Bark-cloth and the Origins of Paper

It is widely believed that paper was invented in China by Ts’ai Lun, an official in the Imperial Court, in 105 AD.  However, in 1987, Dr. Rod Ewins, who was at that time the Head of the Tasmanian School of Art, having researched the subject extensively, and basing his conclusions on similar findings by researchers in China in 1963, wrote a paper in which he outlined his conclusion that the origins of paper go back many thousands of years, in the form of bark-cloth, which Ts’ai Lun developed into paper.

In 2006 a fragment of a map with Chinese characters was excavated at Fangmatan in north-east China’s Gansu province suggesting that the ancient military were using some form of paper 100 years or more before Ts’ail Lun’s experiment, as the map fragment dates from the early 2nd century BC.  However, no evidence of what kind of “paper” was being used at that time can be found (perhaps it was made from silk?).

Why did Ts’ai Lun experiment with bark-cloth in the first place to make paper?

According to Dr. Ewins, early Chinese texts suggest that a form of paper was made from waste silk , by macerating the fibres and sieving them onto a porous mould.  This would not have been paper as such, but more like felt, since no hydrogen bonding would have occurred with silk, and it may well be that some form of mucilage or surface sealant would have been needed to give it a firm surface for writing and printing on.  However, this process did not produce a very satisfactory base for writing and moreover waste silk was relatively scarce.  So the speculation is that Ts’ai Lun cast around for another way to make a better product.

Around the same time, written records, first on wooden tablets, going back as early as the 6th Century B.C., and archaeological finds of stone beaters, strongly suggest that bark-cloth manufacture may have been in existence throughout China for many thousands of years.  It seems that the principal bark source was the indigenous paper mulberry (Broussorietia papyrifera)), closely related to the kozo (Broussorietia kazinoki).  The bark cloth was used for clothing, and even for a light armour with copious folds to trap arrows.

But when writing developed in China, probably around 1200 BC, it was initially incised on hard material (such as the shoulder-blades of sheep and tortoise-shells) and not on bark cloth.  Later, with the advent of ink , the transition was to bamboo strips and boards, and later to silk.  None of these materials were very satisfactory, either because of expense and scarcity (silk), or too heavy to cart around and not permanent.

So it is assumed that Ts’ai Lun turned to bark-cloth, which was used extensively in his province for clothing and wrapping precious objects, as a base for his search for a better form of paper.  He experimented with breaking down the bark of a mulberry tree into fibres and pounding them into a pulp, which is the traditional way to make bark-cloth, but then adding cotton rags and hemp and old fish nets to the pulp.

In fact, tests of ancient Chinese paper samples from the British Museum, dating from approximately AD 400 to AD 1000, consistently show hemp as the main constituent fibre.

As an aside, Ts’ai Lun was Emperor Ho-Ti’s chief eunuch.  The paper he developed was thin yet flexible and strong and with its fine smooth surface it became known as Ts’ai Ko-Shi, meaning “distinguished Ts’ai’s Paper”, and he became revered as the patron saint of papermaking.

Ewins goes on to discuss the spread of the use of bark-cloth throughout the world as quite probably having originated in China.  There is a lot of evidence for the settlement of the Americas via North-east Asia, and by a different route to the Pacific and the Polynesian cultures.  It is very likely that these migrants brought with them the method of manufacture of bark-cloth but, more importantly, the paper mulberry tree itself, along with all the other plants needed for survival.  However, bark-cloth was used for clothing and primarily for religious and ritual purposes and was much prized in those communities for those reasons, but there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that it was ever used for writing.

As for the spread of paper, that didn’t happen till about the 3rd century, first to Vietnam and then to Tibet, followed by Korea in the 4th century and finally to Japan in the 6th century.

Main Reference:
Paper entitled “Bark Cloth and the Origins of Paper” by Dr. Rod Ewins, who was Head of the Tasmanian School of Art at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.  He delivered this paper at the First National Paper Conference in 1987 in Hobart, when the founding members of Primrose Paper Arts first got together.

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