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The Origin of Origami


John Hillabolt asks:

 "Is Origami of Chinese or Japanese origin? Recently I was confronted by person who is Chinese and they claimed credit. Could you set me straight?"

The short answer is that we do not know and that we haven't the slightest glimmer of information on what was the origin of paperfolding.

 The first rough paper was made in China somewhere around 200 BC. Fine papers, suitable for writing were being made in China by around 100 AD. On the other hand paper was not introduced into Japan until about 550 AD, when it was introduced into Japan by Buddhists from Korea. The Japanese immediately went about making paper even better, but Chinese paper was already acceptable.

 So the Chinese had paper suitable for writing (and it may be inferred, suitable for folding) some 450 years before the Japanese.

 We do not know whether paper was folded as early as this. Some people argue that paper was very expensive at this time and that it would not have been available for folding. On the other hand there must always have been scraps and off-cuts lying around. If you hold a piece of paper in your hand, it is almost impossible not to play with it, so paperfolding could have started as soon foldable paper became available But nobody, Chinese, Japanese or from anywhere else has ever left a record about this. All we have are our own conjectures.


We have extremely little information anywhere in the world about paperfolding before 1600 AD. In Japan, we know that letters were folded formally, but in a very elementary way. There were also zigzagged streamers known as Gohei and O-sheda which date from the Heian Era ((795 - 1185. AD) Unfortunately, this period covers nearly 400 years, so a reference to it is not at all precise!.


The Ocho and Mecho butterflies, which were and are used to decorate sake flasks and kettles may, perhaps also date from Heian times, but they may be later. It has been suggested that these may have been the origin of modern recreational folding, but they are really ceremonial or decorative folds.


Japanese formal wrappers (tstutsumi) are thought to date from the Muomachi period (1333 - 1568) or perhaps their origins may go back to the earlier Kakamura period (1185 - 1333). We have no records or illustrations of recreational paperfolding (what we now know as "origami") from Japan until well into the 17th Century. However, when paperfolding eventually emerged, it was as a developed craft and so that it must have had an earlier history and we may reasonably suppose that it was known before 1600.


However, it has to be stressed that the earliest evidence of paperfolding in Europe is just as early, if not earlier than that from Japan. The first evidence for folding in Europe may be in the pattern of the diagram used for horoscopes in Europe from the 12th century AD to as late as the 19th century. This is identical to the crease pattern of what we now call the "double-blintz", and is said to have been originated in Toledo by Gerardo Cremone (1114 - 1187).

There are other reasons which suggest that the "astrological square" was originally actually folded in the form of a "double- blintzed" square. Also from Europe, there are also what appear to be paper boats in an illustration in a book a book which was published in published in Venice in 1490. Then in 1614, the paper fly-trap (which is none other than the waterbomb) is mentioned in an English play dated 1614. Again, napkin folding, which was closely related to paperfolding and used the same patterns and techniques, became fashionable in aristocratic courts in Italy well before 1600. From the evidence we have, paperfolding in Europe is just as old as paperfolding in Japan, China or anywhere else. The big question is whether folding in the East influenced the folding in Europe or vice versa or whether the separate regions of the world developed their own paperfolding independently.  

Whatever my be the true facts of the matter, many people today habitually assume that paperfolding is entirely Japanese in origin and development.

There are several reasons for this incorrect assumption.

1. In the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, Japanese paperfolding at that time was unquestionably much more advanced in development than

paperfolding in Europe or, apparently, in China.

2. The Flapping Bird and the Jumping Frog were introduced into Europe and North America by Japanese conjurors around 1870. Before 1854 by a decision of the Shoguns, Japan had been a closed and isolated country. By treaties beginning with one with the United States in 1854, Japan opened her frontiers and Japanese were, for the first time, allowed to come to the West, not only seeking the secrets of Western industrialisation but also bringing with them the "Wonders of the Orient". One of these wonders was Japanese paperfolding which was very different from the paperfolding then known in western countries. The Flapping Bird was known at first as "the Japanese Mechanical Bird", even though it does not, itself, appear to have been known in Japan, where its place was taken by the classic paper Crane.

3. When Lillian Oppenheimer was looking for an attractive word for paperfolding in New York around 1957, she first considered the Chinese word but deliberately rejected it. I understand that the Mandarin Chinese word for paperfolding is "zhe-zhi", which Lillian found to be too harsh-sounding for her taste.. As soon as she heard the more mellifluous Japanese word, Origami" with its eastern sound, she seized upon it. Then, with the formation by her of the Origami Center in October, 1958, "origami" passed into common currency.

4. From 1957, colourful books of origami compiled in Japan, but in the English language, by Isao Honda , Florence Sakade and by Tokinobu and Hideko Mihara flooded into Europe and North America. All had the name "Origami" in their titles. These books reinforced Lillian Oppenheimer's choice of the word "origami". They also added to he general impression that all paperfolding came form Japan. But this was simply not true.

5. Modern origami originated with Akira Yoshizawa following the first public publication of his work in Japan in 1952. He developed new techniques and methods of folding; he insisted on "creative folding" and abstained (for the most part) from any cutting. He became an inspiration to folders in both Japan and the West and it was he who started the modern movement. Yoshizwa, of course, is Japanese!

