September 16, 2008


Early Chinese manuscripts were written on silk (Or.8210/S.5719), or on strips of wood (Or.8211/1 Side A) or bamboo tied together, but “silk was expensive and bamboo heavy” (Tsuen-Hsuin, 1985, p.35). Luckily the Chinese invented paper sometime in the first century A.D. and it rapidly became the material of choice for manuscripts of all kinds.

Paper was made from the fibres of many kinds of plants; the Chinese used mainly hemp and plants in the hemp family, rattan, mulberry bark, and grasses like bamboo, rice and wheat (Tsuen-Hsuin, 1985, p.52). Hemp and mulberry were the most common in early Chinese history, with bamboo becoming significant from the 7th century onward.

The basic process of papermaking has not changed much since the first century; the raw materials were prepared by “soaking, pounding, boiling, washing, and bleaching the fibres” (Tsuen-Hsuin, 1985, p. 69) to remove the colour and the binding agents and break the plants down into fibres. Chemical agents like lime and ash were mixed in to aid in the breakdown of the plant material.

Once the pulp was obtained, it was formed into sheets with the aid of a screen. Early screens were made of woven grass and the pulp was poured over them to drain the water; later screens were made of thin strips of bamboo tied together and either attached to a frame or laid over a frame. These bamboo frames were dipped into the pulp mixture, and had the distinct advantage of being smooth so that the sheets of paper could be removed while still wet. The sheets were then piled together, pressed to remove the excess moisture, and placed on heated racks or walls to dry. This meant that one frame could be used to rapidly make many sheets of paper (Tsuen-Hsuin, 1985, pp.64-69).

The paper was sized with a glue made mainly of botanical ingredients, sometimes with animal materials or starch flour added.These mixtures were added into the pulp before it was formed into sheets. This helped the fibres stick together, adding strength to the paper, and also prepared the surface for accepting ink without “undue absorption and running” (Tsuen-Hsuin, 1985, p.73).

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