Chinese history

The history of use of paper in China

Chinese history

Frances Wood looks at China's invention and use of paper through the ages. Reprinted from SACU's China Now magazine 1986.

Though the invention of paper in China would seem to have heralded the invention of paperwork, the Chinese bureaucracy was already hard at work, covering thousands and thousands of bamboo slips with accounts, reports, audits and diaries, by the time that paper first appeared in the early Han dynasty. Paper quickly became the ideal medium for bureaucratic paperwork but a glance at the bamboo slips found along the Great Wall near Dunhuang, shows how vast and detailed the Han government record-keeping system was, even when inscribed on intractable bamboo.

Making Paper
Making paper

Military records of minutiae, the daily non-events of the garrisons in the Far West in the Han (206 BC-220 AD), were written on thin strips of bamboo or wood which were then bound together with string and rolled up for storage (rather like a tiny bamboo blind). Some of the wood-slips were cut quite thick and could be re-used; the unwanted text was simply planed off. The events that the garrison soldiers on the Great Wall record are often extremely mundane, their lives filled with repetitive tasks like counting the piles of firewood (stored to light the beacons), counting the livestock and noting that one dog is missing. Occasionally they sallied forth and rounded up local miscreants and the next day they would release them.

How much more could be written with the advent of paper, is easily judged from the records of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Denis Twitchett notes that the Board of Finance used half a million sheets of paper per year in its annual tax assessments. Add that to the paper used by the other government bodies (and to the rest of the paper used by the Board of Finance for other aspects of government) and a vast mound of paper appears.

Significance of written records

Even during the Tang, the area of China was vast and difficult to control. It was, furthermore, a region of varying dialects with a communication system based on the written word, a factor which contributed to the inexorable growth of paperwork. By the time of the Qing (from 1644), the complexities of administration were considerable, with a memorial system of reports from local officials to the emperor which passed from the provincial level through the couriers' office to the transmission office, and on to the Grand Secretariat and finally the Emperor himself. Many copies and drafts were made along the line.

Not content with the existing memorial system, the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722) instituted a further level of report, the 'palace memorial'. This was developed further by the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723-1735) who dealt with some fifty to sixty a day, as well as all the other ordinary memorials, on which he wrote comments in vermilion ink which were twice the length of the original submission. These re-drafts were then sent back through the six sections to the six boards for implementation.

Despite the obsession with getting things down on paper, there was a contradictory element in traditional China which regarded words as powerful and dangerous. If the bureaucracy of the Qing is the ancestor of today's state administration, the literary inquisition of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795) can be seen as an ancestor of the 'Cultural Revolution'. Under the pretext of compiling the grandest encyclopaedic work, the 'Complete books of the four storehouses' (Si ku quan shu), imperial censors combed the country looking for books and sedition. Many of their paranoid interpretations and the subsequent punishment of 'traitors' are uncannily like some of the stories of the Cultural Revolution. One man (who, fortunately for him, was dead by the time the inquisitors arrived) had set a provisional examination question involving two Chinese characters which were quite similar to the bottom parts of the characters for Yongzheng, the grandfather of the Qianlong emperor. It was inferred that he thought that the Yongzheng emperor ought to have been decapitated. The body of the dead 'traitor' was exhumed and cut up.

A 19th century depiction of the legendary
emperor Shun who is going laboriously through
files brought to him by assiduous secretaries.

Present-day archives protected

Something of the same view of the importance of words and documents and their potential danger can. be seen in the current attitude to archive collection and management. Archives have been established at every level of government throughout China and in all 'units'. Local government archives are being used (as they have been since the Tang) to compile up-to-date local gazetteers (di fang zhi), mines of local information, yet they are otherwise very closely guarded. Analysis of the number of visitors to local archives reveal that it takes very determined people to actually see a document. Most visitors had to make several trips before getting to see anything and unfortunately the statistics do not reveal whether what they got to see was what they had originally requested. Similarly, it is not yet clear how widely the printed editions of new gazetteers will be circulated.

An excess of paper (the China Daily has recently published reports on attempts to cut down the bureaucracy's flow of documents) and fear of the power of the written word, both have a tremendously long history in China. When the Chinese were covering reams of paper with tax returns and indulging in complicated word play around the taboo characters of imperial names, we were burning cakes and ceding to the Vikings with some four hundred years to go before paper was to reach Europe from China. We pride ourselves on our cultural heritage, as do the Chinese, but theirs is weightier and infinitely older and thus more deeply entrenched and difficult to dislodge.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 118, Page 31, September 1986

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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