Ancient China Paper

Today we can’t imagine life without the use of paper, however, it wasn’t always that way. In ancient times many civilizations used natural materials such as rocks and wood to try to convey their communication methods.

The ancient Chinese took pride in keeping incredibly detailed records of just about everything and although there is evidence of earlier paper creation, credit is given to early 2nd century CE for the invention of paper.

Fangmata Ppaper Map

Early paper types

Paper has been made of many natural plant-based materials, and each one has to be sturdy, pliable, and easy to write or drawn on.

The most primitive types of paper in China in the 2nd century BCE was mainly made from hemp.

The thought is that the creation of paper was found by accident when someone left clothes made of hemp in the water too long after washing and the residue that was formed was pressed into a type of paper.

Improvement of paper

Previous to creating paper, the ancient Chinese used wooden strips, costly silk, or even bamboo.

Credit is given to ancient Chinese paper to Cai Lun in 105 CE who was the Imperial Workshops director at Luoyang.

He soaked plant fibers and then pressed them into dried sheets on screens or wooden frames. The paper results were formed into paper scrolls and used for writing and art.

Raw materials for paper creation also included the replacement of hemp with rattan and then later with bamboo fibers.

By the Han dynasty (206-220 CE), the ancient Chinese had been experimenting with a variety of fibers from many plants, grasses, tree bark, and vegetable matter to improve the quality and durability of paper.

They mixed many of these ingredients together to get low cost/high quality results. The demand for paper was increasing and since bamboo grew so quickly, it became a popular material for paper making.

Paper production continued to improve during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) when techniques using the boiled bark of the mulberry tree was the main raw material.

Paper styles

Once the techniques for making paper became easier and cheaper, the ancient Chinese started to make paper in a variety of sheet sizes and many colors.

Each region of China seemed to have their own special type of paper preference.

Since calligraphy and art were very important to the ancient Chinese, there was a special type of paper for these art forms that favored pattern, texture and coloring.

This type of paper was made using wheat straw, rice, hibiscus stalks, sandalwood bark, and/or seaweed.
Hemp Wrappping Paper

The Secret of Papermaking

Just as with many of their discoveries and inventions, the ancient Chinese wanted to keep their techniques for making paper secret from the rest of the world.

While they succeeded for a very long time, the information eventually got out when there was battle and Arabs took a group of paper makers prisoner.

It wasn’t long before Baghdad became one of the top paper makers in the Middle East, and then paper making expanded into Medieval Europe.

Paper uses

Paper was the single item that allowed the expansion of literacy and the spread of literature.

Paper made the creation of books easier, allowed scholars to keep excellent records, and gave the government and merchants the ability to maintain mathematical and financial order.

For the next two millennia, the ancient Chinese used paper with brush and ink to create incredible works of art and calligraphy.

Once block printing was invented there was a massive increase in demand for paper as religious groups could now create their books more quickly.

There was a second boom in the demand for paper when moveable type printing became available.

At this point, paper had to be thicker to be able to stand up to the heavy metal and wood type blocks.

The value of paper

In ancient China paper was valued to such a degree that it was used for payment of taxes and to pay tribute during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).

It was the Tang that also set a requirement for color coding paper: white for legal documents, yellow for government, and blue for the Taoist temple communications.

  • By the Han dynasty, paper had moved beyond just the use of writing and books and was now the main material for military maps, packaging delicate items such as medicine, as wrapping paper for tea and other foods.
  • Paper had also graduated so that it was being stiffened and used for hats, and armor as well as thinned for windows, paper screens, curtains, clothes, sheets, and eventually as money.
  • Paper money changed the former barter system of trade so that paper represented a set value in gold or silk.
  • Using paper money was more convenient and replaced the heavy and cumbersome use of coins for some countries.


What was the earliest primitive paper made from?


What accident is thought to have resulted in the invention of paper?

leaving hemp clothes in the water too long

What fast-growing plant became one of  the most popular early materials for paper creation?


What city in the Middle East became the largest makers of paper after the Chinese secret got out?


Before inventing paper, what were the 3 main items that the ancient Chinese used to write and draw on?

wooden sticks, silk, bamboo

Name at least two things that paper was used for outside of writing and books

military maps, packaging delicate items such as medicine, as wrapping paper for tea and other foods