Chinese Invention Tuesdays: Paper

Edited from Fuck Yeah Chinese Myths!:

One of the inventions the Chinese gave to the world is paper, and it’s helped everyone loads, because before paper books were written on bamboo strips, rolled up and tied with string. The thing is, these books were really heavy and a hassle to transport. Some of them were said to weigh 120kg, and others were 3000 bamboo slips long. Yikes. (Ed: silk was also used, but was too costly.)

Enter Cai Lun (蔡伦 Cài Lún), 50-121 AD, a eunuch working under the Emperor in the Han dynasty. After some years he was promoted to being in charge of the manufacturing of weapons and utensils. Since he was an official, part of his duties included carrying books to and from the palace. This was a big hassle, and he really needed to find a solution to make books less heavy.

One day in AD 105, the story goes, Cai Lun was inspecting the weaving workshop, and he slipped and fell on a wet puddle. Ouch. After he got up, he realised the puddle had hemp skin and silk wool in it, and he had an idea. He asked his subordinates to collect flax and hemp, rags and silk, and after cooking the materials again and again, he got paper. He spread it to dry and showed it to the Emperor.

The Emperor was impressed, and said, “Dude, you are so the Marquis of Longting!”

Slowly, no one used bamboo to write on anymore, and now knowledge could be transported quickly around the world. Korea, Japan, Arabia and Europe got wind of this in the 7th and 8th century, which meant the world had paper.

Later, the political winds shifted and Cai Lun was arrested, but he drank poison and killed himself instead. He has a temple, too, in his hometown of Leiyang in Hunan. People who make paper pray to him, and he’s their patron saint.