To make paper you start with plant fiber. This raw material is then treated in a series of processes that include refining, mechanical dispersion, slurrying, shaping, and dehydration. Many people think that paper appeared in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), but according to ancient documents and excavated artifacts, the world’s first paper—Fangmatan paper—appeared in the early Western Han (206 BCE–24 CE).

For a long time, people believed that the Eastern Han eunuch Cai Lun (d. 121) invented paper. It is now clear that he did not invent paper; rather, he contributed new innovations in materials and methods. He expanded the number and quality of raw materials used for papermaking; this not only made manufacturing easier but also reduced the cost of producing paper on a large scale. Some of Cai Lun’s new materials were bark, hemp, and rags. He presented some of this new paper to Emperor He (79–105) who praised his resourcefulness. Paper manufacturing grew in various regions. In 114 the Empress Dowager Deng (81–121) ennobled Cai Lun with the title of Marquis of Longting. Afterwards, when commoners referred to paper made according to Cai Lun’s innovations, they called it “Marquis Cai paper.”

Although paper originated in Han times, it did not immediately replace silk, bamboo, or wooden slips as a writing surface; all of these continued to be used. However, in the Wei-Jin (220–420) and the Southern Dynasties (420–589) periods, papermaking underwent significant changes as craftsmen explored new materials (such as hemp) and made continuous improvements in the quality and quantity of production. Paper gradually assumed an important place in daily life and from this time forward, scholars talk of the “paper era.”

In the Sui-Tang period (581–907), although hemp remained the main material for papermaking, linen scraps, and bark were used. Also, paper from wild hemp was made for the first time. Paper became a favored medium for paintings and transcription of Buddhist scriptures during this time. The most famous paper made in the Tang dynasty (618–907) was “Xue Tao notepaper,” which was named after the Tang courtesan-poet who made this pinkish paper from hibiscus bark. She was fond of writing short poems and so the sheets were smaller than ordinary paper.  

In the Song dynasty (960–1279), hydraulic power began to be used to pound and pulp the raw materials. This innovation allowed for the production of sheets of paper larger than had previously been made. Emperor Huizong’s (r. 1100–1126; personal name Zhao Ji, 1082–1135) Qianzi wen (Thousand-character classic) was written on one of these large, seamless sheets of paper. The greatest technological development during the Song dynasty, however, was moveable type printing. When this invention of Bi Sheng (990–1051) was combined with new techniques of paper production, it resulted in great quantities of books and an increased circulation of knowledge which greatly enriched the cultural life of all the succeeding dynasties.

In the Song, there was a kind of recyclable paper, known as “revived’ or “reborn” paper. To reduce production costs, papermakers figured out ways to recycle used paper. It was made by removing ink from the paper, then mixing it with new paper pulp. During the Song and the following dynasty, the Yuan (1271–1368), bark and bamboo became the prevalent materials for paper production. Bark paper was the favored material for painting and calligraphy paper in the Yuan, Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) periods. Bamboo paper, on the other hand, was used for large runs of woodblock-printed books.

Paper in the Ming-Qing era was primarily made from bamboo. Papermaking flourished during this period.

China has engaged in foreign trade since early times. Around the fifth-to-sixth centuries, papermaking was transmitted to Korea and from there to Japan. Knowledge of paper manufacturing reached central Asia and India during the early Tang dynasty. Paper made important contributions to civilization, both in Asia and the West.