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Taiwan’s Papermaking Journey to Art through Local Materials

Winter 2023
Winter 2023
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Having lived in the foothills of central Taiwan for nearly five years, the surrounding lush, flourishing woods has deeply affected me. Fiber plants commonly used for papermaking, such as shell ginger, paper mulberry, and kudzu, grow wildly abundant in yards and the woods, while cotton, ramie, and Assam indigo are easily cultivated for high yields. Among this biodiverse island ecosystem and prolific plant life, papermaking by hand was primed to flourish and fluctuate from the pre-industrial era all the way to the present.

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Editor’s Note: In each person’s name, the family name comes first, followed by the given name.

Having lived in the foothills of central Taiwan for nearly five years, the surrounding lush, flourishing woods has deeply affected me. Fiber plants commonly used for papermaking, such as shell ginger, paper mulberry, and kudzu, grow wildly abundant in yards and the woods, while cotton, ramie, and Assam indigo are easily cultivated for high yields. Among this biodiverse island ecosystem and prolific plant life, papermaking by hand was primed to flourish and fluctuate from the pre-industrial era all the way to the present.

The earliest documented papermaking in Taiwan suggests that it was brought by Han Chinese immigrants from Fujian province during the Qing dynasty no later than 1871. Locally abundant bamboo was used to make only coarse household paper and joss paper. Also known as ghost money, joss paper was made for religious purposes and was burnt as an offering to ancestors. Making traditional joss paper involved complex processes: soaking young bamboo in limewater, rolling, dyeing, forming paper, printing, and applying gold or silver foil. The result was a great variety of products for religious offerings and rituals—a field studied by ethnographers. From the 2-D ghost money to 3-D models of goods, paper played an important role in the Han Chinese people’s ideas of life and death. It was an ideal material because it was at once flammable, affordable, ephemeral, and spiritual.

The second phase in Taiwanese papermaking began during the Japanese colonial rule, and developed further after the Nationalist Party from China took over in 1949. In the 1940s, Japanese water-quality investigators came and deemed Puli in central Taiwan the best headwater location to establish sugar refineries, distilleries, and paper mills. During that time, the Japanese nagashizuki method was employed in papermaking, which used gampi (Wikstroemia sikokiana) and Taiwanese paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) to supply washi paper for government institutions. After the Chinese takeover, relocated calligraphy artists and painters from mainland China found themselves in desperate need of suitable paper. From these influxes and new demands, a uniquely Taiwanese handmade-paper culture was born; a culture that used locally developed techniques and materials from the island. Even today, elements of Taiwanese papermaking speak to this rich melting pot. The pulp is made from inner bark of paper mulberry, rice straw, and bamboo; the dispersing agent is the plant mucilage of Malabar chestnut (Pachira aquatica); paper-forming techniques came from Japan; and papers are made for the best ink performance for Chinese calligraphic work.

Puli is also rich with agricultural waste used for papermaking, primarily pineapple leaves and shell ginger. Other fibers include the peels of Manchurian wild rice (Zizania latifolia) stems, sugarcane bagasse, and banana stalks. Recently I went to a pineapple Xuan paper workshop organized by National Chiayi University and Tainan National University of the Arts. The pineapple is an abundantly produced fruit in Taiwan that results in huge quantities of leaf waste. In 1973 Professor Chang Fengji started to explore the possibilities of making paper with the pineapple leaf fiber and found that it had a similar aspect ratio to gampi fiber, which is traditionally used to make Xuan paper. Moreover, it has a better yield rate, is whiter and strong, and is less prone to deteriorate. After several technical improvements and ink trials, pineapple Xuan paper was finally developed, much to the delight of Chinese calligraphy artists. Additionally, it is now often used in restoration because it is thin, yet durable, and slightly alkaline. Currently the Department of Wood-Based Materials and Design at National Chiayi University is designing a circular economy using the pineapple plant—even using the defibrated leaf material from papermaking for cattle and sheep feed. They are also researching shell ginger sheath fiber for handmade paper, hoping to solve the problem of high costs of importing fiber and to create handmade papers that are distinctively Taiwanese.

Apart from supplying more varieties of decorative paper products, traditional handmade-paper mills in Taiwan have also diversified their management and operations. Some move towards industrialized machine production, while others maintain traditional handmade production, cooperating with educational institutions on research and development. Others go for experience-based tourism, and yet others have set up foundations to promote paper art.

Among them, Suho Memorial Paper Museum was founded in 1995 in Taipei. When I encountered paper art in 1999, my exposure to the larger world of contemporary paper art came through attending international exhibitions organized by Suho. The museum brings handmade-paper art into the cities and to a wider audience. It also explores paper in a range of educational and cultural formats by hosting exhibitions, publishing books and journals, researching and developing merchandise, and assisting artists in their creative processes.

Next door to Suho is the FENKO Catalysis Chamber, which was redeveloped in 2017. Centered on the idea of an open, experimental brand, it collaborates with the Chang Chuen Cotton Paper Manufactory Company and launches all kinds of programs and spatial installations. The brand expands the paper world by making intersections with Chinese ink painting and calligraphy restoration, fashion and costume, and artistic experiences.

