An historical illustration showing the ancient paper-making process.

The Chinese inventions of papermaking and printing, though prompted by politics and religion, were the catalysts for major changes in ancient China, impacting culture, politics, and education. Papermaking and printing created separate communications revolutions in the premodern world, one in Asia and the other in Europe, by permitting the rapid and widespread transmission of information and ideas.

Chinese innovations from the third to eleventh centuries CE included the invention of paper and the development of stamps, rubbings, and woodblock printing. The mass production of text and images made possible by these inventions resulted in widespread dissemination of religious texts, the introduction of civil service examinations for government officials, the creation of storybooks for a mass audience, and an increase in public debate.

Invention of Paper

With the rise of the first Chinese empire (the Qin dynasty, 221–206 BCE) came an increase in imperial bureaucracy, and an increasingly urgent need for new writing materials and methods of keeping records. The earliest Chinese records from the sixteenth to eleventh centuries BCE were etched on tortoise shells and animal bones; these cumbersome materials were gradually replaced with wooden tablets and strips of bamboo. The imperial bureaucracy generated hundreds of pounds of records on these new, unrefined materials.

The invention of paper has long been attributed to a court official of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). In 105 CE the eunuch Cai Lun (d. 121) presented the Han emperor with a new writing material, a composite paper perhaps made from plant fibers (such as hemp and bark), textile fibers (such as silk), and perhaps other ingredients as well. The exact formula was lost. But in 1957 Chinese archaeologists dated the earliest known sample of paper found in China to 49 BCE, over 150 years before Cai Lun’s presentation.

Early papermakers macerated old rope ends, rags, and fishing nets in water to free the component vegetable fibers, then sifted the solution through a screen to form a thin sheet of matted fibers. The wet sheets were left to dry on the screen or placed on another drying surface. What distinguishes paper produced this way from the papyrus of ancient Egypt is this process of separating and reforming vegetable fibers into a single sheet; papyrus, by comparison, is simply pithed and flattened to create a writing surface. Once dry, the fibers in paper form chemical bonds and create a strong but light writing surface.

By the fourth century paper was more readily available, and it replaced wood and bamboo strips as the writing material of choice; by the sixth century, Chinese papermakers had learned how to extract vegetable fiber from the bark of the mulberry tree, one of the best sources of paper fiber. Today mulberry bark is still favored by fine papermakers in China, Korea, and Japan because of its strength and beauty.

Strong paper requires long-length fibers; as a result, much of the subsequent history of papermaking in Asia has depended on the development of techniques that preserved fiber length. To ensure the even distribution of the paper fibers, papermakers learned to add a starch solution to the pulp to suspend the fibers. This important development is thought to have occurred in the seventh century.

Stamps and Rubbings

Having created an inexpensive, light medium on which to write, the Chinese next searched for a way to mass-produce written text and visuals, primarily for religious reasons. In the eighth century, devout Buddhists sought to spread their religion by making thousands of copies of the Buddha’s word and image. One early technique used a stamp with an image carved in relief on its surface; once inked with a combination of black soot and oil, the stamp could be pressed onto a sheet of paper, sparing the patron the cost of reproducing the image by hand. This technique was suitable for relatively small images, but larger, more complex images and texts were much more difficult to reproduce.

Government artisans also frequently made rubbings from stone stele. Although this technique was not as fast as stamping, rubbings could be taken from large surfaces with complex engravings. To make a rubbing, the artisan needed to place a moist sheet of fine paper onto the surface of the text- or image-bearing stone stele or tablet. Once the paper adhered to the surface of the stele, the artisan carefully pressed some of the moist paper into the crevices of the stele or tablet with a pad. Then the artisan would take another pad, this time inked with water and black soot, and press the ink onto the surface paper. The pad would not touch the paper the artisan had pressed into the engraving. When the paper was dry, the artisan would peel the inked sheet off the stone, revealing a copy of the engraving in white on a black background. The rubbing technique is still valued today for its precision and aesthetic quality, and is still used to duplicate images of fine calligraphy for Chinese art collectors.

By the eighth century, all the prerequisites for printing were in place. Artisans knew how to take prints from both relief and engraved images with stamps and rubbings. Stamps could replicate small images quickly, and rubbings could reproduce large, detailed images, albeit slowly. But neither method could satisfy the increasing demand in Chinese society for more books: Buddhists, Daoists, and Confucians all sought to produce more copies of their canonical texts for an increasingly literate public. Some time in the eighth century, an artisan thought of combining the advantages of stamps and rubbings by making woodblock prints.

Woodblock Printing

Xylography, or woodblock printing, is both a simple and sophisticated technique for printing, unrivaled until the advent of mechanical printing presses in the nineteenth century. Three skilled artisans are needed to prepare a page of text for xylographic printing. First, using black ink, a calligrapher writes the text to be printed on a thin sheet of paper. Next, a woodcarver takes the sheet of paper and turns it over, pasting the right side of the sheet onto a foot-long block of fruitwood; once the sheet has dried onto the block, the carver can see the characters in reverse through the back of the paper. The carver then carefully cuts into the wood and removes the background, leaving the calligraphic characters raised in relief. When the remaining paper is rubbed off, the block is ready for printing. Finally, a printmaker inks the cut woodblock with an ink pad, carefully inking only the raised characters, and then lays a thin sheet of paper on top. The printmaker presses the sheet of paper onto the characters to take an impression. A skilled printmaker can make two or three impressions a minute this way. This technique was used to make the world’s earliest extant printed book, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, which is dated 868 CE.

