 1950's and 1960's and helped inspire many paper-folders in the west as well as Japan.
Comments: Yoshizawa originally exhibited his work in Japan in the early 1950s but his work was later exhibited in the West by Gershon Legman in Amsterdam in 1955 and by Lillian Oppenheimer in New York in 1959. Yoshizawa sent them models he had previously folded or which he had specially folded for the exhibitions. Since then there have been few exhibitions in the West devoted to Yoshizawa, except for those small exhibitions he has put on himself during his frequent ambassadorial visits to many countries of the world. In Japan he has continued to put on many stunning exhibitions, often very large ones, showing the great diversity of his approaches to origami.
17. Statement: As origami evolves, elaborate folding techniques produce amazing models.
Comment: If anything this is a gross understatement! Much of the recent elaboration and complexity of paperfolding has been made possible by the marriage of traditional paperfolding techniques with mathematics.
18. Statement: In our class, Judith specialised in creature fish and sea
Comments: With no disrespect to Barbour, Andreozzi and Robinson, the
19. A Final Question: How did this article in the Adobe Design program come to be written?
Comment: It would appear to be the work of a journalist or amateur folder who had been given the task of writing about the history of origami. Whoever it was has copied uncritically from earlier articles, which themselves frequently copy from previous writers and so errors are repeated and go uncorrected. The writer had certainly not learnt that all that appears in print is not always true.
As you may have gathered, I’m not at all impressed! But for myself, I freely admit that I what I write may contain errors, so as always, I shall be very grateful to be contradicted where I have gone wrong or where my reasoning is faulty. And any new evidence will be MOST welcome, even if it contradicts what I have written.
20 A Postscript: Was Leonardo da Vinci a paperfolder?
Although he was not mentioned in the Adobe Design program, Leonardo da Vinci has frequently been confidently asserted to have been a “great paperfolder”. Is this assertion true? As a supplement to my comment on the Adobe “Design” program, I have decided to add a brief discussion of this further questionable assumption.
Comment: It is well-known that Leonardo had an unusually enquiring mind and was involved in many scientific investigations and experiments. In particular, he was interested in flying and drew up plans for ornithopters (aircraft that flap their wings like birds) gliders and helicopters. In some of the diagrams that he drew, it appears that he may have used membranes to form the wings of his aircraft. If so, were these of paper? More likely they would of parchment or vellum, although paper was already being made in southern Europe during Leonardo’s lifetime.
In his introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition “Plane Geometry and Fancy Figures” held at the Cooper Union Museum in New York during the summer of 1949, (the exhibition at which models by Akira Yoshizawa were displayed) Edward Kallop wrote:
“In the Codex Atlanticus, that monument to the scientific mind of Leonardo da Vinci, are found a number of geometric exercises that clearly make use of folding as simple visual illustrations with one in particular a near duplicate of the typical folded paper aeroplane of today. In some instances, the text contains the word “falcata”, meaning “bent” of “folded”, and while there is no mention of material of any kind, it is not difficult to imagine Leonardo would have found paper a more tractable medium than cloth”.
In the notes to his Introduction, Kallop lists six references to illustrations in the Codex Atlanticus. Roberto Morassi of Florence in Italy, one of the founders of the Italian origami society, Centro Diffusione Origami, subsequently examined each of these figures in the Codex Atlanticus, but reported that in his opinion none of the illustrations represented paperfolding.
I myself can only confirm that among all of the reproductions of Leonardo’s aircraft that I have seen, I have not seen anything resembling what we call “origami”. Peter Engel shows a page of one of Leonardo’s notebooks on page 28 of his “Folding the Universe” So readers may make up their own minds. Some edges of foldable materials appear to be folded over, but does this amount to “paperfolding”
Conclusion: Since the late 19th Century when Unamuno was folding and since 1952, when the work of Yoshizawa was first brought to the notice of the Japanese public, we have learnt much about the history of paperfolding. This has been achieved by assiduousness and patient research by a very small number of investigators, helped by others who have recorded scraps of information which they have unexpectedly come across. It is a slow process and our picture of paperfolding over the ages must continuously be brought up to date as new information is found, even if it makes us abandon ideas which have long been cherished.. Uninformed conjecture and slavish repetition have no place in this process and old ideas must always be weighed against new facts as they come to light. Only in this way will our knowledge of the history of Origami be advanced.
3rd September, 2003.
(Revised and with an added postscript on Leonardo and paperfolding and a new conclusion 21st November, 2004.)