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White Magic: The Age of Paper

Lothar Muller


Leaves from Samarkand

1.1. The Arab Intermediate Realm

Paper is a protean substance. It not only refuses to be restricted to a single purpose, it also eludes any attempt to reliably pinpoint its origins. Its roots undoubtedly lie in China, but unlike the European printing press, it is not an invention that can be precisely dated. There is, of course, Ts'ai Lun, the high-ranking court official who, with the support of the emperor, introduced paper on a large scale as a less expensive writing material for administration in 105 AD. But the new material he presented was not an invention plucked from thin air; it was the result of improvements to an older production technique. Modern historians trying to trace the gradual, long-term development of papermaking have uncovered a kind of "proto-paper," derived from plant fibers, which was produced by imitating the methods used to make felt, as well as silk or cotton wadding—but this was still a long way from writing paper. Once a process has become established in the world, it can seem obvious in retrospect. In actuality, though, it must evolve step by step.

Basic Chinese papermaking can be described as follows: "The raw material generally used by Chinese papermakers was the bast fiber of the paper mulberry, which was soaked in water with wood ash and then mechanically processed until the individual fibers separated. To make sheets of paper, screens were employed consisting of cotton or hemp fabric stretched on a wooden frame. The screen floated in water and the fibers were poured onto it from above and distributed evenly by hand. The screen was then lifted out of the water and set out to dry with the sheet of paper on it. Only afterwards could it be used for another pass. The daily output of a Chinese papermaker was therefore limited to just a few dozen sheets."

Ts'ai Lun's primary improvement lay in the expansion of the resource base for paper production. According to a chronicle from 450 AD, it was Ts'ai Lun who had the idea to use pieces of hemp, textile scraps, and the remains of fishing nets in papermaking. Essentially, however, paper manufacture arose anonymously and gradually. As it proliferated in China, productivity increased with the introduction of flexible bamboo screens and a wide variety of applications for paper emerged. "It was not just a writing surface, it was used to make windows and doors, lanterns, paper flowers, fans and umbrellas. Toilet paper was produced on a massive scale as early as the ninth century, while paper money was a generally accepted means of payment in the tenth century."

An old tale based on Arab sources describes the first movement of paper from the East to the West. The story says that during a battle in the year 751 between the Arabs and Turkish troops, who fought with Chinese reinforcements, Chinese papermakers were taken prisoner by the Arabs. According to this account, the prisoners were brought from Taraz in Tashkent, the site of the battle, to Samarkand, where they were forced to reveal the secrets of their art. From that point on, paper was produced in and around Samarkand, which the Arabs had conquered in the early eighth century—paper that was in no way inferior to that of the Chinese.

What modern narratives of the history of paper take from this tale is that military conflicts in Central Asia may have accelerated a transfer that had probably begun centuries earlier. The acceleration and violent conquest of secret knowledge from the East as recounted in military history took place against the backdrop of the long-term east-to-west movement chronicled in the history of commerce. The Silk Road was pivotal to the transfer of paper. It was via the routes of the Silk Road that paper had reached Central Asia as a commodity long before Chinese prisoners of war could be forced to give up the secrets of its production. The Silk Road was also a paper road. From this perspective, papermaking was not so much a technology adopted on a specific date as it was a cultural technique that slowly seeped into the Arab world. The inclusion of Chinese paper in longdistance trade triggered the double step that generally takes place when exclusive knowledge is transferred in the form of goods: first a product is imported, then the ability to produce it. The high cost of importing goods over lengthy distances made this kind of double step attractive.

Arab papermakers may have initially continued to use floating screens until the "pour method" was gradually replaced by the dip method. But regardless of the specific modifications made to the technique for creating sheets of paper, Arab papermakers had to adapt the production process to the climatic conditions in their world: they had to keep water consumption to a minimum and find a replacement for the main raw material in Chinese paper, the inner bark of the paper mulberry. It was, above all, this pressure to adapt that pushed the rags, used textiles, and cordage which had at most played a supporting role in China to the center of Arab paper production.