From the newspaper that you are holding in your hands, textbooks and notebooks that are part of your daily school routine to tiny scraps that you use to send a secret message to your friend while in class, one thing that is common to all these is paper. So ubiquitous, so commonplace, that most of us don’t even stop to think how it came to be in the first place. And yet, there were times when people didn’t have a piece of paper to jot down their most fascinating ideas.
The need for it
Writing predated paper, as you might well know from the ancient stone carvings that you read about in history. Stone definitely wasn’t conducive to writing, and even though papyrus, parchment and silk were better alternatives, the search was on for a surface to write on. It was Cai Lun who provided a tangible solution for this problem.
Having entered the service of the imperial palace in the year 75, Cai Lun worked as a Chinese court official. Thirty years later, he came up with his idea of making sheets of paper. It is believed that on March 11, 105, Cai Lun presented his paper to Han Ho Ti, the Emperor of the ruling Han Dynasty. The Emperor was mightily impressed and commended Cai Lun for a job well done.
Early form of paper, like the ones Cai Lun showed his Emperor, was primarily produced from hemp waste. This fibrous plant waste was soaked in water before it was thoroughly beaten down into a pulp. The pulp was then collected using a large sieve, probably made of some cloth, and then allowed to dry. Fibres of bamboo, mulberry, old rags, fishnets and an assortment of other materials were then mixed with the dried pulp, which was then flattened out and made to dry again, giving us paper.
Paper wasn’t used as a writing material right away. It was first employed as a wrapping material for bronze mirrors and even as protective padding for medicines. But before long, people realised that this paper was much easier to work with than parchments or papyrus, and far less expensive to produce than writing materials made of silk. The Chinese widely started using paper as a material to write and document on by the third century, employing it both as a tool for administration and a medium to transfer knowledge.
Guarded as a secret
Even though the methodology of producing paper was closely guarded by the Chinese, it slowly started spreading to other Asian countries such as India, Japan and Korea with the passage of time. And when the Arabs defeated Chinese in the Battle of Talas in 751, they also took the secret of making paper with them. Central Asia and Western Asia soon started seeing paper mills, but it was nearly a millennium after Cai Lun produced paper that paper mills sprouted in Europe.
It is now known that paper was in existence for 200 years before Cai Lun introduced his version at the court of the Emperor. Archaeological evidence suggests that people in northwestern China were already making paper. Cai Lun’s efforts, however, led to the founding of the Chinese paper industry, which in turn led to the worldwide use of the same. It is for this reason that Cai Lun is traditionally credited as the inventor of paper.