Xuan Paper Making

In Xuancheng, Anhui province, there are workshops where people still make paper as they did centuries ago, and the process is fascinating.

By Jonathan Alpart

Of all the great Chinese inventions, perhaps the most important is paper. Paper, of course, enabled the dissemination of writing -- another Chinese invention, which allowed the spread of knowledge not only physically to people in other places, but also chronologically over time to future generations. The practical use of paper is obvious, but today it is rare to know, or to see how paper was made during ancient times. In Xuancheng, Anhui province, there is a workshop where people still make paper as they did centuries ago, and the process is fascinating. The Xuan Paper Culture Garden showcases the art of paper making.

Firstly, tree bark and stems are dried on the hills that surround the workshop. When standing at the foot of the hills, it appears as if a musty, beige patchwork covers the sides of the hills and mountains. This is the tree bark, which will later be separated by quality and grade -- only the best bark will be chosen.

Once the bark is separated, pulp is produced by pulverizing the bark with large, wooden hammers. And by large, I mean the size of an NBA basketball player. Tree bark is beaten repeatedly until it is broken down into a moldable base with which to make the paper.

Afterwards, the pulp is washed in water in order to further break it down into useable fibers. This process is still carried out by hand and is extremely tiring. The worker that I observed pulled a bamboo stick attached to a bag containing the pulp back and forth through water. The water creates a drag force which pulls apart the fibers. The process is very straining on the muscles; after having a go myself I was tired after only a few movements. I'm convinced that making paper this way is more efficient for body building than the exercises I do every morning.

The pulp is then mixed into water to make a soupy, porridge-like mixture. A sheet of bamboo allows water to sluice through while keeping the pulp on top. A worker slides the bamboo sheet through the water and tilts it in such a way that the mixture runs down the sheet and back into the mixture, leaving an even coating of pulp on the sheet as the water drains through.

Once dry, the sheets are then peeled off the bamboo and placed onto a heated stone in order to remove any remaining moisture and harden the pulp sheets into paper. Finally, after careful examination, the paper is cut into different sizes catering to the market need. Even though this process sounds rough and time consuming, the quality of the paper is really extraordinary. It looks like the finest paper used for calligraphy -- thick, solid white, durable and strong. A photograph of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin practicing calligraphy in the workshop just shows how important and famous the place is throughout China. So famous in fact, one of the workers even participated in the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, performing his paper-making skills.

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