Many hand papermakers are familiar with the elusive paper-like material that is often referred to as pith paper—a thin, white, translucent sheet made from the pith of the plant Tetrapanax papyrifer (tōng cǎo 草). Because the material is closer to a veneer than paper in its production, I refer to it in this article as pith “paper.”
Historically pith “paper” has most notably been used for Chinese and Taiwanese traditional arts such as prints, paintings, and beautifully hand-crafted flowers. The first recorded use of pith “paper” dates back nearly 2,000 years ago, to the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), to make artificial flowers that adorned the hair of men and women who lived in the emperor’s palace. There were often strict rules enforced by the emperor describing who could wear certain types, how many, and in what colors, depending on their place in the hierarchy of those living in the palace. Artificial flowers were developed so that people could access flowers that were not locally grown or restricted by the changing seasons.
In the early nineteenth century, pith “paper” crafts, also referred to as pith crafts,1 became popular souvenirs for Western tourists who visited China. At the start of the twentieth century, Taiwan’s local pith “paper” craft industry reached its peak production during the Japanese colonization period. Although the Japanese placed many restrictions on the Taiwanese during that time, pith “paper” crafts were revered by the Japanese and supported by Japanese commercial interests. The main cultivators of the pith “paper” plant Tetrapanax papyrifer were many of Taiwan’s indigenous groups. In addition to being an important source of revenue, the plant and pith crafts had significant cultural meaning for these groups.
Presently in Taiwan, Bawtu Chen2 is one of the few people left who cultivates the Tetrapanax papyrifer plant. There is only one remaining pith “paper”-maker by the name of Tseng Hsu Hsiang. There are technically nine others left but they are elderly and can no longer lift the heavy knife used for pith “paper” production. All of these pith “paper”-makers were once employed by the last existing pith “paper” factory in Taiwan, a generational family business inherited by Zhang Xiu Mei. The factory has since relocated to China and no longer produces pith “paper.” In Taiwan, a revival effort for Tetrapanax papyrifer and pith crafts has been led by the Taiwan Tong Cao Association, which consists of a small army of conservationists, botanists, wood scientists, educators, craftspeople, and artists. The association educates the community about the importance of Tetrapanax papyrifer and pith crafts. Environmental educator Kuei Mei Liang is the executive director. The association’s director is Jerry Chen, one of the few remaining masters of pith “paper” flower making. Other key contributors to this revival effort include artist and historian Hung Li Wen, and Lin Sheau Hong, a professor at the Department of Wood Science and Design at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology. All together, they have contributed an abundance of historical and scientific research about Tetrapanax papyrifer and pith crafts, which has been essential to understanding its importance to the history of Taiwanese culture, economy, and land.
In the summer and fall of 2019, I had the privilege of being able to go to Taiwan with my project partner Eden Tai, with the support of the RISD Maharam STEAM fellowship. Together we conducted interviews and videotaped conversations with many of the people involved with this revival effort. Most of the knowledge about Tetrapanax papyrifer cultivation and the crafts associated with it have been passed down without much written information. Master pith “paper”-maker Tseng Hsu Hsiang provides demonstrations around the island for educational purposes. In Taiwan, she is considered something similar to a national treasure. She does not take on students however, as the tools for making pith “paper” are scarce and she cannot risk damaging them. In fact, there are no known pith “paper”-making toolmakers left in Taiwan. Almost everyone who has participated in this preservation effort volunteers their spare time uncovering new and old knowledge about the plant and craft. It is not about money for them, but rather a desire to share their understanding that these intangible histories are irreplaceable and essential for knowing one’s own culture. Kuei Mei Liang told me, “Traditions are like a house. They give you foundation and structure. They make up the identity of the people within a culture and you can’t evolve a culture without knowing its history.”3
Bawtu Chen of the Hua Yuan tribe, located on Luo Mountain in Hsinchu, Taiwan, spent most of his childhood harvesting Tetrapanax papyrifer, which was a major source of revenue for his tribe at the time. In Atayal (the language of Hua Yuan village), they call the plant va la hui (pronounced va-la-hwee). Bawtu Chen has fond memories of running through the mountains with his family in search of the largest stalks of Tetrapanax papyrifer: “When I was a child, older men would extract the pith of the stalks by placing a bamboo rod under the center of the pith and pound it against a hard surface. The pith would then pop out like a rocket and fly several meters away. Mom would ask us to go and retrieve it. When we brought it back, she would give us candy . . . . It was really fun!”4 Interestingly, he told us that his tribe never knew what happened to it once it was sold to the Japanese and other Taiwanese locals outside of his tribe: “I didn’t know what people were using the plant for, but you could make a lot of money off of selling pith stalks. In one day’s worth of regular work you could only make NT$600 but when you sold a bundle of pith stalks you could easily sell it for NT$2,000!”5 People knew to come to his tribe for the best quality pith stalks because the whole mountain was covered in Tetrapanax papyrifer. In fact, the Hua Yuan tribe was named after the plant. When Bawtu Chen’s people first arrived to Luo Mountain, it was during the Tetrapanax papyrifer flowering season when the whole mountain was covered in beautiful gold flowers. Hua Yuan directly translates to “flower field.”