As one of the Four Jewels of the Study—brush, ink, paper, inkstone—paper had struggled to develop beyond its role as a functional surface for ink. Only in the 1990s was paper more widely used as an independent medium for artistic creations. Although there had been many rich paper crafts such as paper cutting, folding, carving, and paper mâché, none of them broke free from their traditional roles. However, contemporary Taiwanese papermaking art has had groundbreaking progress since entering the twenty-first century because of influences from the contemporary art world and several major international paper-art collaborative projects. In addition, from my observations, the most significant reason for this progress is the rediscovery of paper mulberry as a meaningful material, especially for indigenous Taiwanese artists.

In recent years, due to studies in biogeography, archeology, anthropology, and indigenous cultures, indigenous Taiwanese people have an increasing connection with Austronesian cultural identity and language. Paper mulberry is not only a native tree species common in the Taiwanese hills, but also an important ethnobotanical plant historically used by Taiwanese indigenous peoples to make bark cloth by felting. Scholars identified Taiwan’s significance in the migrations of Austronesian-speaking peoples by researching genetic sequencing on tapas and bark cloths around the Pacific islands. Hence paper mulberry, one of the original papermaking materials in the East, has become a local representative in this indigenous cultural revitalization. Many have learned to make bark cloth, understand paper-mulberry fiber, and connect with nature’s healing power through the physical labor and repetitive rhythms involved in making paper. Moreover this practice leads them to the realms of fiber art and contemporary paper art.

The large mountains and seas in eastern Taiwan have been the homeland to indigenous peoples and have become an important place for bark cloth. Artists Chen Shu Yen and Tuwak Tuyaw live and work in Paterongan, by the sea in Hualian, making bamboo weavings, natural plant dyes, and bark-cloth crafts. Paterongan in the Kavalan language means “boats berthing” as well as “all things resting and rejuvenating.” The artists often lead bark-cloth workshops, so those interested from all over the world may become familiar with this local, indigenous material and its simple sense of beauty.

Kang Li-sheng is a contemporary paper artist who is attracted to bark cloth and papermaking processes. Formerly working in spatial design, he expertly creates a corporeal and meditative atmosphere in space by using light and combining pulp with iron mesh. His work and processes are influenced by childhood memories in the family’s laundromat business, where he was often put in a big laundry basket while his parents were busy working. Perhaps it was the warmth of the fabrics wrapping him, or the smell of cotton batting that made him repeatedly deconstruct fibers and use the papermaking processes to transform cotton dryer lint into sheets of “paper” that carry memories. From the personal narrative work The Son of the Laundromat to Lingering, fibers seem to simultaneously disintegrate and integrate in a poetically cyclical way; the lightweight, ephemeral fibers recombine to become weighty and substantial.

Other contemporary artists in Taiwan reuse paper products that are still abundant in daily life even as print books dwindle. Metalsmith artist Chen Chun-tai deconstructs old books, dictionaries, phone books, and other paper objects, altering them by fine cutting, tearing, kneading, folding, turning, and arranging. These actions change these utilitarian objects into delicate sceneries of the artist’s mind, becoming expressive like silently passing thoughts—weathered, condensed, and trembling.

As an island, Taiwan is a biodiversity hotspot containing a wide range of fibers for original handmade papers. When traced, Taiwanese papermaking shows a story of colonization, adaptation, revitalization, and innovation using locally abundant materials. It is a rich soil, full of potential, awaiting more cultivation.



Money tree, also commonly known as Malabar chestnut, is a tropical wetland tree native to Central and South America that has become an attractive, easy-care houseplant in Taiwan during the 1980s.

Xuan paper is a kind of paper originating in China, used for traditional calligraphy and Chinese ink painting. It has the ability to absorb water and moisten ink, suitable for practitioners to create their desired expressions. The standard materials of Xuan paper are the bark of
Pteroceltic tatarinowii Maxim and rice, but these vary with time and geography. Taiwanese Xuan is primarily made from gampi (Wikstroemia sikokiana). Professor Chang Fenji’s pineapple Xuan uses pineapple fibers instead of gampi.

Specifically, the workshop was run by the Paper Quality Lab of the Department of Wood-Based Materials and Design at National Chiayi University, and the Fiber Division of Graduate Institute of Applied Arts at Tainan National University of the Arts.

Four Jewels of the Study is a phrase that denotes brush, ink, paper, inkstand—the stationery used in ancient Chinese and other East Asian calligraphy.

The term “Austronesian” comes from Greek, meaning southern islands. It either refers to the family of languages or the peoples speaking them. The Austronesian languages are predominantly spoken in the Maritime Southeast Asia (including the Indonesian and the Philippine Archipelagos), the Oceania (including Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia), Madagascar, the southern third of the Malay Peninsula, the peninsular Burma and Thailand, many parts of Vietnam and Cambodia, Hainan Island in South China sea, and Taiwan. Recent studies known as the Bellwood-Blust Hypothesis suggests Taiwan to be the origin of the Austronesian language family.

Kavalan is an Eastern Formosan language of the Austronesian family, but no longer spoken in its original area. Kavalan is also known as “Cabelang,” “Kaliawan,” and many others; Kavalan speakers call themselves and their language Khalan, meaning “people living in the plains.”