Unlike so many other landmark breakthroughs—be it the invention of the wheel, the methods for making glass, the smelting of bronze or iron—we know today with some degree of certainty when paper was first made, and where it emerged. The year traditionally given by the Chinese is A.D. 105, when an official in the Imperial Court of the emperor Ho Ti, responsible for making tools and weapons, a man named Cai Lun, announced the invention in a formal report and outlined specific instructions for its manufacture. Writing about this key achievement three hundred years later, the official historian of the Han Dynasty, Fan Ye, declared that Cai Lun (until recently spelled Tsai Lun in the West) had “initiated the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, hemp, old rags, and fishing nets,” and that once perfected, the process was “in use everywhere.”
Today, statues of Cai Lun are found in museums and public buildings throughout China, his image printed on postage stamps, his name revered by many millions of schoolchildren, even though archaeological finds from the past hundred years strongly suggest that papermaking was practiced several centuries before he introduced it at court. Some of the most persuasive evidence for an earlier provenance comes from excavations in the early years of the twentieth century by the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein along the Silk Road, the network of caravan routes that for close to two thousand years linked China and Europe. Stein is best known for the spectacular find of fifty thousand scrolls and artworks he recovered from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at the Dunhuang grottoes, also called the Mogao Caves and once a booming oasis in the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province.
Among the treasures Stein removed to England was a copy of the Diamond Sutra of the Chinese Tang Dynasty from A.D. 868, appearing more than five hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable metal type in Europe, making it the earliest printed book on record to bear an identifiable date. A number of letters written on paper, which Stein found in the ruins of a watchtower in the Great Wall of China, have been dated more than seven hundred years earlier than that, to about A.D. 150. In an exhaustive history of Chinese paper published in 1985, the distinguished University of Chicago historian Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin suggested that the oldest paper specimens extant today are fragments discovered in 1957 in a tomb in Shaanxi Province, dating to about 140 B.C. Early examples from other locations have been identified as well, increasing the near certainty that the process evolved over several centuries.
Significantly, one of the first Chinese words for paper, Chi, was defined in an early lexicon as “a mat of refuse fibers.” While not correct in every respect, the description does provide a context for what paper is, and what it is not. Many manufacturers today certainly do mix discarded rags and “recovered” papers into their pulp, and paper may well be the first industrial produce to include recycles materials on a significant level, but many other fiber sources often find their way into the final product, ones that are anything but disposable scraps. A more accurate definition might describe paper as a composite of water and pulverized cellulose fragments screened through a sieve and dried into a flat film. Using that description, there is a mat, and there are fibers—but there is also H2O, which is vital to its composition.
– “Common Bond,” On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanes