The Oldest Paper in the World

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It is not surprising that having invented paper over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese found a wide variety of ways to use it. Though the seventeenth-century landscape artist and arbiter of taste, Wen Zhengheng, considered painted wallpaper vulgar, Li Yu (1611–80), owner of the Mustard Seed Garden, advocated brown rather than white wallpaper, and Chinese painted wallpaper depicting birds, flowers, garden architecture and butterflies became popular in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1794, the first British ambassador to China, Lord Macartney, even brought back a set painted with scenes of Chinese streets and workshops for his banker Mr Coutts which can still be seen in the bank’s boardroom.

Paper was used for wrapping from the second century bc, for writing soon after, for making fans and oiled paper umbrellas from the third century ad, and for kites and lanterns from the fifth century, when lavatory paper was also first manufactured. By the seventeenth century, when the Department of Toilet Paper was located in the Forbidden City between the Altar of Earth and Grain and the Spirit Terrace where palace eunuchs used astronomical instruments to observe the heavens, lavatory paper of all sorts was being manufactured and distributed to the imperial household. A sheet of standard toilet paper was over half a metre wide, made from straw, wood, oil and lime and stamped with a red mark, while special soft paper was provided for the Emperor.

Good with paper, the Chinese were never very good at making glass. The windows of Chinese houses were constructed of elegant wooden lattices pasted with paper which was a better insulator than glass and, though translucent, offered privacy. Or so people thought, but Western visitors to Chinese inns in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries discovered that the curious would poke holes in the paper to look at them. At Chinese New Year, the inhabitants of Datong, a coal-mining town in the north, still

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