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The invention of Paper

China (c. 25-220 AD)


INVENTION: c. 105 AD, Eastern Han period

LOCATION: China, eastern region

Paper was documented to be first processed in China during the Eastern Han period in the early 2nd Century (ca. 105 AD) and traditionally attributed to the court official Cai Lun, who broke the bark of a mulberry tree and pressed its fibers, which were dried in sheets or wooden frames and screens. As time went on, it was discovered that the quality of paper could be much improved by adding rags of hemp and old fish nets to the pulp.

It is also believed that the invention of the early form of paper was accidental after clothes made from hemp were left too long after washing and the residue formed in water could be pressed into a new useful material. Cumbersome bamboo, wooden strips and expensive silks had been used as surface for writing but after much endeavor, a lighter and cheaper alternative had finally been found in the form of paper scrolls.

Archeological evidence of paper making predates the traditional attribution given to Cai Lun to about 200 years earlier, although the exact date and inventor of paper cannot be concluded. The earliest extant paper fragment was exhumed at the Fangmatan site in Gansu province and was believed to be part of a map dated 179-141 BCE. Paper fragments have also been found in Dunhaung and Yamen. The papers were able to survive for about 2000 years without entirely decomposing due to the climate of these places. Some of these papers even had ink marks on them, proving that ink was invented way before historians had supposed.

For a long time China closely guarded their paper making technique and tried to eliminate other oriental centers of production so as to ensure monopoly. However in 751 AD some Chinese soldiers and paper makers were captured after the mighty battle with the Ottoman Turks at the Tales River where the T’ang army of china was defeated. The Arabs learnt the paper making process from the Chinese prisoners and built their first Paper industry in 793 A.D. in Baghdad. They kept the paper making technique secret too, which resulted in the Europeans learning how to make paper only centuries later.