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Traditional handicrafts of making Xuan paper

The earlist writings about Xuan paper are found in the Notes of Past Famous Paintings, New Tang Book etc. Xuan paper was first made in Jingxian County of Anhui Province, as well as Xuancheng and Taiping around Jingxian. Until the Song Dynasty, the paper industry in Huizhou, Chizhou, Xuanzhou and other places gradually transferred to and centralized in Jingxian. At that time, those places were governed by Xuanzhoufu, which is why it was called Xuan paper, or Jingxian paper. The Xuan paper has been honored as “Paper lasts for a thousand years” due to the qualities of easy to be reserved, endurable and never fragile, never fading etc.

Origin and Development

The folklore says, ever after Cai Lun’ death in 121 A.D.──East Han Dynasty, his disciple Kong Dan was making paper in the South of Anhui, and he wanted to make a kind of clean white paper to draw a portrait for his teacher for memorizing. Later he found a very old pteroceltis tatarinowii by a creek near a valley lying above the creek, whose bark, after years of washing, had rottened white and long white fibres were out. Kong Dan was wild with joy. Then he took some and tried to make paper. After trials and errors, he made it. That is how the Xuan paper appeared.

Xuan paper became popular in Tang Dynasty. The Notes of Past Famous Paintings by the calligraphy and painting critic Zhang Yanyuan says, some people prepare a hundred Xuan papers at home for calligrahy, which means that Xuan paper had been used for calligraghy and painting. According to Old Tang Book, in 743 A.D., governers of Jiangxi, Sichuan, south of Anhui and east of Zhejiang all paid tribute to the emperor with papers, among which Xuanchengjun’s paper was most exquisite. Apparently Xuan paper was the king of all papers. The emperor of North Tang, Li Yu once supervised the manufacture of Paper Chengxintang, which was a treasure of Xuan paper. It is said that the Paper Chengxintang’ skin was like egg membrane; it was as hard and clean as jade; it was fine, smooth, thin and bright. So it topped all the papers at that time.

During the end of Song and early Yuan Dynasty, people with the family name Cao moved to the Xiaoling in Xixiang, Jingxian to make a living by producing Xuan paper, which is revealed in the preface of Genealogy of Cao Family in Xiaoling revised during the Qianlong of Qing Dynasty: in the turmoil of war at the end of Song, Cao Dasan, whose ancestor is Cao Zhong Gong, moved from Qiuchuan to Xiaoling, Jingxian with thirty buildings, he found that the field was rare since it is the foot of mountain, then he decided to make a living by making paper. Since then, the Cao family in Xiaoling, Jingxian became the expert performers in paper industry and in a time monopolized the paper production and operation.

After the establishment of Yuan Dynasty, the north and south had been united and economy and culture were progressing. Especially, the Landscape Painting School with the representatives of Ni Yuanlin, Wang Meng, Wu Zhen and Huang Ziwen broke the constriction of traditional court painting method and called for mountain-water freehand style and bold Chinese monochrome painting style. Xuan paper provided a broad platform for being creative in this painting method, so as a basic tool of painting for artists, the Xuan paper drew much attention. This furthered the advance of Xuan paper industry. In addition, the art and craft became maturer, the manufacture of Xuan paper was improving rapidly.
The manufacture of Xuan paper of Jingxian entered into a significant developing period in Ming Dynasty. The art and craft were becoming maturer and varieties were multiplying. The Xuan paper during the Xuande period was the best. The manufacture of Xuan paper of Jingxian in Qing Dynasty was advancing rapidly. The big families like Wang Liuji in Caoxi in the east of the county owned a mill of a considerable scale; the Cao family in Xiaoling in the west of the county had a prosperous manufacturing mill. However, all good things must come to an end. In the Xianfeng period, the war between Qing Army and Taiping Army lasted for over ten years around Jingxian, when most feedslots were destroyed and raw materials bases became desolated. It recovered in Tongzhi period. In the latter half of eighteenth century, the Xuan paper of Jingxian won a prize in an international expo and was introduced to U.S. and European countries,(In 1886, the Xuan paper won the Gold Medal in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition), which attached much attention and became the cutural bond of friendship among races. In the prime year, the production of Xuan paper of Jingxian was almost a thousand ton per year at that time.

