So invaluable was the invention of paper and brush (pen) that they were considered two of the Four Treasures of China (along with ink and inkstone). Previous to these inventions, man recorded their history and thoughts with chiseled cave drawings or knots tied into silk ropes. So precious was this knowledge that the Chinese guarded their secret closely and had to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks before their inventions could be shared with the Western world(2). And it was China’s abundant resource, bamboo that played an integral role in the development of both paper and brush.
The earliest known record of paper is seen in about 105 C.E when Ts’ai Lun, an official of the Imperial Court, offered his invention to the Emperor. The papermaking process itself was arduous. It took five months alone to turn the bamboo stems into pulp to make the paper. Once the stems were soaked, rotted, salted and steamed, they were then ready to become paper. The paper itself was made by stretching this pulp on an oblong bamboo frame with a fine mesh that two workers moved endways and diagonally into the liquid contents. When it was brought to the surface, the film that had collected on the top was submitted to pressure and then dried. It is actually this bamboo mold that is still used today to make paper that helped modernize the papermaking process in its day. Because it was made with the sturdy bamboo material, it could be re-used to shape the paper, eliminating the need to construct a new mold for each turn. Even when the binding fibers on the screen warp, the bamboo can be salvaged and worked into new screens(1).
And what is paper without its pen? The brush is said to have been invented by Meng Tien, a general under a Ch’in emperor who reigned from 221 – 209 B.C.(1). Bamboo was the ideal material to use as it combined the sturdiness and lightness necessary to use a brush. These qualities proved significant as the bamboo brush was more than a writing instrument to the Chinese; it was also an essential element to the art of calligraphy. Calligraphy is still an art form practiced today and more than a means of communication, it is seen as a way of expressing one’s soul. The traits of the bamboo brush allow masters to make the quick, forceful strokes needed to make the characters.
With the rise of the computer age, many thought that our demand for paper would have decreased but instead, we still see a popular use of paper products around the world. More and more, American paper mills are looking to bamboo as a source for modern paper making. With the deforestation of our hardwood forests, paper mills are running out of our raw material. Because bamboo is a quickly growing plant (it reaches maturity in 3-5 years and when left in the soil, the stem can start a new shoot on its’ own) that can thrive in damaged and depleted soil, bamboo is an ideal resource for our paper-making use.
While some have made claims that bamboo is not an eco-friendly resource for paper making (the most recent I found was on modernhemp.com), upon reading it’s easy to see that the claims were based more on the behavior of man and their rush into the isolated provinces and exploitation of resources. If cultivated wisely (as suggested in the recent post Bamboo Farming – A Cash Crop for The U.S.?), bamboo is a smart and efficient choice for a renewable crop in the United States.
There is a saying in Vietnam that “when the bamboo is old, the bamboo sprouts appear,” meaning that when one generation is gone, their younger ones will be there to carry on their traditions. How fitting is it that bamboo, one of our most renewable resources that can be used to make everything from paper to bamboo clothing, will be the source to record our histories continuing generations.
1. Farrelly, D. (1995). The Book of Bamboo. Sierra Club Books.
2. The History of Paper. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.silk-road.com.
Watch a master work his magic…