The printing press was not invented in China because the xylographic process had no use for it. The critical technical requirement for Chinese printing is strong, thin paper, which had been perfected with the development of strong mulberry papers in the sixth century. By the twelfth century, Europeans learned to make paper from the Arabs, who had captured some Chinese papermakers in a battle near Samarqand (in Uzbekistan) in 751 BCE. European papers
, however, were much thicker than Chinese, especially papers made from macerated cotton rags. European printmakers needed a great deal more pressure to take a relief impression with these thick papers and therefore required massive, heavy presses. Another important difference between European and Chinese printmaking is the composition of the printing surface. In Asia, a single woodblock was the preferred medium because the aesthetics and complexity of Chinese characters could be captured easily by a skilled calligrapher. Some Chinese printers experimented with movable type—tiny relief blocks of each character—but the capital investment required to produce and maintain the thousands of tiny blocks of type was greater than the cost of a few skilled calligraphers and woodblock engravers, who could set up shop anywhere and begin producing printed books on demand.

First Print Culture

The nature of the communications revolution brought on by the development of inexpensive book production is still debated. In China, wide access to a large number of texts costing less than one-tenth that of books printed a few centuries earlier reinforced the education and imperial examination system as a vehicle for recruiting civil service talent from a much wider portion of the population than had been previously possible. This correlation between printing and the examination system is supported by the fact that those areas in China that produced 84 percent of the successful examination candidates also produced 90 percent of China’s printed books.

While there was a dramatic reduction in the cost of books in China, there was also an explosion of printing for profit. By the eleventh century, xylographic printing was already a mature technology and had created the world’s first print culture in China. New literary genres emerged, such as storybooks, aimed at a popular as well as an elite audience. Popular shanshu (morality books) were also aimed at the newly created mass audience. The sheer volume and variety of publications for popular consumption prompted the Chinese government to attempt to censor, prohibit, or monopolize the printing of various materials, especially those works, like the dynastic histories, that could be a source of information to be used by rival governments if exported. But the fact that these prohibitions were repeatedly issued indicates that the government had very little real impact on the commercial trade. Printing technology was well established even among the semi-nomadic empires to the north, and the Chinese government tried to prohibit the import of books from these rival states as well.

The expansion of critical scholarship due to the easy circulation of the printed word is another important feature of print culture. Not only was the literacy rate increasing the eleventh century, but the social elites who were already literate were reading more books and comparing a greater diversity of ideas. We might expect the Chinese imperial library to have a very large collection, but by the twelfth century the government holdings were rivaled by private libraries sometimes containing more than a million volumes.

Easy access to books allowed writers and scholars to compare ideas and generate new ones with greater facility. When writing new books, Chinese writers could draw upon a wider variety of books and challenge old ideas. In his memoirs, the eleventh-century Song scholar-scientist Shen Gua made over 250 citations of a wide variety of works that were available to him, sometimes using those works to support his conclusions, at other times challenging his sources. When he finished his memoirs in the 1080s, they were printed and sold to his peers and other aspiring members of Song society. This highlights another important aspect of print culture: Not only could people now read and question older ideas, their own ideas could be easily published and disseminated, adding to the scope and intensity of public debate and discussion. The creation of a larger and more critical reading public outside the auspices of government agencies was an important Chinese development of the eleventh century.

Developments after the Eleventh Century

The invention of woodblock color printing during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) brought printing to a new level. A text called Painting Manual of the Mustard-Seed Garden appeared around 1640. This work was intended to provide instruction and inspiration for artists. The introduction of this work in Japan began the development of woodcut technique in that country. In the 1930s, lithography (an image is applied to a plate using a greasy medium that accepts ink) and intaglio (an image is etched onto a plate with ink filling the recessed areas) began to displace the woodcut as the primary printmaking technique in China. Screen printing, where ink is forced through a screen of silk or other fine mesh onto a surface, was developed in the second half of the twentieth century. “Hello to Autumn,” created by Guang Jun in 1980, is credited as China’s first screened print.

The existence of a large and discerning reading public in premodern China has diminished with political changes. The closing of schools and denunciation of teachers and intellectuals that characterized the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) lowered the level of Chinese literacy. Despite a government campaign to eradicate illiteracy since that time, there are indications that the level of illiteracy in China has risen since 2000. Reasons include the increasing number of young workers who leave the classroom for migrant work in the cities. Nevertheless, the Chinese tradition of innovation in papermaking and printing spawned a world heritage of art and communication across three epochs.

Further Reading

Clunas, C. (1997). Art in the market-place. In C. Clunas, Art in China (pp. 173–187). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Deng Yinke. (2005). Ancient Chinese inventions. (Wang Pingxing, Trans.). Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

Fan, M. (2007, April 27). Illiteracy jumps in China, despite 50-year campaign to eradicate it. The Washington Post, p. 19A.

Ho Peng Yoke. (1985). Li, Qi, and Shu: An introduction to science and civilization in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Li Shu Sheng. (1996). The cradle of screenprinting. Printmaking Today, 5(1), 16–17.

Temple, R. (1986). The genius of China: 3,000 years of science, discovery, and invention. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Tsien Tsuen-hsuin. (1985). Paper and printing. In J. Needham (Ed.), Science and civilization in China: Vol. 5. Chemistry and chemical technology (p. 485). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Source: Forage, Paul. (2009). Papermaking and Printing. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1719–1723. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

“A Chinese bookseller of the prosperous city of Hangchow, China,” 30 December 1908. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Old printed book, by Huang Fengchi, c. 1620–1621.

Papermaking and Printing (Zàozh? hé yìnshu? ?????)|Zàozh? hé yìnshu? ????? (Papermaking and Printing)

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