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Expert Offers New Theory on the Invention of Paper
The earliest paper in the world was created by natural forces involving downed trees and floating bamboo curtains in the Fenghe River in ancient Chang’an City (present Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province), according to Li Fang, a member of the International Association of Paper Historians (IPH) and secretary-general of the Papermaking Profession Committee of the Public Relations Association of Shaanxi Province.

Many ancient documents record the use of paper before AD 105, the year in which Cai Lun is credited with the invention of papermaking technique, said Li Fang whose recent book, Legend of Chinese Paper, was published by the People’s Publishing House of Shaanxi after some 20 years of research.

Archeologists have discovered ancient paper relics of the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD25) at eight sites -- such as Xinjiang, Gansu and Shaanxi -- scattered along the Silk Road. From this Li Fang concludes that Chinese paper originated along the Silk Road, specifically in Chang’an City where the Silk Road started.

According to Li Fang, the history of papermaking by villagers in Beizhang village of Chang’an County, Xi’an, on the east bank of the Fenghe River, can be traced back over 2,000 years. In recent years, papermaking troughs, stone ware for pounding paper pulp, stone mortar for treading wheat stalk have been unearthed in the village. A folk song that has been widely circulated and sung in the locality for thousands of years mentions paper coming from the Fenghe River:

“The characters of Cang Jie [legendary creator of Chinese characters], Thunder God’s bowl, paper came into being in Fenghe River, curtain was floating in the river, hu hai you, paper came into being in Fenghe River while curtain floating.”

Bolstered by research documents on papermaking and recent material objects found in the village, Li Fang offers a new interpretation of these lyrics:

The Fenghe River, which originates in the Qinling ranges, at flood stages washed away all kinds of trees in Qinling as well as hemp fibers in cisterns on both banks of the river. The bark and hemp fibers, mixed with the water, as they floated down the river turned into the original thin paper pulp.

Meanwhile, bamboo curtains, also washed away by the flood, got caught up on branches. And here the paper pulp came to hang, little by little. As the floods ebbed, and the material hanging on the bamboo curtains dried in the sunlight, pieces of paper came into being. So it was that people were inspired to invent the original papermaking technique, handing down the source of their inspiration in the folk song through the lyrics “paper came into being in Fenghe River while curtain floating.”

Cai Lun during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25-220) summed up and improved the earlier papermaking techniques, and made a report to the emperor to popularize papermaking techniques, for which Cai Lun should be credited as the general representative of Chinese paper inventors, Li Fang said.

(光明日报 [Guangming Daily] by Qin Jian, translated by Zhang Tingting for china.org.cn, May 22, 2002)

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