Origins of paper

Origins of paper

The documented origin of paper is apparently clear-cut: its invention is narrated in the official history of the Han dynasty written in the fifth century:

In ancient times writings and inscriptions were generally made on tablets of bamboo or on pieces of silk called chih. But silk being costly and bamboo heavy, they were not convenient to use. Tshai Lun [蔡伦 / Cai Lun] then initiated the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, remnants of hemp, rags of cloth, and fishing nets. He submitted the process to the emperor in the first year of Yuan-Hsing [105 CE] and received praise for his ability. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called 'the paper of Marquis Tshai'.*

Cai Lun was a court eunuch who served the Emperor He of the Han dynasty from 75 CE and was promoted director of the manufacture of instruments and weapons in 89 CE. According to one legend, his greatest invention was inspired by watching paper wasps make their nests. His innovations were enthusiastically promoted especially by Empress Deng Sui. By the third century CE, paper fabricated in this way was in widespread use throughout China, promoting learning and literacy, supporting imperial administration, and transforming Chinese culture in countless ways.

Archaeological evidence, however, supports a far earlier origin. The fragment of paper pictured above was found in 1986 in a tomb in Gansu dating from the early Western Han dynasty (early 2nd century BCE). Although the earliest paper may have been used for wrapping instead of writing, this fragment is evidently a map, showing topographical features drawn in black ink. This suggests that the origins of paper go back further still.

* Quoted from Joseph Needham and Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1: Paper and Printing (Cambridge, 1985), p. 40. The context of Cai Lun’s work is recounted in more depth in Alexander Monro, The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the World’s Greatest Invention (London, 2014), pp. 57-61.

Credit: Howard Hotson (April 2019)