Chapter 14. Ts'ai Lun (Paper)


Description of the manufacture of Talkhi paper. Take good white flax and purify it from its reed. Soak it in water and shred it with a comb until it is soft. Then soak it in the water of quicklime for one daylight and one night until the morning. Then knead it by hand and spread it out in the sun all daylight until it is dry. Return it to the water of quicklime, not the first water, and keep it for the whole of the second night till the morning. Knead it again by hand as before and spread it out in the sun. This is repeated during three, five or seven days. If you change the water of quicklime twice daily, it would be quicker. When it becomes extremely white, cut it by the shears into small pieces, then soak it in sweet water for seven days also and change the water every day. When it is free from quicklime, grind it in a mortar while it is wet. When it is soft and no knots are left, bring it into solution with water in a clean vessel until it is like silk. Then provide a mould of whatever size you choose. The mould is made like a basket [from] samna reeds. It has open walls. Put an empty vessel under the mould. Agitate the flax with your hand and throw it in the mould. Adjust it by hand so that it is not thick in one place and thin in another. When it is even, and is freed from its water while in the mould, and when you have achieved the desired result, [drop] it on a plate, and then take it and stick in on a flat wall. Adjust it by your hand and leave it until it dries and drops. Then take fine wheat flour and starch, half of each, knead the starch and the flour in cold water until nothing thick remains. Heat water until it boils over and pour it on the flour mixture until it becomes thin. Take the paper and with your hand, paint it over and place it on a reed. When all the sheets of paper are painted and dry, paint them onto the other face. Return them to the plate and paint them thinly with water. Collect the sheets of paper, stack them, then polish them as you polish cloth, if God wills.

 — Ibn Badis, Book of the Supports of the Scribes, ca. 1061 AD [1]


I was born a poor Chinese girl. My family made hempen homespun cloth and from an early age it was my job to beat hemp, that is to say, to soak the hemp in water and then beat it with a mallet to release the fibers from the stem. And, being poor and all, we couldn't afford to waste anything and so when clothes got worn out, I had to beat the rags to get their fibers. Well, we would beat hemp and rags all day long in a tub of water and by the end of the day, that water would be so nasty that we would dump it out and start with fresh water the next day. And that's how it was.

One day, long about 317 BC or so, if I recall, I was about to dump my water out at the end of a long day and I noticed some bits of fiber floating around. Normally I would just pick them out by hand, but that day I was really tired and so I decided to strain the water through a cloth instead. Lo and behold, there was a lot more fiber in there than I thought. I remember thinking, "Boy howdy, we've been throwing out a lot of fiber over the years." But, you know, most of it was too small for spinning. I picked out the good bits and left the rest on the cloth.

Next morning I went to wash my cloth and don't you know that fiber had dried and peeled off of that cloth just as pretty as you please. Now, if we hadn't been so poor I probably would have just pitched it out; those fibers were too small for spinning, like I said. But we were used to using every little bit to get by and I thought all that fiber had to be good for something. And it was. You could wipe babies with it and you could fold it into little packets for holding herbs and such. You could light fires with it and you could even fold it into a hat of sorts. So that was good. And pretty soon everybody was straining their water so as not to waste anything.

As the inspiration for paper, I floated around for a couple of hundred years and didn't take myself too seriously. I moved from place to place anywhere they beat fibers and eventually I wound up in Hunan province, where they made cloth from mulberry bark instead of hemp. That's when I got into the head of a bureaucrat named Ts'ai Lun, who was in charge of manufacturing things. There I hooked up with mass-productionism, supply and demandism, not to mention self-promotionism and pretty soon I was getting a pretty good chunk of his thought-time.

Now, Theophilus' notion that it doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman is just a pipe-meme. Nobody was going to pay no attention to peasant women making paper in the sticks. Except Ts'ai Lun maybe. All that testosterone makes men pushy and grabby when it hits their brains. And their names are pushier and grabbier, so they tend to stick to whatever memes they can. Which is what happened to me, when you think about it.

Anyway, in 105 AD I made it to the emperor. I told him that chih, or paper, could be made as a material in its own right, not just as a by-product of textile manufacture. And well-made paper could even be used for writing on, which was good news to the emperor on account of all they had to write on was silk cloth and bamboo strips. Of course, silk was expensive and bamboo was heavy, and a big empire had lots of history and orders and accounts and such to keep track of. So with government backing I started paperating the place until finally paper pretty much replaced silk and bamboo for making books. And not only that, folks started making clothes out of paper, which was interesting since paper started out coming from rags. Paper could be cut and folded to make ornaments. It could be printed with wood blocks to make lots of identical things like money or playing cards. And don't forget wiping. To tell you the truth, there seemed to be few things which would not be cheaper, more beautiful, and more useful if fashioned by art and ingenuity from paper.

I traveled all over the world, first to the civilized part, then to Japan and Korea. But there were still uncivilized places living without paper. Then in 751 AD Turkish-Tibetan forces routed the army of Kao-Hsien-Chih at the Battle of the Talas River. Now, I was used to going wherever the wind took me. I had never been pried out of somebody before. But the Turks forced Chinese prisoners to set up a paper mill at Samarkand and then, in 794 AD, at Baghdad. So the Arabs started making paper from linen and hempen rags, what with not having mulberry and all.

When the Arabs invaded Spain in the tenth century, they brought paper with them and, what with all the hubbub, the Spanish were making paper by the twelfth century. The Italians also got the idea from the Arabs and were making paper late in the thirteenth century. I moved slowly through Europe, first as paper traded by the Arabs, and later as know-how via Spain and Italy. By the sixteenth century, paper was being made all over Europe. The Europeans took it with them wherever they went, which was just about everywhere.



Reference [53], pp. 192-194.