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Making Paper "The Old Ladies' Way": Women of the Han Dynasty and Their Role in the Origins of Papermaking

Winter 2018
Winter 2018
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Elizabeth Boyne   is  conservation professional who specializes in books and paper. She has served as the special collections conservation technician for the Stanford University Libraries, and currently works at the Book and Paper Lab in New Or-leans, Louisiana. She received an MFA in book arts and MLIS with a focus in special collections librarianship from the University of Iowa.  Readers of Hand Papermaking are familiar with the most common story of paper's origin: Cai Lun, a craftsman and member of the imperial court, announced his invention of paper in China in 105 CE, during the Eastern Han dynasty (the latter part of the Han dynasty). Documents record that Cai Lun's first paper was made of hemp, discarded cordage from ropes and shoes, fishing nets, and bast fibers from the mulberry plant. In his invention of what is called "true paper,"1 Cai Lun perfected a thin, easily transportable, economical, and durable writing surface that revolutionized the spread of information.

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Archaeological evidence shows, however, that paper existed several cen-turies preceding this  date. Paper historians Pan Jixing, Elaine Koretsky, and others have cited research related to  eight paper fragments found at sites that date prior to the Common  Era. Rough paper, made of hemp and likely used for wrapping, was  found in a tomb in Baquio that dates from circa 140 to 87 BCE.2  The oldest paper fragment documented was excavated from a tomb at  the Fangmatan site near Ti-an-shui in the Gansu province.3 This  small piece of a map, which is also the earliest example of paper  written on with ink, dates from roughly 176–141 BCE, the early  decades of the Western Han dynasty.  Many historians have contributed to the research documenting  paper-making's origins. However, in these histories, one element  has not been thoroughly explored—the likely contributions of women  to the course of papermaking's development. As the manipulators  and holders of textile technology, the role that Han women played  in the invention of paper may be significant. With their intimate  connection to the processing, spinning, weaving, and laundering of  hemp, women held the skills and technological know-how to play a  major role in the invention of paper. The question at hand is how  that might have come about. Paper historians have long surmised how the first papers may have  been made. Dard Hunter assumed that silk may have been used for  the first proto-papers; he notes in Papermaking, The History and  Technique of an Ancient Craft, that two characters were used for  paper: the most common character, chih also stood for "silk," and  the less common could be understood as "cloth."4 Paper historian  Yang Juzhong pro-posed an early form of paper called cocoon paper,  which "from the 6th century BC until 221 BC was made by extracting  minute fibers left on the surface of a river when silk was  extracted from cocoons." Furthermore, when discussing hemp, he  notes the historical record of Han Xin, who in 200 BCE "floated  some linen fabrics and made them into paper in ‘the old ladies'  way.'"5 He describes this method as placing fabrics such as "old  linen bags into water," and then lift-ing the minute frayed fibers  that come off these bags onto a screen, producing paper. Librarian and historian Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien (as well as Hunter and  Jixing) proposed that paper likely originated "from the process of  pounding and stirring rags in water, after which the wadded fi- bers were collected on a mat."6 But how exactly did this process  de-velop? In what ways did the people of the Han period interact  with textiles that may have made this discovery come about?  In the year 202 BCE, the Han dynasty was established. The Han  period, which lasted over 400 years, is usually split into two  halves: the earlier or Western Han, which lasted from 202 BCE to 8  CE; and the Eastern Han, dating from 25 to 220 CE. The entire era  was a time of relative peace. During the Han period, Confucian  ideals outlined a gendered division of labor that significantly  connected women to hemp and weaving. Defined as the idea of  nangeng nu-zhi, or the "man plows and the woman weaves," the roles  men and women in the Han agrarian home were delineated to both  provide a framework of filial duty that would help ensure social  stability, and to create reciprocal and complementary  responsibilities within the family that would lead to efficient  production of the grain and cloth needed to feed and clothe a  growing society.7 Fugong, one of the four "womanly virtues,"  called for women to be rooted in the do-mestic sphere and placed  them in charge of spinning, weaving, and embroidery. The ideal  went as far as to inspire a traditional gift for newborns: the  birth of a boy was marked with a gift of a bow, while a girl was  bestowed with the gift of a handkerchief.8  The Han dynasty saw a huge spike in population. Over the first  century of the period, population doubled and tripled in some  areas. The capital Chang'an (now modern-day Xi'an in the Shaanxi  province) had a population of several million people. Despite