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History of Paper and Our Civilisation

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Rule of Paper

Paper allows all kinds of specifications and abstractions for our understanding of the world, life, and beyond- paper money, prayers imprinted on paper, talismans written on paper, secrets kept on paper, history documented on paper, maps drawn out on it, and all of our emotions and knowledge poured out on paper by scholars, poets, writers, scientists, etc. and common people. How did such a perishable object become the keeper of everything valuable to us? Many historians even conclude that the industrial revolution and renaissance could not have been possible without the invention of paper but in an equally reciprocal way, one could say, paper arose from the felt needs of a society that was creating the industrial revolution and renaissance.

Paper Making in Ancient China

History of Paper

Hu Han Shu, the official Chinese history of the late Han rule, states that a Eunuch named Cai Lun, a servant of the Han Dynasty, first made paper in 105 BCE. Cai Lun is said to have made paper, pulping together the bark of trees, waste material from hemp, fishing nets, and old clothes. For centuries, paper-making remained a closely-guarded secret of the Chinese emperors who did not want anyone else to understand and use the technology. Though Cai Lun committed suicide falling prey to the palace intrigues, he earned a place in the hearts of the people as they even hung pictures of him in their homes. Later archaeological finds revealed that even before Cai Lun, there were instances of paper production in remote central China.

Paper Currency

The celebrated Venetian traveller, Marco Polo has written about the use of paper money in 12th century China. Paper money began to be printed in the eleventh century. In China, fifty ounces of silver was the value of paper money and this was equivalent to a thousand ounces of silk. Initially, the over-issuing of paper money resulted in inflation in Chinese society. Even as China and the Mongol kingdom of Kublai Khan were busy adopting paper currency, Europe was completely unaware of this revolution.

Papyrus Grass


Predecessors of Paper: Papyrus and Pergamum

Before paper was invented by the Chinese, many civilisations used to make materials similar to paper for writing on. Clay tablets were the first-ever known writing medium used by Sumerians who lived about 3300 BCE, between Babylon and the Persian Gulf. They inscribed simple shapes of lines and circles on stone and pressed these shapes onto clay tablets, most likely to keep account of goods exchanged and transported. These inscriptions are called cuneiforms by historians and linguists. Made from the stems of certain river grass, papyrus came in handy for Egyptians to turn into a writing surface. The oldest papyrus scroll that could be found is from between 2900 BCE and 2775 BCE. Parchment, originally known as Pergamum, was an improvement on papyrus, made out of treated animal hide and is named after the Greek city of Pergamum where it was first made. In India and Sri Lanka, people used to write on palm leaves. Even the Chinese used to write on cloth and bamboo before they refined the technology of paper-making.

Arabs Discover Paper

Arabs learned the technology of paper-making from the Chinese and it was they who brought the paper to the rest of the world. This is supposed to have happened in the ninth century and once paper entered the Arab world, it was set on a path of fast industrialisation. Arab society had already excelled in many knowledge streams such as architecture, mathematics, and astronomy, and paper was a valuable addition to preserve that knowledge for posterity. The first paper mill is supposed to have been established in Baghdad.

Paper Making in 19th Century India: Photo Taken by Paper Historian Dard Hunter

The European Encounter With Paper

In the 12th century, paper-making arrived in Europe. The 12th century Spain, ruled by Arabs, used to make paper from old clothes and Europe’s first encounter with this miracle object was via Spain. The church in Western Europe feared that writing on paper was pagan art and it even banned the use of paper among its believers. The church felt the animal parchment used for writing until then only had the worthiness to host the sacred word. It was also the lack of literacy that delayed the adoption of paper in Europe by about 1000 years after the Chinese invented it. Once printing technology was invented in the 15th century, all the caution and reservations were swept aside and paper began its historic journey of conquest, across the continents and seas. The method of paper-making that Cai Lun developed still lives on, even after the industrial production of paper became the norm worldwide; handmade paper is still made using the same basic technology that Cai Lun experimented with. Hand-made paper is made by pulping unwanted paper and then using glass and a wooden screen, removing the pulp from water in the form of a thin layer.

Gutenberg and the Gutenberg Bible

Johannes Gensfleisch Zur Laden zum Gutenberg lived in the city of Strasbourg during the 15th century when it was under the rule of the Roman empire. He invented movable type printing and became the harbinger of a new era for humankind by triggering a printing revolution. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, was proficient in metal work and made a fortune by selling the mirrors he made to the pilgrims who flocked to Aachen, where some relics of Christianity were on display. In between his misfortunes and successes as a mirror seller, Gutenberg refined the technology of printing and began to print indulgences to be handed over by the church as pardons for the sins of the people in exchange for money to fight the pagan attacks. The next intelligent business step that Gutenberg took was to print the Bible to harness the untapped popular demand for this sacred text. The Bible printed on paper proliferated into the masses and earned a permanent position in every household.

Johannes Gutenberg

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The Americas and Paper

The Aztecs in North America invented paper independent of the paper revolution in China and the Arab world. In 1502, Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador found that the Aztec native people had their paper-making technology and religious books. In human history, there are nine instances of independent invention of paper in different parts of the world, in isolation from each other.

The Maya Codices/Books of Ancient America

From a Luxury to the Most Mundane

Initially, the cost of production of paper made it a coveted extravagance that only the rich could afford. It became less expensive only when steam engines were invented and employed to produce factory-grade paper from wood. When the paper was costlier, it was used only for religious and legal purposes, thus imparting it with an aura of the sacred, of authority. Even when the paper became a common thing, some of that old-day veneration seems to have stuck to it. Paper came to command such varied uses that to imagine how it changed human life is now beyond our mental capacity. On a night, somewhere inside a ship in the middle of the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean, the explorers of continents might have gazed upon the lines drawn on it and wondered if the winds could be kind enough to take them safely to those unknown lands. Somewhere in a Catholic countryside, a child would have opened a holy Bible printed on paper to read, “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth”, and stood in awe of the cosmos. A map and the Bible equally symbolise the priceless contribution made by paper to humanity.

Paper Pollution

Large industrial units that manufacture paper use chemicals to make it white. One problem faced by the environment created by the paper factories is pollution, which is aggravated by the exploitation of water sources by these factories. Paper-making is a water-intensive process, not to mention the trees being cut down to gather raw material for the same. Recycling paper is one way to reduce these problems.

Paper Art Used for Burning in Funeral Ceremonies in China

Paper in Asian Culture

Paper has a special place in Asian cultures such as the Chinese and Japanese. Buddhist and Confucian literature was the first major knowledge stream that was preserved on paper in China. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), there was a colour code in place for using paper; white for legal documents, blue for temple communications, and yellow for official documents. Some rudimentary form of paper money was also in use during this period. As a mode of communication with Gods, the Chinese print the images of Gods on paper using wood blocks. These paper Gods are called Shenma and mounted on walls inside the house or burned during certain festivals. This practice has existed in rural China since time immemorial.

Time to Say Goodbye to Paper?

As the internet takes over the important place once held by paper, are we going to see an end to the reign of paper? Even as communication, books, accounts, maps, and legal documents have been fast migrating to the world wide web, sacred religious texts seem to be reluctant to move on. No priest is seen yet reading their Bible or Gita from a computer inside a place of worship. Will the last realm of paper be these sacred texts?


Did Marco Polo Go to China?, Frances Wood, 1998.

Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan, Stephen G. Haw, 2006.

Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Art, Dard Hunter, 1978.

Paper in Ancient China, Mark Cartwright,

Sacred Paper: Northern Chinese Paper Gods,

The Written World, Martin Puchner, 2017, Granta Publications, London.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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