Ancient Chinese Paper Making
Did you know that the smooth white paper you write on everyday got its start in Ancient China right around 100 BC during the Han Dynasty? Prior to the invention of paper as we know it there was papyrus and parchment that people could write on, but it was expensive and very difficult to make. In China expensive silk was also used but that was reserved for only the very wealthy. That means that it was not readily available to everyone.
Its invention meant that people of all economic backgrounds could learn and write. Because it absorbed ink, forgery was harder and it made carrying a book so much easier! Just a stack of paper sheets is much lighter than carrying a dozen hand chiseled tablets across town. Teachers had to be smart and strong!
Plant fibers and rags were soaked in water until they became a pulpy mush then they were mashed and pressed onto screens in different sizes so that the water could drain off. Once dry the paper was much lighter and easier to use than its heavier ancestor.
Since bamboo and other plant fibers are not as readily available to us as it was in 100 BC we are going to improvise with our own paper making and use supplies that we have on hand so that we can still get an idea of the paper making process.
Chinese Paper Making Activity
For this activity you will need:
- art paper or construction paper
- Hardware screen/window screen
- a blender
- plastic tub
You can buy paper making screens or you can make a simple one like we did here, by making a simple frame of wood scraps and stapling a square of hardware cloth to the back. You could also do the same with a piece of window screen and the backside of a picture frame.
Tear your paper into smaller pieces, about 1” square. Now we are going to hurry along our paper dissolving process by adding water and paper to a blender.
Run the blender until you get a nice watery pulp, add water as needed to make sure it purees up well, you can’t have too much water as it will drip off. I used white drawing paper and one small piece of blue construction paper to get a very light blue shade. In ancient China this process would have been done by a long soak of bark, hemp, bamboo, and other plant materials rather than a blender!
Lay the frame in a tub large enough to hold it and pour the mixture from the blender onto the screen, flatten it out with your fingers so that it is as smooth as you can get it. The trick is to pour slowly and move it rather than pouring a giant pile in the center.
Let most of the water drain off your screen until it is just a slow drip then carefully flip your screen to release the paper onto an absorbent surface, I used a sheet of craft felt for mine.
Press a stack of several paper towels or napkins on top and press to absorb some of the water. Place a block of wood on top and press or even stand on it to press it flat and squeeze more water out. Allow your paper to dry completely- it may take a day or two depending on how much water is left in your paper at this point as well as the humidity in your area.
Once your paper is completely dry you can trim it with scissors if you like to make it a more uniform shape. Still not flat enough? Lay it under a couple of heavy books for a few days and it will be smooth and flat for your writing.
Use a small paintbrush to paint a few basic Chinese characters as part of your studies.
Experiment with different types and colors of paper, brown paper bags make a nice parchment style paper, add a little color, and cut some into various shapes.
Ancient China Paper Making Fun Facts
- Paper making hasn’t changed much in all these years, basically the process is the same with new technologies and methods added in.
- China tried to keep the art of paper making a secret but it eventually spread.
- A Chinese government official, Ts’ ai Lun, is credited with starting the paper making industry.
- It was another 1000 years before paper making spread into other parts of Eurasia.
- The original paper making was originally done with mainly hemp.
- The oldest record of paper making that we have is dated 105 AD.
- Combined with the invention of woodblock printing in 600 AD China was able to print its first newspaper in 740 AD.
You’ll love some of these other fun hands-on Ancient Civilization kids activities:
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- Ancient Civilizations II
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- Ancient Civilizations I
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