Cai Lun: The Chinese Inventor of Paper

Cai Lun also known as Ts'ai Lun 50-121 CE | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever looked at that piece of paper sitting in front of you and thought, who invented paper? The answer to that question is the Chinese inventor Cai Lun, also known as T’sai Lun.1

Cai Lun was born to a poor family in Guiyang, China, during the Eastern Han dynasty around 50 AD.2 He was a smart and ambitious man. He became a clerical official in a palace at a young age and was much trusted by the emperor He of Han. Lun was a calm man known for being unwilling to take risks, but he was also unsociable, and slightly strange.3

Bamboo Slip | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is a story told about his journey to discovering paper. It all started one day when he was given a stack of documents to process at home by the emperor since he served as a court eunuch. These documents were carved on bamboo strips, which were given to several men to carry on a bull-drawn cart. On the way, the bull slipped and fell under the wheels halfway through the journey, making the bamboo strips fall to the ground as well. While trying to get another bull to carry the strips, Lun had time to think, and he concluded that the strips were just too heavy and difficult to carry and use. They were indeed a burden to the scholars.4

Ming dynasty ancient Chinese papermaking process | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There must be another way out? So much energy and effort had gone into handling the cumbersome bamboo strips. What about something lighter? With what? Lun had no solution. As he was walking, he passed a hemp stalk, and looked at the hemp fiber and thought, “maybe that could be useful.” He carefully removed one layer after another from its fibers, wondering if they could somehow be written on. But they were just too rough and loose. He then thought of the wool from the remains of silk cocoons that might be useful, and that’s when he had it. He ran around seeking help for his experiment. The servants gathered bark, hemp, old silk cocoons, fishing nets, and cloth. They chopped the ingredients finely before cooking them. The result was then pounded to a starchy mixture and dissolved in water before adding another type of starch. When this new mixture was lifted out of the water, it had separated into many fine layers of fabric. Once dried, they became sheets of paper.

Lun then presented the pieces of paper he had made to the emperor. He was overjoyed, and issued a decree to have the whole country adopt the new writing material.

Cai Lun in the Museum of Chinese Writing | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 105 CE, Cai invented the composition for paper along with the paper making process. Although the tools and machinery have changed in the making of paper and are more complex today, they still employ the ancient technique of felted sheets of fiber suspended in water, drying the water then drying it into a thin sheet.5 To think that this invention would give him world-recognition, and even in his own time he was given that recognition for his invention. After his discovery, all the scholars were exhilarated and appreciative of his invention. As he had been honored with the title of Marquis of Dragon Pavilion, his invention of paper was then called Marquis Cai Paper.

Cai Lun has ranked as one of the top four Chinese inventors. He had made an important contribution to Chinese civilization of his day. And his contribution continues all over the world to this day, to a point where it is hard to imagine life without paper. The invention of paper clearly affects the world today. Cai Lun took paper beyond being a technical invention; he helped drive its widespread adoption to the point were it became a successful innovation, one that dramatically changed the world, and still continues to be a major societal force.

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, August 2006, s.v “Cai Lun.”
  2. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v “Cai Lun,” by Yiwei Zheng.
  3. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v, “Cai Lun Invents Paper,” by Alice Myers.
  4. Lisa Occhipinti, “A Paper PRIMER,” Cloth Paper Scissors, (2016): 24-26.
  5. Emily Alward, Cai Lun (Salem Press, Inc, 2010), 35.
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36 Comments

  • The process of turning something like a tree into something that can be written on is not a simple process. Before reading this article I couldn’t even begin to imagine how the first person to invent paper could just stumble upon the creation. Its amazing how something as simple as trying to make daily life easier could lead to an invention that would literally alter the course of history and turn into something that has become a part of every day life.

  • I knew that paper was invented in China; however, I knew nothing about the man who invented it. Cai Lun had an inventive mind and was able to put together the perfect ingredients for paper. This was a revolutionary invention and a massive improvement from using bamboo strips, which look much less convenient based on the picture. Cai Lun’s innovation truly changed the world, considering that we still use it two thousand years later.

  • We use papers almost everyday and take it natural. However, we should thank the person who made such a useful, necessary tool for the first time. I didn’t know the person was Chinese man and how he reached to invent paper. Since paper is one of the most important invention of human beings, I think that this story should be known by much more people.

  • It is interesting how nobody really realized how paper was invented when we use a whole notebook of paper for a class and end up throwing it all away and being wasteful. I found it interesting on how this article was very descriptive and what inspired Cai Lun to create it. I feel that the only reason paper was mentioned and known was because he knew the emperor and without this connection, it would not be anything until later.

  • Cai Lun’s professional connection to the Emperor certainly helped paper gain traction. I wonder how long it would have taken paper to catch on if someone else had invented it, or if Cai Lun had not had such important relationships. Either way, the paper-making process is clearly a complicated process, and Cai Lun deserves the credit. When I read about the bamboo falling from the cart, I expected the strips to be turned to paper in the mud or something convenient, but the process you described sounds much more intensive.

  • I had questioned how paper came to be and who invented it but never looked for the answer. This article answered the question that I had asked myself throughout the years. This article gave details to how paper came to be and what inspired it to be created. I believe that it is extremely important that Cai Lun was close to the emperor. If he would have not been close to the emperor perhaps his invention would have not been widespread.

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