the  exis-tence of these huge urban centers, the Han dynasty had a  predomi-nantly agrarian-based economy, and it was taxes from the  peasants, paid in the form of grain and cloth, along with  conscripted military and labor service, that kept the dynasty  prosperous and maintained. Weaving, while practical for a family's own clothing and textile  necessities, was also an activity managed by the government. While  men were required by the government to pay their tax with grain,  women used cloth as their form of government payment.9  In agricultural communities, women worked together to culti-vate  silkworms and weave textiles made of hemp. Historian Michael Loewe  notes that women "in the sixth month…would be spinning the  textiles, before settling down to the summer task of washing old  clothes, cutting new clothes, and dyeing the silk cloth."10 He  goes on to note that "In the tenth month \[women\] were best  employed on working hemp and fashioning sandals."11 While men grew  the hemp, women transformed it into materials that were used in  day-to-day life. Hemp woven by women was used for the robes worn  by most of the populace. Knowledge of retting, scouring, and using  alkaline solutions such as lime to de-gum fibers were also known  and used during both the Qin12 and Han periods.13 With this intimate connection to hemp and textiles, women were in  the position to, as Tsien notes, "pound and stir rags in wa-ter,"  a step that is now known to be one of the first in making paper.  But when exactly would this interaction have occurred? Women may  have pounded old textile material in water while doing laundry—and  as historian Juzhong notes in his description of making paper in  the "old ladies' way," "the ancient Chinese mainly wore linen  clothes that needed to be washed often, so this was certainly a  common phenomenon."14 But how was laundry actually done during  that pe-riod? Unfortunately this information is scant, and little  to nothing seems to be recorded on the subject in the Han  historical record. Poetry, however, has made mention of laundering  techniques. In a poem written in the middle of the fifth century,  poet Bao Linghui writes, "the clothes pounder and block are mute  at night." Several earlier poems, including "On hearing the  Clothes pounder at night" and "Clothes-pounding song" describe a  waiting lover hearing the sound of launderers pounding clothes  with stones or mallets in the distance.15 We can also return to Han Xin's second-century-BCE descrip-tion of  paper made in the "old ladies' way."16 In his book Written on  Bamboo and Silk, Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien further explains the method,  noting that Xin "witnessed many women washing rags in the Huai  River."17 Similar laundering techniques continued throughout his- tory; music from the sixteenth century contains the lyrics:  Pound cloth, pound cloth, keep pounding cloth,  pound them until late at night when the moon is setting. Arms weak  and unable to handle the heavy block and club, anxious heart just  fearing the slowness of the pounding.18 The method of "washing clothes by putting them in water where it  flows over rocks, then pounding them with the bare hands or a hard  object such as a stone or club" is documented in China all the way  up through the twentieth century.19 And Hunter, with his reference  to the Chinese characters for silk and cloth in his account of  early papermaking, reminds us of "the original Chinese method of  beating or macerating the cloth or bark…by placing the material,  with water, in stone mortars and pounding the mass to fibres by  means of pestles, or mallets, operated by hand."20  With this description in mind, I decided to attempt to re-enact  potential laundering techniques to see if I too could create paper  in "the old ladies' way." I conducted this experiment with hemp  fabric, using a stone to beat a piece of cloth from an old pair of  hemp pants, and then setting it in water to see how the fibers  were affected.  I first beat the fabric, which had been soaked in water, for  45  minutes and then immersed the beaten mass into water  using a  winnowing basket lined with burlap, emulating a screen  that could  capture the loose fibers. Such a specially lined basket may have  been used for rinsing beaten clothing in creeks, ponds,  or lakes  where debris needed to be kept away from the clothes  being  laundered.  It was my supposition that after beating, if ran through a lined  basket, the rinsed fabric could leave behind a paper-like residue.  Burlap is but one possibility for lining; further experimentation  will include testing this method with different linings such as  silk or finer linen cloth. In my trials, this process did indeed  produce a sheet-like mass of fibers, though it easily fell to bits  when I tried to delaminate it from the burlap.  