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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part Two


By Cynthia Muak

Wonders 2 - Paper

After 6 days enjoying the rustic charm of the Pearl River Delta, we finally arrived in the famous Five Rams City more commonly known as Guangzhou or Canton.

We checked into the Dong Fang Hotel a posh hotel with Chinese theme. Its location was super. Right next to the fully booked out China Hotel and directly opposite the Canton Autumn Commodities Fair exhibition venue. The space within the hotel was huge: huge rooms, immense lobby area on each floor, ceiling height more than 25 ft. To add to the grandeur they had main, east, west, and south wings. I mean I was no stranger to hotel stays but Dong Fang was more spacious than the Hong Kong Peninsula. I finally found the wing where the Canton Fair people were doing the registration.
We had paid for most things in the Pearl River area with HK$. We only used the local Renminbi (RMB) to cover small purchases at the day or night markets.

In Guangzhou, I was told that I would have to pay for most things in FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate) and not RMB. When I exchanged my HK$ for FEC I found the FEC cost 30 pct more than the RMB. So, tourists had to pay a 30 percent premium to enjoy China hospitality and services, but I didn't mind when I noticed all the FEC notes were of newly printed crisp paper, the quality of which was much better and cleaner than the worn and crumbled RMB. This made me wonder what the first batch of paper made by the Chinese thousands of years ago felt like !!???

Research tells me that paper was invented around 100 BC in China. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) in 105 AD a government official, Cai Lun, was the first to start a paper-making industry. He created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fish nets, old rags and hemp waste. This sounded like Cai Lun was the first recycling king.
On record, the earliest piece of paper found in China was in Gansu inscribed with a map dating 179-41 BC. This suggested that this piece of paper from northeast Gansu was in use by Chinese military before Cai's invention. No matter, the earlier dated paper still came from China.

So, why was paper invented and how was it manufactured?
Okay, fellow OSCs, before we proceed further let us understand clearly that this Chinese paper invention thingy we are talking about is the immediate predecessor of modern paper. Most importantly, the manufacturing process - that was the Chinese secret! We are not going to get into arguments with other cultures. The Egyptians claimed they made the first paper - some material out of papyrus with a surface enabling them to write.

The Egyptians used papyrus grown wild in the marshy areas around the Nile, or specially cultivated in plantations. After harvest of the reed its outer rind was stripped, the inner fibrous pith cut into thin strips. These strips would be laid out in 2 layers, dried under pressure, forming smooth thin sheets. The sheets were then united together forming large rolls. This thick and heavy papyrus would be durable in dry climate, but storage in humid conditions destroyed the material. This method of making their papyrus sheet was expensive and slow and had remained unchanged over the years. In other words, their product does not even look or feel a little bit like the paper we are familiar with.

In China, before the invention of paper, documents (1600-256 BC) were written on bones or bamboo strips sewn together and rolled into scrolls. These were heavy and hard to transport.

Cai Lun wanted a product lighter, easier and far less expensive to manufacture, even on a small scale in a small workshop. The first ingredients he used were bamboo, bark of mulberry trees, and water. The inner bark of mulberry and bamboo fibres were mixed together with water. This mixture was poured onto a flat piece of coarsely woven cloth and the water drained through leaving only the fibres on the cloth. Once dry, the paper was ready to use. This process ensured high durability of the paper even when stored in moist climate. Paper manufactured this way was lightweight, thin and translucent. That was why it was written only on one side.

During the Tang and Song Dynasties, varieties of paper were invented including hemp paper, hide paper, and bamboo paper. XUAN paper was used for paintings and calligraphy because it was smooth, durable and white.

As early as the 2nd century BC, paper excavated showed it had many uses:-
1) Wrapping and padding protection for delicate bronze mirrors;
2) Used for safety, such as the padding of poisonous medicine;
3) Used for writing and it became widespread by the 3rd century AD;
4) Toilet paper was used in China from around 875 AD;
5) During Tang Dynasty (618-907) paper was folded and sewn into square bags to preserve the flavour of tea;
6) During the same period, tea was served from baskets with multi coloured cups and paper napkins of different size and shape;
7) During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) the government produced the world's first known paper-printed money, or banknote;
8) Special paper envelopes were made to hold paper money bestowed as gifts to deserving government officials.

I would think that with all the war and intrigues going on during that early period (especially during the 3 Kingdoms period 220-280 AD), carrying secret and coded messages written on paper would be more prudent and sensible as they could easily be folded and hidden away.

Paper did, in this manner, play a crucial role in the overthrow of the Mongol rule (1368 AD). Rumours were spread by Ming supporters, that soon all citizens would be afflicted by a deadly plague. The only cure was the eating of a special type of mooncake. As soon as these mooncakes appeared, they were all bought up. In truth, secret messages were hidden in them. This secret paper message was a combined effort coordinated by the Han Chinese to revolt against the Mongol on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Mission accomplished!

