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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Paper

by Valerie Hansen

Philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1621) identified paper as one of inventions that separated the modern world from the traditional world: the others were the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and printing. He never realized that every one of them originated in China.

Chinese craftsmen first discovered the secret of making paper when they washed rags and left them out to dry on a screen. This new, flexible material could be used to wrap things, and indeed the first use of paper, in the 2nd century B.C.E., was as a packaging material for medicine. Within a century, paper had begun to displace bamboo strips as China's main writing material, and by the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E. the Chinese used paper for all their writing.

Chinese paper moved along the Silk Road into Central Asia before the technology of paper-making did. Archaeologists have found paper with Chinese writing on it as far afield as the Caucasus mountains (at the site of Moshchevaya Balka) on an alternate route to Constantinople. Similar paper was in use in the years before 712 at a small fortress on Mount Mugh outside Samarkand. There a local ruler imported Chinese paper that had already been used on one side — so that he could write on the blank reverse when the occasion arose.

From the writing on the back of one sheet of paper found at Mount Mugh we know that it came from Liangzhou, Gansu, an important city on the Chinese silk route, 2,000 miles to the east. Mount Mugh's imported paper was so expensive that the ruler used it only for correspondence. For his ordinary household accounts he used willow sticks, cut from willow branches with the bark removed. Other common writing materials were leather and, in the Islamic world at the time, papyrus.

Legend has it that the secret of papermaking entered the Islamic world with the 751 battle of Talas (in modern Kyrgyzstan) when Islamic armies captured several Chinese craftsmen, who taught their captors how to make paper. Most scholars today think the technology, which was not very complex, could have moved out of China into western Iran before 751, though no examples of early, non-Chinese paper survive. Embracing the new technology, the founders of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) sponsored a papermaking factory in Baghdad in 796. Soon all scholars in the Islamic world were copying manuscripts onto paper, which was transmitted to Europe via Sicily and Spain by the 12th century (Bloom 2001).

Valerie Hansen teaches Chinese history at Yale. Author of The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, she is now writing a book on the Silk Road.