After the establishment of the New China, the government made great effort to promote the development of Xuan paper industry. After the visiting of all Xuan paper making families, it founded the first Xuan paper mill of the New China in Wuxi, Jingxian, which recovered and progressed the Xuan paper industry. In 1996, the mill was named as Jing County Xuan Paper Mill, Anhui Province and registered with a trade mark of “Red Star” and “★”, and then it has been the biggest Xuan paper mill of China and once monopolized the production and operation of Xuan paper in thirty years. In August 1992, after the reform, the title was changed to China Xuan Paper Company Group (subordinate name: Jing County Xuan Paper Mill, Anhui Province).


The Xuan paper is tough and tensile, smooth, white and dense. It has fine texture and perfect ink absorption. In addition, it is special in permeation and lubrication. When Xuan paper is used in writing, the appearance and presence can be both revealed. In painting, spirit will never be missing. So it has become the paper for writing and painting which exposes most of the Chinese art style. As the old saying goes, “Chinese ink presenting five colors”, which means that after one stroke, the shades, texture, gradation are all clear and distinct. The art results are affected by the ratio of water and ink and the movement at an accurate speed with the usage of ink absorption. In addition, the Xuan paper is also of aging resistence, never color fading, scarce moth-eaten and long life duration, so it is honored as “king of paper” and “a thousand years’ longevity paper”. In the nineteenth century, it won the Gold Medal in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Other than for writing poems and painting, the Xuan paper is also the best choice for writing diplomatic notes, reserving advanced archives and historical records. Many Chinese ancient books, rare edtions and writings and paintings of famous artists which have been passed down to our generation are reserved by Xuan paper and still fresh. There are three origins of Xuan paper in China: Anhui, Sichuan and Zhejiang.

Main Types of Xuan Paper

Various types of Xuan paper exist. There are three kinds of Xuan paper: cotton material, net husk and special husk, according to its material. There exist tens of varies and specifications. Other than these, there are refined paper with various types and Xuan paper products like man pages and fan surfaces. There are various Xuan paper brands, among which the “Red Star” is the best. Every year there are a great number of famout artists come to Jingxian to do writings or paintings, thus much precious calligraphy are left there.

The main raw materials for paper making are plant fibres, primarily bamboo and wood. Wood fibres are flexible, thus the ink absorption of Xuan paper made of wood fibres will be strong, while bamboo fibres are rigid, and thus the ink absorption of Xuan paper made of bamboo fibres will be weak. The Xuan paper is divided into two main categories due to this feature:

Paper of weak ink absorption quality

This kind of paper is ususally made of bamboo fibres. The surface is smooth, thus the ink will be floating on the surface and difficult to spread, so the painting will be vividly colorful. This kind of paper is mainly letter paper, such as Chengxintang paper, Gold-dusted paper etc.. The Gold-dusted paper and Wax paper which were often used in Ming and Qing Dynasty are rare at present.

1. Chengxintang Paper: it is a kind of paper used by Emperor Li of South Tang Dynasty, which enjoys equal popularity as Tinggui Ink. It is smooth and tense, and is honored as “smooth as ice and tense as jade”. It belongs to the top-grade of paper of weak ink absorption. After that follows the Jade water paper and then the Cold gold paper. Lightness and brittleness are its features.

2. Shu Letter Paper: it is said that the paper making method from Cai Lun was passed down to West the Shu and the Shu Letter paper from the West of Shu has been famous since Tang Dynasty, like Xue Tao Letter Paper, Xie Gong Letter Paper etc.. It has been told that the paper is of high quality due to the purity of water in the West of Shu. The “Xie Gong Letter Paper” was named after the invention of paper by Shihou. It is also called “Ten Colors Letter Paper”since there are ten colors of Xie Gong Letter Paper.

3. Cangjing Paper: it is utilized for writing or printing Buddhist scriptures in temples. Another name is Jinli Paper. There are two colors of Cangjing paper.

Paper of strong ink absorption quality

It is made of wood fibres and of strong ink absorption. The surface is crude and unsmooth, thus the ink is easy to spead when it touches the paper. When it is used for writing, the pulp and wax are often mixed in the ink. It is not so colorful as letter paper and mainly of Xuan paper. Although it appeared later it has taken place of letter paper and become the most precious writing paper.

The most precious writing paper is Yubanxuan, which is made of hesang, wood, straw and sandalwood bark soaked by lime water. It is of the strongest ink absorption and best quality. Nevertheless, this kind of paper is not for everybody. Since it is of strong ink absorption, the one who moves the brush pen too slow will find it hard to use it. As the brush stays for a little while, the ink will come out and a big ink mass will come into being. But there are also people who can write in a unique style using its speciality, like the light ink writing of Bao Shichen and Freehand Brushwork of Qi Baishi etc..