Chinese paper making methods had spread throughout the world into Korea, Vietnam, and Japan by the 3rd Century. It reached India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh by the 7th Century. The Chinese secret of paper making also spread to the Middle East by the Silk Road, then on to Europe by the 11th Century. In 1575, Mexico and Australia adopted this technique. Very soon paper became affordable to the urban working class as well as to many peasants.

In conservation retrospect, the majority of the 400,000 papyri preserved around the world are fragmentary. Papyrologists have been tasked to decipher, transcribe and reconstruct what is lost between the fragments. It is a tedious and very expensive process. Yet in the end not all or accurate details may be recovered. However, using the Chinese method of making paper, millions of documents are preserved around the world, forming our basic knowledge of human history.

Back to Guangzhou, after the Bank of China visit, my Korean friend and I strolled off to a nearby park where we sat down under a shady pavilion by a beautiful lake, for a pot of Chinese tea and plates of peanuts and melon seeds, all this plus service for a mere 5 RMB. Unbelievable! We gave the old man (Uncle Chan) 10 RMB and told him to keep the change.

Out of curiosity, we asked Uncle Chan how much he needed to make a month in order to be able to survive in this city? Uncle Chan confided he was a Party member and had helped the Party during the Japanese infiltration in the '30s. So he was better off than many other elderly folk. After he retired from the metal factory where he had worked as a welder, he was given the job to man two pavilions in this park (Yuexiu Park). He still lived in the quarters provided by the metal factory at 20 RMB a month. The quarters were very basic: small room big enough for a narrow bed and a chair. An old suitcase and some storage boxes were stored under the bed. He had a kerosene stove out in the corridor to handle his simple one-pot cooking. Washing and bathing facilities were communal. No electricity in the room; only the corridors, the common areas were lighted. For room lighting, he used a portable battery operated light fixture. He was grateful at least to have a roof over his head. He hoped the city's plans to tear down their tenement blocks to make way for modern highways wouldn't be for some time yet. As a single, he could get by frugally on a monthly income of 150 RMB, only plain simple meals and no cigarettes. If he had to move, he was unsure of the future.

During peak tourist seasons he could make an average of 500 RMB a month, mostly tips from photographers. He had taken in amounts of 700 to 800 RMB sometimes. He would deck out the area around his pavilions with pots of the best and most colourful blooms to attract tourists. His best months were Chinese New Year, Canton Spring and Autumn Fairs, Easter (4-days holiday for Hong Kong people, generous and big spenders), summer school holidays, October, and December. During these busy months he would share part of his income with the park's gardening team, since they kept the best potted plants for him and helped landscape his area.

Sipping tea, cracking peanuts and melon seeds, amid this tranquil setting, the air scented by masses of lotus flowers in bloom on the lake, brought scenes from old Chinese kungfu movies flitting through my relaxed mind. People in medieval China paying for food and purchases with coins and pieces of silver, larger amounts were paid by paper money drafts, huge amounts of silver and gold were transported between the money houses under the protection of security guards, who were all highly skilled wushu masters. It appeared the invention of paper not only did away with the inconvenience of heavy bamboo scrolls, but also made carrying large amounts of money easier and safer.

Before we left the park we presented Uncle Chan with some money wrapped in some handy Hallmark paper I had in my tote bag, reminding him that he was to only open it on Chinese New Year day. We also promised him that the next time we pass by Guangzhou, we would bring as many Nestle coffee bottles as we were able to carry for him. It seemed this was a 'hot' item for Chinese men. They liked to carry their tea around in these bottles. As a result these bottles fetched very good prices.

And speaking of Hallmark, they are raking in millions of USD every year through their cards and wrapping paper business. Paper, paper everywhere!

Nowadays, Plastic money is touted as the new way to spend - by bankers of course so they can make debtors out of their customers. Money managers will advise the ordinary John Doe to stay away from credit cards and maintain spending in cash so he knows exactly his cash position, in order not to plunge himself into debt. Cash is paper money.
Furthermore, in modern times, of course the new rule of organisation is the want of a 'paperless' society, yet there is no way we can accomplish anything of significance without this very necessary commodity - paper!

P.S. In case you are interested: During year 1992/93 the company I worked for set up a base in Guangzhou to pursue a few very important projects at that time. I spent a lot of time in Guangzhou and frequently visited Uncle Chan at Yuexiu Park, with empty Nestle Coffee bottles, of course. We left China in '94 and when I returned in year.2000, he was no longer at the park. I lost a good friend in Guangzhou, because I didn't know where to look for him and no one in the park could tell me where he had gone. Sad!

Watch out for the next installment of 'Wonders': Printing.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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