Beyond being a useful material for Taiwanese traditional arts, Tetrapanax papyrifer has also been used in homeopathic remedies for treating fevers and promoting diuresis. It was also used as an effective material for shrouding and packaging. Pre-plastic, it was used as insulation for houses and as a buoyant material for creating fishing flies. Essentially it was Nature’s Styrofoam. Master pith “paper” flower maker Jerry Chen first came to know the craft through his career as an industrial designer. He was instructed by a client to research sustainable material alternatives to plastic, which is how he came across the plant. It was not long after that he became completely enamored with the crafts associated with the plant, and decided to devote the rest of his career to these preservation efforts. Jerry Chen explained to me: “Back in the day, making pith ‘paper’ was an industrial business. It wasn’t considered a treasured traditional art, so as the demand waned in the late 1900s, the skills never really got passed down formally. . . . The situation is extremely unfortunate . . . people forgot about it.”6 This was consistent with how Tseng Hsu Hsiang recounted her early years in the industry: “At the time, I needed to make money, and . . . pith ‘paper’-making was a booming business. Everyone in the factory were women . . . . Nowadays, I continue making pith ‘paper’ to educate others about this traditional craft but I’m the only one left who can make it.”7
One day Jerry Chen would like to revisit the idea of using pith in product design as a sustainable alternative to Styrofoam, but right now he believes that it is more pressing to archive the skills for pith “paper” flower making. “Pith paintings and pith flowers were sold as souvenirs to Westerners and were immediately sent abroad. . . . Not much evidence of the craft was kept within the country. . . . In the whole world, there are so many places that make artificial flowers. They use fabric, paper, and clay, which are all beautiful. . . . But to make really realistic flowers—well, the world needs to see the ones made of tōng cǎo.”8
As the use of plastics rose to material dominance in the mid-1900s, this posed significant challenges to the survival of pith crafts as well as the cultivation of Tetrapanax papyrifer. Pith flowers were no longer popular as they could be produced much faster and more cheaply with plastic injection molders and fabric. Polystyrene became the material of choice for packaging and buoyancy products. The decrease in demand for Tetrapanax papyrifer caused the indigenous groups to convert their crops to other produce that could generate more profit. Bawtu Chen and others I spoke with remember this transition clearly, especially around the early 1970s. While Tetrapanax papyrifer is endemic to Taiwan’s mountainous regions, with no regulation of the plant it began to spread as if it were an invasive species. This led to the decision to eradicate the plant from the land. With no one left to cultivate the plant, and an inability for craftspeople to beat the competitive prices of plastic flowers, the production of pith crafts suffered greatly. Bawtu Chen is among the last generation of people in his tribe that has experiential knowledge of Tetrapanax papyrifer cultivation. Since retiring as a farmer five years ago, Bawtu Chen decided to dedicate the rest of his life to bringing back Tetrapanax papyrifer to the mountains. He wants the children and future generations of the Hua Yuan tribe never to forget their origins: “The reason behind why I want to grow tōng cǎo again isn’t very complicated. There used to be a lot on the mountains, and now there isn’t any. I want my people to see it again. After all, my tribe is named after the plant.”9
The next time you are in Taiwan, you can participate in this preservation effort by attending classes with Jerry Chen, watching a pith “paper”-making demonstration with Tseng Hsu Hsiang, or visiting Bawtu Chen’s field up in the Hsinchu mountains. This preservation effort is not only relevant to preserving Taiwan’s intangible culture, it is also an important component to understanding the many rich papermaking histories that shape our identity as papermakers.
