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Origins of Paper

Kens ( asked if John Smith had made an error in his "Notes on the History of Origami" published in BOS booklet no.1. A revised version of the notes appears on John's own Website ("Bits of Smith") at << >>

John is much too knowledgeable to have deliberately given 1000 AD as the date for the invention of paper. It is undoubtedly a typographical error for 100 AD.

The invention of paper has been traditionally attributed to a Chinese court official known as Ts'ai Lun. When Emperor Chang died in 75 AD, Ts'ai Lun was charged with the education of the late emperor's young son. This put him in a position of great power and influence. He saw the need for a more efficient way of keeping state records than on bamboo strips and pieces of silk, so he encouraged the development of suitable paper for this purpose. In this he seems to have succeeded. The date would have been approximately 100 AD.

However, archaeological research has now shown that paper was invented somewhat before this, The oldest Chinese paper has been discovered in a tomb dated to between the years 140 and 87 BC. The paper was of rough quality and more like felt. It is said to have been used for clothing, so it was probability not suitable for writing. Probably there was a period of slow improvement. Nevertheless, the Chinese word for "Paper" already appears in a dictionary published in 69 AD.

The oldest surviving piece of paper with writing on it was discovered in a watchtower near Chu-yen in 1942. Since the date the watchtower was abandoned is known to have been 110 AD, the paper must date from before then.

Paper was taken to Japan by Buddhists, who needed the whitest paper obtainable on which to write their scriptures. Buddhism was taken to Japan from Korea around 550 AD. It is recorded that paper-making was introduced into Japan by a Buddhist priest called Tam-Chi (known to the Japanese as Doncho) in 610 AD. The Prince Regent of Japan considered that the paper so introduced was brittle and unsatisfactory, so he encouraged experiments to be made to improve it. This resulted in a much improved b paper. Since then Japanese hand-made paper-making has continued to be unrivalled as the finest in the world.

The Chinese tried to keep the secret of papermaking to themselves and even after Korea and Japan discovered the secrets of paper-making, the Chinese tried to keep it from the West. However in 751 AD there was a conflict between the Arabs and the Chinese around Samarkand. The Arabs took Chinese prisoners who were skilled in paper-making. They were persuaded to disclose the secret. From then on, it was only a matter of time before the knowledge of papermaking reached the Arabian heartlands and then along the coast of North Africa to the lands occupied by the Moors, including Spain, which was then under their domination.

Early in the 12th Century, Valencia, in Spain was freed from the Moors and in 1141, paper-making was recorded from the Christians there. It was recorded in France in 1260, in Italy in 1388, in Germany in 1388 and in England in 1490, although paper was undoubtedly imported into England before that date.  

Paper arrived in northern Europe just in time for the invention of printing using moveable type, which was invented by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz in Germany in 1454, followed by William Caxton in London in 1476. From then onwards, paper-making and printing, together developed rapidly.

I have distilled these notes from two articles on Paper that I wrote for British Origami numbers 183 and 184 for April and June, 1997.

David Lister

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