Chinese Paper Umbrella

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 23, 2021

In China, it is possible that the umbrella evolved quite separately from its Egyptian counterpart, though there are theories that the custom of carrying a sunshade spread from the Orient westward to Europe and Africa, rather than in the opposite direction.

Certainly, the oriental umbrella stretches so far back into history that it is now impossible to determine which part of the world first saw the umbrella.

European writers have, however, recorded one relevant Chinese tale, dated prior to 1000 BC, concerning the wife of Lou-pan, who one day told her husband, who was a skilled carpenter: “You make houses with extreme cleverness, but they can’t move; the object I’m making for personal use can be carried any distance,”-and eventually she produced a parasol.

There are other traditions in China that the San, or “shade against sun and rain”, originated with standards and banners waved in the air.

Silk models, known as the Lo-san and Jih-chao, were used in early processions, and the custom of parading hundreds of parasols as if they were flags was a popular practice in Imperial China.

The ancient Tcheou-Li, or Rites of Tcheou, of the eleventh century BC, directed that the dais, identifiable from its description with a parasol, should be placed upon ceremonial chariots. The Rites describes its construction as being of silk or feathered cover on twenty-eight arcs, or curved ribs.

The supporting staff measured three-eighteenths of a Chinese foot in circumference, with a lower section six-tenths of a foot round, so that the stick could be partially telescoped.

Oriental technology appears to have been well in advance of western designs, for collapsible umbrella stays have been recovered from the tomb of Wang-Kuang (dated circa 25 BC) at Korean Lo-Lang. At much the same time Wang-Mang’s ceremonial four-wheeled carriage had a hui-kai, or parasol, which could be collapsed by means of a secret mechanism called pi-chi.

The Chinese art of the first century AD features a flat parasol, obviously honorific, which was held over dignitaries, and shows larger models fixed to the chariots of the gods of Thunder and Wind, in tribute to their divinity.

Utility parasols seem to have been introduced about this time, and these were made of oiled paper and bamboo, materials which are still used today.

At first, servants held these parasols over their masters, though it is believed that people began to carry their own in the fifth century.

It was not until the seventh century and the establishment of Buddhism that outside influences began to affect Chinese umbrella customs. Very soon, Buddhist and Chinese umbrellas became closely identified with each other, so that it is often hard to distinguish the place of origin of a custom.

But it was probably due to Buddhist influence that umbrellas began to feature at funerals in China, though personal models had been interred with the deceased for some centuries previously.

The rules of umbrella etiquette in China varied from period to period. Prior to the tenth century, blue and green silk parasols were reserved for princes of imperial rank; later the privilege was extended to ladies of the palace on their visits to town. 
Ordinary people were not allowed umbrellas covered with cloth or silk and used instead of models of stout paper, which were quite adequate for keeping off sun or rain if commanding less prestige.

The very highest honors in umbrellas were, of course, enjoyed by the emperor of China. On ordinary occasions, he would be accompanied by twelve umbrella-bearers and twenty-four fan-bearers.

But when Ki-tsiang, T’ung chi was married in Beijing in 1872 the occasion was marked by a spectacular procession in which almost every participant carried a banner or very tall triple-flounced umbrella, of various colors and embroidered with dragons and phoenixes.

At the end of the procession came the imperial canopy, or yellow dragon Umbrella which, when not in use, was jealously guarded in the emperor’s palace. It was accounted a great honor when one imperial ruler extended his privilege of the Yellow Umbrella to certain Llama monasteries in North China and Mongolia.

Not only was the umbrella important to potentates but also to the ordinary Chinese who revered the umbrella no less than did his social superiors.

Although the symbolism and high status once attaching to the umbrella no longer prevail to anything like the same extent as in the past, utility models are more popular than ever in China today.

It is quite common to see two men precariously mounted on a single bicycle, the rear rider holding a parasol over the front one. Often, too, an umbrella is held aloft when there is no need for it, or when it would be more convenient to dispense with it, so important is it to the morale of the oriental.

The cheaper umbrellas are still made of paper manufactured from cotton rags, whilst the better models utilize paper made of bark bast of the paper mulberry.

The bast is mixed with a little bamboo bark and boiled in water to which chalk and rice stubble have been added. The result is a strong paper that needs considerable effort to tear. The covers are painted and lacquered and sometimes decorated with the maxims of Confucius, though from the 1960s the sayings of that famous philosopher have sometimes taken second place to those of Mao-Tse Tung.

Westerners have been surprised by the number of ribs fitted to some Chinese models, which can be as high as forty-two, though in the twelfth century the author of the Cheu-Li, an authoritative work on umbrella manufacture, recommended twenty-eight as being preferable.

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