Fine Books & Collections magazine: March/April 2008

The Paper Trail

Hand papermaking in China. By Nicholas A. Basbanes
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Early into a three-week visit to China this past November, the idea came to me in a flash that I was embarked on a trip reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with eight people from different parts of the world making a pilgrimage of sorts. As it turned out, each of us had tales to share about how it happened that we were on the same minibus together day after day, traveling to iconic places in the history of papermaking.

For my part, I have been researching the history and influence of paper, that ubiquitous construct of human ingenuity, by following my somewhat manic practice of going wherever I can to get what I believe are wonderful stories. In this instance—a journey of discovery to remote villages in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, where papermaking began two thousand years ago—the attraction was obvious.

What proved irresistible, however, was an opportunity to travel in company with Elaine Koretsky, director of the Research Institute of Paper History and Technology, which she founded and operates in Brookline, Massachusetts. Koretsky has spent the past thirty years documenting the niceties of hand papermaking, a venerable skill practiced commercially in a dwindling number of places. She is an independent scholar in the grand tradition of Dard Hunter, the legendary proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement who is credited with fostering a renaissance in the United States of hand papermaking and fine-press printing. Hunter wrote such highly collectible classics as Papermaking Through Eighteen Centuries (1930), Papermaking: The History and Techniques of an Ancient Craft (1943), and My Life With Paper (1958).

Although Koretsky’s contributions to the field of papermaking—including six books and dozens of articles—are substantial, none are more consequential than her determined effort to film and verify how paper is made by hand using ancient techniques. In addition to her numerous trips to China, she has visited papermakers in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Nepal, Tibet, India, Bhutan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines—thirty-eight expeditions in all to forty-three countries since 1976.

“Elaine is the guru,” is how Chris Harrison of England explained how she came to be one of the eight paper pilgrims adventuring through China. “I have always wanted to go along on one of her expeditions.” Harrison, a papermaker, artist, and paper historian, wrote her doctoral dissertation on the work of Jacob Christian Schäffer, the German autodidact whose observations of how wasps make nests led to the use of wood for the manufacture of paper pulp.

Another of our companions, Anna-Grethe Rischel, is the former head of the paper, textile, and leather section of the Danish National Museum and an international authority in the area of paper analysis, including the forensic study of documents to determine whether they are authentic or clever forgeries. She has written numerous scholarly articles based on her research, which includes the macro- and microscopic study of papers gathered along the Silk Road.

Both Harrison and Rischel are members of the International Association of Paper Historians, and both generously shared their knowledge and perceptions with me during many of our long rides along the old Burma road southwest of Kunming and later in the depths of bamboo country outside of Chengdu. Others in the group included Elaine Koretsky’s genial husband, Dr. Sidney Koretsky, a retired physician who has taken thousands of photographs and videos for his wife over the years; their daughter Donna Koretsky, owner of Carriage House Paper Company, in Brooklyn; and a couple from New Hampshire, Robert and Mariet Jaarsma. A retired mechanical engineer, Robert’s insights on the workings of various tools and implements were precise and illuminating.

We were especially fortunate to have as our principal guide Guan Kaiyun, the director of the Kunming Institute of Botany, a senior member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and a professional botanist whose knowledge of plants and fibers was dazzling to the extreme. His gentle manner and kindness of spirit was an inspiration. Since plant fiber is fundamental to the making of paper—and since paper can be made from any kind of fiber—Guan’s expertise added a richness to our understanding of the process that proved indispensable.

The other essential ingredient to paper, of course, is water. How the Chinese two millennia ago discovered the mystery of hydrogen bonding, the chemical property that holds paper together, is unknown. But at some point in antiquity a clever person recognized that a liquid solution of thoroughly beaten fibers ladled over a finely meshed screen and left to dry produced a strong, thin sheet of material that we know today as paper. As simple as the process may sound—children schooled in the fundamentals make it in classrooms everywhere today—the Chinese guarded the secret for hundreds of years.

During this trip we studied the process, at the source of its invention, no less. The provinces we visited are hundreds of miles west of Beijing and Shanghai in old China, where the major cities are modern, but where traditional methods of farming and industry still predominate in the rural areas.

Kunming, where we began our journey, is a name that should be familiar to history buffs as the destination of American pilots flying from northern Burma over the “hump” of the Himalayas to supply Chinese forces during the Second World War. We drove through these mountains on winding roads to find papermakers. Our first stop was outside of Tengchong, at a place called Yu Quan, or Jade Spring, where a steady source of pure water has allowed for the making of “spirit” paper for more than 600 years; the pulp here is prepared from the inner bark of mulberry trees.

At Dali, we were introduced to dongba paper, an exceedingly sturdy and quite beautiful paper that is made by the indigenous Naxi people from a local plant that has proven resistant to insects. In Jin Ying, there was a thin paper for wrapping blocks of fancy tea; stops in Lijiang and Heqin were rewarding as well.

The second leg of the trip began in Chengdu to the north, in the heart of Sichuan Province, home of the panda bear and massive forests of bamboo, which is used in distinctive forms of papermaking. The region’s most impressive paper is known as xuanzhi, a luxurious sheet that requires two people to work the screen mould and is used for calligraphy and art. A long walk up a steep hill known as Die Shan took us to the studio of Shi Fuli, a master artist who supervises the work of six papermakers on an estate that easily could have inspired James Hilton’s vision of the fictional paradise, Shangri-La, in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

In the village of Ren He in Jiangan County, we climbed down a steep hill to reach a stream where a group of papermakers were hard at work; the ground, a rich red clay, was sodden from a morning storm. In Elaine Koretsky’s holiday greeting sent out to family, friends, and colleagues, she described what happened next in the third person. I saw it all from a different perspective, but everything she reports is spot-on accurate. “Elaine was the first person to descend but had reached an impasse after twenty feet,” she wrote. “A worker ten feet below Elaine recognized her plight, climbed up the slippery slope, insisted that she climb on his back, and carried her to the papermaking site. The American writer”—guess who that was—“was next to descend, and after climbing down fifteen feet he fell on his back and slid in the mud for the next fifteen feet. Sidney, next in line, observed what had happened and prudently declined to go any further.”

Okay, so I was a little bruised—my ego more than my backside—and I was covered head to foot in red dirt, but I shot my daily quota of 250 photos, I recorded some fabulous conversation, and got a few paper samples to take home along with all the others that I had acquired on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Once a collector, I guess, always a collector.