It is said on this day in 105 AD, the eunuch Ts’ai Lun first presented the Chinese Han Dynasty Emperor Han Ho Ti with samples of paper. Chinese historical records suggest that Ts’ai Lun himself invented paper, however, recent archaeological finds suggest that it had been invented 200 years earlier. Regardless, it is from this point that the use of paper began its remarkable spread across the world, first to nearby Korea, Japan, and Tibet, then the great ancient capitals of Samarkand and Baghdad and throughout the Islamic world before finally reaching Europe.
Early paper like that Ts’ai Lun is said to have shown the Emperor was produced primarily from hemp waste, which was soaked in water before being beaten into a pulp. The pulp was apparently collected by a large framed sieve, perhaps made of cloth, and then dried. Added to this were a variety of fibers from bamboo, mulberry bark and other materials. The first paper was used, according to early historical accounts, for rather mundane purposes, such as protective wrapping around bronze mirrors, or padding medicines.
Historical documents show surprisingly early examples for our current everyday uses for paper. Along with its capacity to wrap and protect, by the 3rd century the Chinese were also widely making use of paper to write and document on. By the 6th century, accounts begin to appear of the Chinese using toilet paper; and before the 10th century, they were using paper for cups, napkins and packaging tea.
From China, paper spread to Korea and Japan. More important than the physical document was the manufacturing process involved in making paper. The secret process was strictly guarded and shared selectively by Buddhist monks. But after the Arabs defeated the Chinese in the Battle of Talas in 751 AD, the secret was out, and paper mills began popping up from Samarkand to Baghdad. By the 12th century, paper manufacturing had reached Europe.
Along with the Chinese, the Mayans in particular are known for their early paper production, dating back to the 5th century, called amate, using bark. The Egyptians had been writing on papyrus since as far back as the 3rd century BC, and before this, versatile animal hide and the occasional stone had sufficed. But the Chinese, and Ts’ai Lun in particular, are considered the great starting point, and today, Ts’ai Lun remains a celebrated figure in Chinese history.
Today, Ts’ai Lun remains a celebrated figure in popular Chinese history and our recent ancestors are thankful that they weren’t skinning calves or lugging around bamboo blocks for writing.
Credit: © Feng Yu / Alamy
Caption: Early paper was produced primarily from hemp waste.