Would it possible that launderers may have seen residue such as  this and perhaps taken further steps to make larger sheets of  "paper"? Preparation of hemp fiber for spinning is very similar to  preparations seen in papermaking—the cut stalks were soaked for 12  to 24 hours, and then "covered…with matting to ferment. After  about one day, the raw fibres…were peeled from the stem and un- derwent a cooking process in water and alkaline ashes."21 As is  seen in more contemporary Chinese papermaking practices, stems  were sometimes soaked in bundles in a pool and then sunk to the  bot-tom with stones to further the retting process, thus creating  a fiber that could be used to create a finer cloth. And it is  significant that as Loewe notes above, washing old clothes and  dying the silk both occurred during the summer months, meaning  retting materials would have been on hand at the same time that  clothes were laun-dered. Silk and ramie, also used for textile  production, would often be soaked in lime to further degum and  soften the fibers.22  With thoughts of these processes in mind, I tore the hemp fabric  (taken from pants) into small pieces and soaked them in 3-percent  slaked lime/water solution for two months. The fabric was rinsed  free of all solution before beating.  After beating it with a stone for 15 minutes, the weave of the  fabric started to disappear, and the fibers appeared more and more  macerated. After beating for 45 minutes, the weave of the fabric  al-most completely disappeared. The fibers were very tender and  easily pulled away from the mass.  I then attempted to pull a sheet. I added fibers to the basket,  lined with burlap, and agitated them with my hands. When I lifted  the basket from the water, the fibers came together in an almost  gauzy way; seen up close, small sections look distinctly like the  joined and interwoven fibers of paper. In an attempt at a second sheet, I placed the fiber in an unlined  basket that was immersed in water. I lifted and drained the  basket, which left the fiber behind. This fiber also came together  as a sheet that easily pulled away in one piece from the basket. For a final and perhaps a sheet most reminiscent of what rem-nants  may have been left from a session of laundry, I poured my leftover  vat water through the lined basket. When the water drained, fibers  were left behind, forming a thin though poorly formed sheet of  paper. With their sophisticated understanding of hemp and textiles,   women held the technical expertise necessary to experiment and  manipulate fiber toward new usable ends. The craft of papermaking  throughout history has been upheld by a number of unnamed  artisans.  It seems quite plausible that women may have been the  some of the first  of these artisans, and their technological  know-how may have been key to the furthering of the development of  papermaking in early Han  dynasty China.    Notes 1. Jozef Dabrowski, "Remarks on the Invention of True Paper  by Cai Lun" in IPH Congress Book 16 (2006): 5–16. 2. Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, "Paper and Printing," in Chemistry and  Chemical Technology, volume 5, part 1 of Joseph Needham, Science  and Civilisation in China (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University  Press, 1985), 38. 3. Ibid. 4. Dard Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an  Ancient Craft (New York: Dover Publications, 1978), 139. 5. Yang Juzhong, "The Origin of Ancient Chinese Papermaking"  in Paper as a Medium of Cultural Heritage: Archaeology and  Conservation, ed. Rosella Graziaplena, IPH Congress Book 14,  addenda 5 (Rome: Istituto central per la patologia del libro,  2004), 328, 331.  6. Tsien, 36.  7. Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women: A  Philosophical Interpretation (Albany, NY: State University of New  York Press, 2006), 80. 8. Rosenlee, 81–82. 9. Michael Loewe, Everyday Life in Imperial China (New York:  G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1968); Cho-yun Hsu, Han Agriculture: The  Formation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy (206 B.C.–A.D. 220),  ed. Jack L. Dull, Han Dynasty China 2 (Seattle: University of  Washington Press, 1980). 10. Ibid., 178. 11. Ibid. 12. The short-lived Qin dynasty that directly preceded the Han  dynasty created many reforms that would later flourish during the  Han period. During the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), China's  government became more centralized and hierarchical and thus  became more bureaucratic, which meant more legal documents and  written records. These documents, recorded on bamboo strips or  refuse silk, were abundant. A lighter, more economical substrate  for these documents became more and more necessary. The stability  of the Western Han dynasty provided an atmosphere where these  kinds of new technologies could be developed. 13. Dieter Kuhn, "Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling,"  in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, volume 5, part 9 of Joseph  Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 1988).  14. Juzhong, 331. 15. Kang-i Chang and Haun Saussy, eds., Women Writers of  Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). 16. Juzhong, 331. 17. Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, Written on Bamboo and Silk: The  Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions. 2nd ed. (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 148. 18. "Pounding Cloth Melody," 13fxxp/fx32dyq.htm (accessed July 30, 2018). 19. See  for a definition of laundering. Also, Tamara Jacka notes that  during her research performed in the 1980s, "Women who did not  have a washing machine commonly spent half a day once or twice a  week scrubbing and pounding clothes by hand." Tamara Jacka,  Women's Work in Rural China: Change and Continuity in an Era of  Reform (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 114. 20. Hunter, 139. 21. Kuhn. 24. 22. Kuhn, 24–38.