Since the Xuan paper is not cheap, the deckle-edged paper is often the first choice for writing practice. This kind of paper was used for printing in the first place. But someone chose to buy the book and cut it for writing practice due to the good quality of paper. That is why it was called “deckle-edged paper”. The main raw matetiral for this kind of paper is bamboo, and with a yellow color, its quality is fine.

Since the Xuan paper is too hard to be written on due to its strong ink absorption quality, someone chose to improve it: put calendering, glue and kalinite or pulp into it. The improved Xuan paper is easier to be written on since the ink absorption quality has faded.

The hometown of Chinese calligraphy and painting paper──Jiajiang, Sichuan

The handmade paper in Jiajiang appeared in Tang Dynasty, and flourished in Ming and Qing Dynasty. At that time, one third of paper in China was made in Jiajiang. According to the historical records, in the early years of Kangxi Emperor, the “Changlianwenjuan” and “Fangxitulian” from Jiajiang were elected as “paper for Keju” and “paper for Court” after the check of Kangxi Emperor. Jiajiang paper became popular. Apart from the paper sent to the capital for Keju and the Court every year regularly, the rest were made panic purchase of by businessmen gathering from all over the country. Thus Jiajiang was hornored as the “Hometown of Shu Paper”. During the Anti-Japanese War, the total number of families making paper developed to over 5,000, with over 40,000 people employed and annual paper production of more than 8,000 tons. At the same time, the Chinese paiting artist Mr. Zhang Daqian came to Jiajiang twice and discussed the method to improve the quality of Jiajiang calligraphy and painting paper with big paper-making families. In Nov. 1983, the Jiajiang Government named the Jiajiang Chinese painting paper as “Daqian Calligraphy and Painting paper” in honor of the contribution made by Zhang Daqian to the improvement of quality of Jiajiang Chinese painting paper. In 1986, 18.2 tons of the long fibre six chi calligraphy and painting paper were exported to U.S., Japan etc. In 1994, Jiajiang produced more than 7,000 tons of handmade paper, among which 5352 tons of calligraphy and painting paper were mainly Xuan paper.

Zhang Daqian and Jiajiang Paper

The Chinese painting artist Zhang Daqian once commented that the Jiajiang paper and Xuan paper are two treasures. The adoring is just so apparent when he mentioned the Jiajiang paper along with Xuan paper in Anhui. Acturally, there is a story about Zhang Daqian and Jiajiang paper. During the period of the Anti-Japanese War, Mr. Zhang lived in Chengdu, Sichuan. At that time, when the “Dafeng paper” he made in Anhui for a special purpose was about to run out, he had to make a compromise by using “Fenlianshi” of Jiajiang as a replacement. However, the “Fenlianshi” is tough and weak in water resistance, as well as ink absorption and infiltration are not so satisfactory. In order to achieve the perfect painting results, Zhang determined to improve “Fenlianshi”. So Zhang Daqian invited his friends Yan Jiyuan to come to the Shiyan Mountain in Ma Village, Jiajiang County to meet the big paper manufacturer Shi Ziqing. After a careful observation of the ingredients and producing procedure, he began to make up the ingredients of the new paper with Yan Jiyuan. Two mounths later, Zhang Daqian brought the new liquid medicine to Shi Ziqing and asked him to try to produce new paper. The new paper was improved in the water resistence and whiteness, but it was not tough enough to bear heavy strokes. After a discussion with several experienced paper-making experts, Zhang Daqian decided to put some hemp fibres. After two mounths’ trials and errors, the new Jiajiang paper finally came into being. The new paper is as white as snow and as soft as floss. Mr Zhang preferred it so much that he designed the paper curtain and paper pattern by himself and named it as “Dafeng paper” as well. The curtain pattern of the new “Dafeng paper” is a little wider than the Xuan paper. There are frills on the two sides of the paper. The dark crinkles are moire fringes, set in the four cun in the two sides, each with a dark print of “Shu Letter Paper” and “Dafengtang Supervised”. Zhang Daqian ordered 200 dao Jiajiang new papers, each dao consisting of 96 pieces. After the usage and approval of Xu Beihong and Jiao Baoshi, the Jiajiang paper became famous.

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