Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although paper was invented in ancient China, it did not become known to the rest of the world until the medieval period, when papermaking diffused first eastward, then westward, especially to Samarqand where, around 750, Arabs learned the craft from captured Chinese artisans.

Summary of Event

Despite the computer and other modern electronic devices, the combination of paper and printing still constitutes humankind’s most widespread communication device. Beginning in the ancient and continuing through the medieval and modern periods, paper proved to be the most satisfactory material on which ideas, stories, political records, and business transactions could be communicated—first through writing, then through printing. According to many scholars, paper as a medium of communication helped create the modern world. [kw]Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia (7th-8th centuries) [kw]Korea, Japan, and Central Asia, Papermaking Spreads to (7th-8th centuries) [kw]Japan, and Central Asia, Papermaking Spreads to Korea, (7th-8th centuries) [kw]Central Asia, Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and (7th-8th centuries) [kw]Asia, Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central (7th-8th centuries) Papermaking China;7th-8th cent.: Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia[0220] Korea;7th-8th cent.: Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia[0220] Japan;7th-8th cent.: Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia[0220] Central Asia;7th-8th cent.: Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia[0220] Science and technology;7th-8th cent.: Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia[0220] Communications;7th-8th cent.: Papermaking Spreads to Korea, Japan, and Central Asia[0220] Cai Lun Damjing Gao Xianzhi

The name “paper” derives from the Latin papyrus, an aquatic plant that, along with woven cloth and parchment, provided ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans with writing material. However, paper, with its intertwined cellulose fibers, is a substance very different from papyrus. Some scholars accept the ancient Chinese tradition that the eunuch Cai Lun Cai Lun , a court official in Guiyang (present-day Chenzhou, Hunan Province), invented paper Paper;invention of in 105, the year he reported his discovery to the emperor. Other scholars trace papermaking in China back to the second century b.c.e. They see papermaking’s invention as an evolutionary process rather than a single innovation. The anonymous artisans who developed the techniques of maceration, screening, and drying in the centuries before 105 became symbolized in Cai Lun, who was the personification of what had been a complex series of technological developments.

One problem confronting scholars is the large time lag between the Chinese invention of paper in the second century and its diffusion outside China to such eastern countries as Korea and Japan in the seventh century and to such western cities as Samarqand and Baghdad (now in Iraq) in the eighth century. Some scholars have explained this five-century lag by theorizing that Chinese artisans and officials kept papermaking techniques secret to protect their monopoly on what was a very valuable resource. On the other hand, the Sinologist Joseph Needham believes that the very slow diffusion of papermaking away from China was because of its geographical and cultural separation from neighboring countries, although China formed close cultural ties with Korea, Japan, and Vietnam during the medieval period.

The evidence for the rapid diffusion of papermaking within the Chinese China;papermaking empire is strong. For example, a Buddhist document on paper found in Loulan has been dated to 264, and other discoveries of paper fragments found in Central Asia reveal that papermaking techniques improved as they spread westward. Knowledge of papermaking also spread eastward. Korea was the first country outside China to which papermaking technology diffused. Because the northern part of Korea Korea;papermaking was under Chinese control, paper was imported into Korea in the third century, though native papermaking did not begin until the sixth century.

Buddhist monks were often the conduit for this technology transfer from China to Korea, as they were for the diffusion of papermaking from Korea to Japan in 610. Damjing Damjing , a Korean Buddhist monk known to the Japanese as Doncho, has traditionally been credited with bringing papermaking to Japan Japan;papermaking . Papermaking quickly spread throughout the country because the Japanese had a deep appreciation for paper, the artisans who made it, and the calligraphers who wrote on it.

Some scholars have questioned the traditional story of when, where, and how papermaking diffused from China to Western countries. Archeologists have found paper fragments in eastern Turkistan that have been dated to the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. Although some of this paper may have been brought from China, evidence exists that other paper samples were manufactured locally because these documents bear the names of non-Chinese papermakers. After studying the archeological evidence, Chinese scientists have concluded that papermaking was being done in countries on China’s western borders by the fifth century.