6. Dr. Frederick Starr of Chicago University visited Japan around 1920 and discovered origami there. On his return, he wrote an enthusiiastic article in the American "Japan, Overseas Travel Magazine" for October 1922. This article described aspects of paperfolding in Japan that had not previously been known in the West. Eventually, under the leadership of Gershon Legman, this article was to become much sought after and instrumental as one of the factors which stimulated new interest in paperfolding in the 1950s and 1960s. Again, it emphasised Japanese origami. It led to the discovery of Kayaragusa (or "Kan no mado"), the Japanese paperfolding classic, compiled around 1845), which disclosed that the Japanese already had an advanced style of cut-and-fold paperfolding in the mid 19th Century

7. There was a revival of interest in paperfolding in Spain and Argentina from about 1895, under Miguel Unamuno, the philosopher, poet and Rector of Salamanca University. He anticipated by thirty years some to the new ideas of Yoshizawa. However, in the days before widespread air travel and partially as a result of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, Spain and Argentina were then effectively remote and this proto-revolution of European paperfolding, which originated in Southern Europe did not become known in North-Western Europe or North America those until the late 1950s, once again as a result of more researches by Gershon Legman, who fortuitously made contact with folders in Argentina, just as he had with Yohizawa.

8. When English dictionaries first introduced "origami" into their volumes in the early 1960s, they were influenced by the before-mentioned factors and, they usually defined it as the Japanese art of paperfolding. Even the Oxford English Dictionary took this course. (I happen to know something about how they arrived at their definition.) It was, after all, originally a Japanese word and it was easy to infer, incorrectly, that all paperfolding was Japanese. However, the history of paperfolding tells a different story and for once, the dictionaries were wrong. In fact, the word "Origami" only came to be used in Japan for recreational origami around 1890.

Let us now go back to China and Japan. The person mentioned by John Hillabolt who claimed that paperfolding originated in China, is not the first person to have made that claim. For instance, It was also made by the great folder Philip Shen, who now lives in California. He was born of Chinese parents in the Philippines, but lived until quite recently in Hong Kong. Philip may be expected to know about Chinese paperfolding and has argued in support of Chinese folding. On the other hand, some may claim that as a person of Chinese extraction and residence, he must necessarily be prejudiced in favour of China!

The fact is that paperfolding my have originated in China or Japan or in some other eastern country. Korea is also a candidate. Some have even argued that paperfolding could have originated in Europe and was then taken to the east. This seems to me to be unlikely, but it may be that western paperfolding had an origin entirely separate from paperfolding in the east..

China is undoubtedly a country of paper crafts and paper symbolism. It is still customary for "grave goods" to be made from paper and also for mock banknotes (known as "Hell Money") to be burned in huge quantities at Chinese funerals. Most of these items are not folded, but some of them are. Eric Kenneway give an example of a folded gold ingot from China in his book, "Complete Origami".

Following the Communist revolution in China, paper-cutting was considered to be a "people's" art and was encouraged by the regime. Consequently, it flourished in many styles and regional variants and it is possible to buy packs of exquisitely cut paper pictures in the west. I have a collection of my own. However, paperfolding was never considered to be a folk art and appears to have escaped the notice of the authorities. Because of this it was not encouraged and has not flourished. Nevertheless, many books on paperfolding have been published in Communist China. (I have some 25 books of paperfolding in Chinese).

However, these books are, made up for the most part of the familiar traditional models which are now universally known throughout the world.. These could have come from Japan or the West, but there are indications that many were also known in China. From the 1970s, unauthorised translations of Japanese origami books were made in Chinese and sold in Hong Kong and probably in mainland China. These books were badly produced and, of course, in breach of copyright law, where it existed.

Yet underlying this confused situation, there does appear to have been a genuine folk tradition of Chinese paperfolding. There has in recent years been a steady dribble of unusual folds that have emerged from China. Following lifting of restrictions on travel to China, Western paperfolders have visited that country and (often casually and unexpectedly) hve come across interesting folds. They are often quite different from anything we know from Japan or the West. The bird that dips its head into a cup is a well-known example.

These are probably "playground" folds devised by children but they do indicate that there is a living tradition of paperfolding in China. I have been collecting material on Chinese paperfolding for many years and now have quite a thick file on the subject. But I am not yet ready to sort it out and work out what constructions we can place on the accumulated evidence..

But until some Chinese researcher takes an interest in the subject or it becomes recognised by the Chinese government, we are unlikely to get a comprehensive picture of Chinese folding. Even in Japan, serious research in to the history of paperfolding did not begin until around the 1970s. There were earlier, pioneer researchers, but the first scholarly book was not published until 1993, when "Origami from the Classics" was published by Satoshi Takaga and when Masao Okamura began his studies of the history of Japanese paperfolding. Both Satoshi Takaga and Masao Okamura now regularly have articles in Origami Tanteidan Magazine. As far as I know, their researches have been confined to Japan and they do not throw light on paperfolding in China. From the point of view of John's question, they make no attempt to say where in the world papefolding first originated. Both Mr Takagi and Mr.Okamura acknowledge that there is no substantial evidence in these matters until after 1600.

So, neither the Chinese nor the Japanese, nor the Koreans nor the Europeans are yet entitled to claim priority as being the first paperfolders.

I can hardly claim to have set John Hillabold straight, but I hope that I have shown that the innocent question that he asks has deeper implications and does not yet have a simple or a concise answer.

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

8th November, 2003.

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