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