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 put new sheets of paper up in their windows painted with brightly coloured flowers and leaves and sleeping cats, while in other northern provinces multi-coloured silhouettes are pasted on the window paper.

The invention of paper in China is still a controversial issue and has caused considerable bad blood between historians. Though paper made from hemp and rags dating back to the second century bc was found by Sir Aurel Stein at the beginning of the twentieth century and more recently by Chinese archaeologists, traditionalist Chinese historians date its invention to precisely ad 105 when the eunuch Cai Lun, in charge of the imperial manufactory of instruments and weapons, delivered a report to the Emperor on its production. He listed its ingredients as bark, remnants of hemp, cloth rags and fishing nets. The traditionalists regard any earlier paper as just some sort of felt, created by accident: true paper did not exist until the Emperor had heard about it. Pan Jixing, China’s leading paper historian (and a supporter of the archaeological record), was so upset by the controversy that he turned, briefly, to the study of gunpowder.

Since paper was used for a great many different products, a wide variety of types were produced. We are fortunate that an enormous archive was discovered at the abandoned Buddhist cave temple complex, the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, near Dunhuang, in 1900. On the edge of the dry Gobi Desert, one small cave in the complex had been filled with rolls of manuscripts and paintings and closed about a thousand years earlier. The dry climate and the sealing of the cave meant that the papers were perfectly preserved. In 1907, Sir Aurel Stein, an archaeologist-explorer supported by the British Government in India and the British Museum, was the first foreigner to obtain a great haul from the cave.More than 20,000 paper manuscripts were brought back to London and now reside in the British Library. As a Sanskrit scholar, Stein himself was more interested in the non-Chinese materials, but the great bulk of his find comprised Chinese manuscripts and a very small number of printed items.

The earliest dated paper manuscript from Dunhuang was copied in ad 406 and the latest probably just after ad 1000. The range of paper is quite extraordinary and provides a variety of sensory delights. The best manuscripts of Buddhist sutras were copied in shiny black ink on fine paper dyed deep yellow, a colour associated with Buddhism, but the dye, produced from the bark of the Amur cork tree, was also a protective insecticide. The best of the yellow papers have been burnished by time, so that the paper crackles noisily in your hands, a sound that has been described in texts but has to be heard to be believed. The crackling sound might imply fragility but in fact the papers are miraculously robust.

At the other end of the spectrum are papers that are more like fabric, soft yet strong and sometimes re-used. In the British Library collection we have a couple of examples of recycled paper used to make paper bags, sewn up the sides to create a strong container, soft to the touch yet surprisingly resilient. (We have had to resist the demands of Chinese historians to open them up and destroy them as paper bags in the interests of discovering text within.)

Stein’s greatest find at Dunhuang was a printed copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra. It is over 8 metres long, and its fine frontispiece depicts the Buddha surrounded by acolytes, monks and flying Buddhist angels, sitting behind an altar table covered with lavish silk cloths and silver altar pieces, and addressing his elderly disciple, Subhuti. Subhuti sits on a meditation mat wrapped in a monk’s robe with his black cloth shoes placed neatly beside him. The Diamond Sutra is the world’s earliest dated printed book, albeit in scroll form. Beginning with an injunction to purify the mouth by chanting Sanskrit sounds and an incantation, it ends with a printed note that in ad 868, Wang Jie had it made for universal distribution on behalf of his parents. Since the repetition of the Buddha’s image or of his words was considered a meritorious act, we presume that Wang Jie wanted to buy merit for his parents. In fact the idea of repetition through mass reproduction was probably one of the reasons that printing first developed in Far Eastern monasteries.

Like the invention of paper, the invention of printing is a matter of fierce dispute. There are earlier examples, such as the Japanese dharani printed at the order of the Empress Shotoku in 764 which are only a few centimetres long and which were probably printed from metal stamps, not woodblocks like the Diamond Sutra. There is also a mysterious woodblock-printed dharani produced some time between 704 and 751 and discovered in a Korean pagoda. The fact that certain Chinese characters appear in this text has led some to believe that it was actually produced in China rather than Korea. (So fierce is the dispute over the origin of printing that there have been reports of fisticuffs at conferences attended by printing historians from these three countries.) With only these isolated examples surviving, the history of the invention of printing is still uncertain but there is no doubt about the invention of paper in China.

Once the significance of the Diamond Sutra was recognized, it was treated with great respect in the British Museum bindery in the first decades of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, this meant that it was mounted several times, with new, often unsuitable, paper backings applied as if it were a painting, not a book. By the 1980s, there was serious concern about its condition, but before it could be touched, much investigation was required.

After fifteen years working on the repair and conservation of many manuscripts in the Stein collection, Mark Barnard began the painstaking job of easing off the various backings on the Diamond Sutra. Using only water, a pair of Japanese tweezers made of an impossibly light space-age metal and a Russian dentist’s scraper, Mark moved slowly, never knowing what he would find under each layer of backing and never certain that the original paper might not have been damaged beyond salvage by earlier treatments.

The conservation studio is on the sixth floor of the library and has wide north-facing windows where conservators work in silence, bent over centuries-old fragments of paper, papyrus or palm-leaf. The process of removing the backings, which involves moistening them first, is a very slow business. Too much moisture and Mark runs the risk of damaging the paper, too little, and the same thing could happen. Working on ten centimetres at a time and frequently at weekends when there is no one to disturb the delicate moistening and loosening process,

Mark has taken seven years to reach the frontispiece. But the transformation is quite extraordinary. The sutra had been held fast by its hard backing and was cracking upwards, but as each printed sheet was released, it almost seemed to float free.

Now that the backings have been removed, it is even possible to see the physical imprint of the printer’s block on to which the paper was pressed well over a thousand years ago. The nature of the paper itself is also clear. The paper sheets used for the Diamond Sutra are almost a metre long, more than twice the length of the standard sheets of paper used for manuscripts. Probably as a result, the paper structure is unusual in that the fibres are unevenly spread. Such long sheets must have been quite difficult to make and were perhaps produced by a two-man team. Whatever the case, now that the backings have been removed, scholars will be able to study the construction of the paper properly and advance our knowledge of early printing.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Frances Wood 2010

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