Cai Lun is the man most often credited as the inventor of paper. Despite this incredible achievement (he is ranked as the seventh most influential person in history in The 100 by Michael H. Hart), he is little known in Western countries. In or around 105 A.D., Cai Lun, then a minor official in the Chinese imperial court, demonstrated his invention to Emperor Ho Ti. The emperor was pleased, and Cai Lun was rewarded with a promotion, an aristocratic title, and a great deal of wealth. He involved himself in politics, was somehow disgraced, and poisoned himself.

There is some question as to whether Cai Lun actually invented paper himself, as older Chinese paper fragments have recently been discovered. The Oxford Companion to the English Language entry on paper (one of the few reference materials available on the Internet that even refers to Cai Lun, and one that does so using the Wade-Giles spelling Ts'ai Lun) states that "about 200 BC, sheets were made from silk waste, then in AD 105 an official of the Imperial Court named Ts'ai Lun made a new kind of material from mulberry and other fibres, pieces of old fish net, hemp waste, and rags." Whether he independently discovered how to make paper or merely convinced his emperor to use it for imperial edicts, it is clear that he received credit for the invention in his day.

Aside from a brief synopsis of Cai Lun's life, there are few things known about him. Ancient Chinese records state that he was a eunuch. There is a story that, when he originally demonstrated paper to the Chinese people, Cai Lun was mocked, so he pretended to die and had himself buried in a coffin with a bamboo breathing tube. Following his instructions, his friends burned paper over the coffin, and he sprang up out of the ground, alive again. According to the story he did this to impress people with the magical power of paper. Burning paper over graves is still a tradition in China.

Cai Lun (蔡倫, also known as Tsai Louen or Tsai Lun; both are anachronistic romanisations) was born in Ch'en-chou, China, in 50 AD. He entered the bureaucracy of the Eastern Han dynasty in Hunan in AD 75 and became Chief Eunuch in AD 85, eventually committing suicide via poison as a result of court intrigues around 121 AD - 7 years after he was awarded the title of Marquess for his revolutionary invention, paper, as discussed above. Cai Lun's method was simple but effective; after soaking fibrous plant material, he pounded it with a wooden tool and allowed the water to drain from the mixture on a piece of coarse cloth.

The immediate popularity of the invention attributed to him is evident in the discovery of paper (dated to within 50 years of Cai Lun's death) in the inhospitable deserts of arid Chinese Turkestan, as well as the rapid diversification of its functions, including writing, wrapping and hygiene. The province of Guizhou became renowned for its paper-making workshops.

Prior to the invention of paper, China had lagged behind many cultures to the west. This is partially attributed to the earlier development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, but also to the earlier proliferation of writing in West Asian civilisations and the inefficiency of materials traditionally used in China for purposes of transcription. While the former used papyrus and had done so since around 3000 BC, Chinese books composed of bamboo (arranged in narrow vertical strips and written upon using vertical calligraphy) were heavy and awkward, while silk books were inaccessibly expensive.

Paper reached Korea, Vietnam and Japan during the 3rd century (eventually coming into vogue in the latter around 610 AD) and was incepted into the Middle East after the capture of Chinese paper-makers by Arabs in 751, a year which marked the abrupt cessation of centuries of trade. The first Arab paper was created in Samarkand and would quickly come to replace the production of papyrus (from which the word 'paper' originates) in the Middle East and North Africa. The first European paper was created in Spain in 1150, spreading quickly to other nations where it displaced the use of parchment and hides (which were inefficient materials for creating books in significant quantities). The invention of the printing press further emphasised the superiority of paper to other writing materials, greatly facilitating technological advancement and academic thought in European societies.

Paper achieved more or less complete global saturation by the 19th century.

The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Michael H. Hart

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.