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Ancient uses of paper

Tavian Hunter
16 July 2014
Graduate trainee Tavian Hunter explores the history of paper and its uses from ancient to modern times.

As a Library Graduate Trainee, one of my many duties is to learn about the conservation of the collections. Delving into a lesson about the history of paper from our Senior Conservator, Jonathan Farley, I became interested in exploring the various uses of paper.  

The invention of paper in China

Instructed by the Emperor of China to find an inexpensive and portable writing surface, the Chinese government official Ts’ai Lun produced and recorded a technique for the mass manufacture of paper during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). Apart from the conventional use of paper as a form of writing material for Chinese scholars, it was also used to preserve the flavour of tea.

rice paper drawings.jpg

Photo of 17th century woodblock prints and also examples of Chinese painting of rice paper
Left: 17th century woodblock prints from Ten Bamboo Studio painting manual (Source: The arts of Asia). Right: Chinese painting of rice paper (Source: Dard Hunter)

Another type of material originating in China is rice paper. It is a common misconception that rice paper is made from rice or ‘true’ paper.  It is made by cutting thin sheets spirally from the inner soft core, or pith, of the stems of the plant Tetrapanax papyrifer. Rice paper became increasingly popular for watercolour paintings and the woodblock printing of birds, butterflies and costumes. An article from Preprints from the Contributions to Kyoto Congress (1988) on ‘The conservation of Far Eastern art’, states that pith paper’s excellent absorption of colour was attributed to its appearing to have a cellular, non-fibrous structure under a microscope. Kate Colleran mentions in her dissertation, ‘The Chinese call it the gauze of the Gods’, that, due to its absorbent quality, pith paper was frequently used in Taiwan and South China for medicinal purposes such as dressing wounds.


Photo of a 19th century illustration of Japanese paper making
19th century illustration of Japanese paper making (Source: The arts of Asia)

Decorative paper of Japan

The book by Meher McArthur, The arts of Asia : materials, techniques, styles, describes the history of paper in Asia for the purposes of decorative letter writing, wrapping and presenting gifts. It is known that, in the time of the samurai warriors, exchanged gifts were adorned with noshi, a white paper folded with strips of dried abalone or meat as a way of wishing the recipient plentiful good fortune. McArthur suggests that items made of origami (folded paper) or cut out of paper were significant in religious rituals.

Looking at the 750 beautifully unique samples of Japanese paper in the 12-volume book Washi : the soul of Japan, it is interesting to find references that monks would wear shifu (cloth woven from paper threads) or kamiko (cloth made of paper) to purify themselves. It is said that kami, the Japanese word for paper, has the same pronunciation as the word for a higher being or god, because pure white paper was associated with holiness and sacred places in Japanese Shinto religion.

iwano ichibei.jpg

Photos of Iwano Ichibei the Ninth making traditional washi and example of decorative washi from the book ‘Washi : the soul of Japan’.
Photos of Iwano Ichibei the Ninth making traditional washi and example of decorative washi from the book Washi: the soul of Japan.

Modern times

The decorative nature of origami and washi are still ingrained in Japanese culture today, with a very lucrative gift-wrapping culture involved in purchasing gifts and high-end luxury items. Jonathan Farley, Senior Conservator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, states in his article, ‘Paper, its past, present and potential’ in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, that ‘the use of paper for packaging and gifts like this accounts for 45% of the world sales in the consumption of paper’.

Entries in Kew’s Archives highlight people’s interest in papermaking and the use of alternative plant sources for paper during the First World War. Many fascinating stories from our Library, Art & Archives and Economic Botany collections, such as the paper seed packets used to collect plants during this period, will be on display in our commemorative exhibition, Plants, People and the Products of War: a Centenary Tribute.

This exhibition is open daily in the Library, Art & Archives Reading Room from 1 July to 29 August. It is free to view by appointment Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, excluding bank holidays. For more information, contact the enquiry desk on 020 8332 5414 or email

- Tavian -


  • Washi : the soul of Japan, fine Japanese paper in the Second Millennium : compilation of handmade washi = washi shōkan : Nihon no kokoro : 2000-nenki by 2000-nenki Washi Iinkai. Kyōto-shi, 2006.
  • 'The Chinese call it the gauze of the Gods: a brief history of the identification and manufacture of rice paper' by Kate Colleran. Camberwell, London : Camberwell College of Arts, 1979.
  • Papermaking : the history and technique of an ancient craft by Dard Hunter. New York : Dover Publications, 1947.
  • The arts of Asia : materials, techniques, styles by Meher McArthur. London : Thames & Hudson, 2005.
  • 'Paper, its past, present and potential' (Curtis’s Botanical Magazine ; v. 19) by Jonathan S. Farley. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

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