1. The term “pith crafts” refers to any item handcrafted from the pith of Tetrapanax papyrifer, including not only the pith “paper” but also the uncut stalk.
2. Taiwanese names are given in Taiwanese name order with given names preceding family names.
3. Kuei Mei Liang, interview by the author, September 6, 2019, Taipei, Taiwan. Translation by the author.
4. Bawtu Chen, interview by the author, September, 18, 2019, Hsinchu, Taiwan. Translation by the author.
6. Jerry Chen, interview by the author, October 23,, 2019, Taoyuan, Taiwan. Translation by the author.
7. Tseng Hsu Hsiang, interview by the author, September 19, 2019, Hsinchu, Taiwan. Translation by Szu-Fun Chao.
8. Jerry Chen, interview by the author, October 23,, 2019, Taoyuan, Taiwan. Translation by the author.
9. Bawtu Chen, Line call with the author, December 27, 2020.
Tseng Hsu Hsiang, master pith “paper”-maker, pares the pith spirally with a knife from right to left to produce pith “paper,” 2019. Courtesy of Eden Tai.
Bawtu Chen (at right) shows the author how to use a bamboo rod to extract the pith core of Tetrapanax papyrifer, 2019. Courtesy of Eden Tai. Bawtu Chen shows a cross section of harvested Tetrapanax papyrifer, 2019. Courtesy of the author.
Tetrapanax papyrifer during its flowering season, 2019. Courtesy of the author. Bawtu Chen’s Tetrapanax papyrifer field in the Luo Mountain in Hsinchu, Taiwan. He is dedicated to returning the plant to his home mountains. Photo taken in 2019. Courtesy of the author.
A bouquet of handmade pith “paper” flowers, by Jerry Chen, master pith “paper” flower maker and director of the Taiwan Tong Cao Association, 2019. Courtesy of the author. Jerry Chen teaching students how to make a pith “paper” rose, 2019. Courtesy of Eden Tai.
Tseng Hsu Hsiang regularly gives public demonstrations on pith “paper”-making. As the one remaining pith “paper”-maker in practice, she is considered something similar to a national treasure. Photo taken in 2019. Courtesy of Eden Tai.
Paper Sample: Taiwanese Pith “Paper”
tseng hsu hsiang
text by irene l. wei
Pith “paper” is made from a plant called Tetrapanax Papyrifer (tōng cǎo 草), a member of the Araliaceae (ginseng) family. Pith “paper” is produced by chopping the stalk of the plant into manageable lengths, then pushing out the pith from the bark of the plant. The pith is then pared spirally with a specialized knife to form long narrow sheets. The end result is a thin, delicate, and translucent paper-like sheet.
In the microscopic views below, note the difference in the structure between pith “paper” (pared pith) and kozo paper (made from macerated inner-bast fiber).
Pith “paper” is sometimes known by the misnomer “rice paper”—a term still used by Westerners as a stand-in for all East Asian papers. The term is founded on racist stereotypes of East Asians and denies the unique qualities, production techniques, and cultural traditions associated with each individual type of paper. While some East Asian papers are made from parts of the rice plant, most are not. The term “rice paper” is especially confusing when referring to pith “paper” because some mistakenly think it is made from the pith of the rice plant when in actuality it is made from the pith of the Tetrapanax papyrifer plant (tōng cǎo).
The Chinese characters for tōng cǎo are 草. Tōng ( ) literally means to “pass through,” which describes the process of extracting the pith; and cǎo (草) means “grass.” Contrary to the name, the plant is not a type of grass; it is a shrub that can grow 3 to 7 meters (10 to 23 feet) tall under the right conditions. An alternate set of Chinese characters for tōng cǎo are 草. Note that the first character does not have the Chinese radical on top for “grass” (艹). When the grass radical is placed on top of the character it indicates that the word is associated with plants. The Taiwan Tong Cao Association prefers the version with the grass radical over both characters, 草.
The term “pith paper” is currently being discussed by wood scientists, conservationists, and craftspeople in Taiwan. Some suggest that it should be called “pith veneer” because it is made similarly to wood veneer. However many argue that pith “paper” is the better term because the uses of pith “paper” are more closely aligned to paper than to wood.
Pith “paper” (top) and kozo paper (bottom) at 100x magnification under the Olympus SZX16 stereomicroscope. Images collected by Benedict Gagliardi at the Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab, Rhode Island School of Design