The traditional story has the transfer of papermaking technology to the West occurring three centuries later, but paper had already diffused into Central Asia and Persia before 750 by a route used by traders and travelers (and later by Marco Polo). A century before the Battle of Talas River Talas River, Battle of (751) (751), paper was already in Samarqand. Despite linguistic and archeological evidence that paper had existed in the Arab world before the eighth century, the historical event of the Chinese defeat at Talas River near Samarqand helps explain how paper made by Chinese techniques rapidly replaced papyrus and parchment in the Arab world.

Agreement exists in Chinese and Arab sources that a battle occurred in 751 between invading Chinese and defending Turkic-Tibetan forces on the banks of the Talas River and that the Chinese army led by Gao Xianzhi Gao Xianzhi was defeated, but in the Chinese sources, no mention is made of captured papermakers (though the names of captured weavers, goldsmiths, and painters are mentioned). In Arab accounts, Samarqand’s governor pursued the fleeing Chinese, captured certain prisoners skilled in papermaking, and forced them to teach their techniques to the Arab artisans in the city of Samarqand Samarqand;papermaking . In China, the craftspeople had used the bark of mulberry trees in making paper, but this Central Asian Central Asia;papermaking region was rich in flax and hemp, which the artisans used instead of mulberry bark to make paper, which proved to be popular not only in Samarqand but also throughout the Middle East. The “paper of Samarqand” became a highly desired commercial product and an important step in the transfer of this Chinese technology of communication to the West.


Paper served similar significant purposes in the East and West, but its ultimate impact on Western societies was revolutionary, whereas in China, paper had become an integral part of a highly stable bureaucratic system. Unlike the slow diffusion of papermaking technology eastward, the westward diffusion was rapid. At the end of the eighth century, papermaking was being practiced in Baghdad, then the religious and cultural center of Islam. In the ninth century, Damascus became a successful papermaking center, and by 900, the technique had crossed from Asia into Africa Africa;papermaking , and paper began to be made in Cairo, where it replaced papyrus as the principal writing material. During the tenth century, papermaking diffused westward across northern Africa, reaching Morocco around 1100.

Spain Spain;papermaking was the first European country to develop a papermaking industry. With the Iberian Peninsula under Moorish control, much interaction took place between the Spanish Christians and African Muslims, and this included the transfer of scientific and technological knowledge. Paper made its initial appearance in Spain in the tenth century, and the first paper mill was built in Játiva, in the province of Valencia, around 1150. Paper mills were then established in Italy in the thirteenth century, in France and Germany in the fourteenth century, and in England in the fifteenth century.

Though paper was not as durable as papyrus or parchment, it was much less expensive and time-consuming to produce. However, it was in association with another pivotal Chinese invention—printing—that paper participated in the revolutionary changes sweeping across Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Printed books and other documents played important roles in the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. In China, printed works on paper helped to sustain traditional cultural and political institutions, whereas in Europe, books, pamphlets, and other printed documents stimulated the significant intellectual, religious, social, and political changes that made the modern Western world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Jonathan M. Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper on the Islamic World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Though focusing on the spread of paper from China to Muslim lands, the first chapter analyzes the invention of paper in China and the early history of its diffusion. Illustrated, with a bibliographical essay and a twelve-page “Works Cited” section.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Thomas Francis. The Invention of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward. Rev. ed. New York: Ronald, 1955. This book, originally published by Columbia University Press in 1925 and revised and enlarged by L. Carrington Goodrich in 1955, was for many years the classic source on the thousand-year odyssey of papermaking and printing from China to Europe. Though its importance has been diminished by later discoveries or archeologists and other scholars, it remains a valuable resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. New York: Dover, 1978. This Dover reprint of a work originally published in 1947 makes available to general audiences the achievement of a distinguished scholar who has published many books and articles on papermaking in various cultures. It has a 120-page chronology on paper and papermaking, a bibliography of two hundred books, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin. Paper and Printing. Part 1 in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Vol. 5 in Science and Civilisation in China, translated and edited by Joseph Needham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. This work, part of Needham’s massive scholarly project, was not written by him but by Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, an expert who spent his academic life at the University of Chicago. Tsien describes the book as a “study of the origin and development of papermaking and printing in Chinese culture from their earliest known beginnings to the end of the nineteenth century.” Extensive bibliographies of books and articles written in both Eastern and Western languages, and an index.

Categories: History