Who First Invented Paper?
The word “paper” is etymologically derived from papyros, Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus plant. Papyrus is a thick, paper-like material produced from the pith of the Cyperus papyrus plant which was used in ancient Egypt and other Mediterranean cultures for writing long before the making of paper in China. Papyrus however are plants dried and woven, while paper is made from fibers whose properties have been changed by maceration or disintegration.
Papermaking has traditionally been traced to China when Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste, though the earliest piece of paper found, at Fangmatan in Gansu province inscribed with a map, dates from 179-41 BC.
During the Shang (1600–1050 BC) and Zhou (1050-256 BC) dynasties of ancient China, documents were ordinarily written on bone or bamboo (on tablets or on bamboo strips sewn and rolled together into scrolls), making them very heavy, awkward, and hard to transport. The light material of silk was sometimes used as a recording medium, but was normally too expensive to consider.
The Han dynasty Chinese court official Cai Lun (ca. 50–121) is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern method of papermaking (inspired by wasps and bees) from rags and other plant fibers in 105.
However, the discovery of specimens bearing written Chinese characters in 2006 at Fangmatan in north-east China’s Gansu Province suggest that paper was in use by the ancient Chinese military more than 100 years before Cai, in 8 BC, and possibly much earlier as the map fragment found at the Fangmatan tomb site dates from the early 2nd century BC. It therefore would appear that “Cai Lun’s contribution was to improve this skill systematically and scientifically, fix a recipe for papermaking”.
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 bamboos heavy they were not convenient to use. Tshai 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 AD) and received praise for his ability. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called the paper of Marquis Tshai.
The manufacture may have originated from the practice of pounding and stirring rags in water, after which the matted fibres were collected on a mat. The bark of Paper Mulberry was particularly valued and high quality paper was developed in the late Han period, which used the bark of tan (sandalwood).
In the Eastern Jin period paper began to be made on a fine bamboo screen-mould, treated with insecticidal dye for permanence. After printing became popular in the Song dynasty the demand grew more. Paper was often used as a levy, with one prefecture sending some 1.5 million sheets of paper to the capital as tribute up to the year 1101.
Today, many different materials are pulped, and paper is made on machines, usually in wide, endless sheets. Yet the basic processes used for making paper today are much the same as those used by the ancient Chinese.