The Silk Roads: Connecting Communities, Markets, and Minds Since Antiquity

The Role of Paper in Modernity

Paper is one of the most important technological achievements in human history. It is a medium that allows people to communicate across time and space, sharing information in ways that have not been possible before. It also enables researchers to track the dissemination of papermaking technology across the different regions of the world. The emergence of digital technologies at the turn of the twenty-first century has once again redefined how humans share information. The use of paper, which symbolized wealth and status in the past, might someday be replaced by electronic devices. It is unclear how soon this change will come to pass, but the significance and value of paper in people’s lives no doubt continue to evolve today.


Paper has a long history, beginning in China in the second century CE if not earlier. The Chinese tradition maintains that paper was invented in 105 CE by an imperial guard named Cai Lun who came up with the idea of making paper out of plant fibers. Since then, papermaking became more sophisticated and varied. Several different plants were used to make paper, such as rattan, mulberry, and bamboo. Interestingly, paper was used not only as a writing surface but also as packaging material (Bloom 21).

Paper spread beyond China along the Silk Road. It first traveled to Korea and Japan, and then to Southeast Asia. As there were different kinds of plants available in each region, the makeup of paper in local production changed accordingly. Papermaking also reached Central Asia. Once the entire region became increasingly Islamized from the seventh and eighteenth centuries onward, papermaking was adapted in the Middle East and later in North Africa. Europe was the last region of Eurasia to gain access to the knowledge of papermaking, which they learned from the Muslims living in the Iberian Peninsula (Bloom 21, 23). European papermakers tended to use recycled rags than actual plants or plant waste, which were more common in other parts of Asia.

Paper in Premodern and Modern Times

The process of making paper has remained relatively constant throughout history. In premodern times, plant or cloth fibers would be soaked, and then beaten into a pulp on a mesh screen.  After putting the fibers into a mold and letting the water drain away, the sheet of paper would be taken to dry, often under the sun in order to bleach the material (Lafrance 5). The drying process varied from place to place. While some would hang the sheets, others would paste them on walls of buildings, as sheets were sticky enough to attach to flat surfaces when wet (Lafrance 8).
While papermaking was considered a craft in premodern times, the process has become heavily industrialized and mechanized for mass production in the modern period. Rather than using smaller plants, fast-growing trees such as evergreens are preferred. They are cut down, ground into pulp by machines, and then soaked with water and chemicals to help keep the paper white. After they are dried, the large sheets are cut into standard sizes and packaged to be shipped to retail stores. Different sizes of paper are also standardized today. The international paper size standard today is ISO 216, which includes the commonly used A4 size paper that measures 210 x 297 mm or 8.27 x11.69 inches. The United States, however, follows a different standard in which the most common letter size is 8.5 inches by 11 inches. In premodern times, paper would have been made to order based on the needs of the client or preferences of the papermaker.

There are several factors that distinguish premodern paper from modern specimens. In addition to time of production, paper’s availability and cost are important to consider. Since handmade paper would require a fair amount of manpower to create, premodern paper was not as widely available across all social strata as modern paper. Yet it was less expensive than animal parchment, vellum, or cloth, so that a wider range of people were able to gain access to writing. In terms of material characteristics, premodern paper invariably has a more distinct grain and texture as well as less even tone or brightness than its modern counterpart due to past production conditions and use of certain plant types. Considering that writing implements used today are different from the ones used historically, paper had to be stronger and thicker in order to prevent ink from bleeding through or the quill from poking holes through. Papermakers in the premodern period tended to use resources in the local environment relatively at will, even though it was common practice to use plant waste or recycled rags as the base material. In light of drastic changes in climate and the environment in the past century, paper manufacturers today are using more recycled materials or sourcing from sustainably managed forests in order to reduce deforestation and pollution.

Paper uses in modern society are quite different from how it was in the past. While it is still being used for taking notes, making records, and practicing writing, paper is no longer the only medium for communicating information across time and space. With the widespread availability of digital technologies and the internet, there is a growing preference for writing in digital form. The same can also be said about preserving records digitally rather than in paper form. While paper seems to have lost some of its significance with the rise of digital media as its replacement, people are still reluctant to abandon its use altogether in their lives. The situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. We can get a glimpse of paper’s future in the book publishing industry, in which the majority of books continue to be published in print form, which still remains a low-cost and widely accessible medium for information sharing.

The social life of paper has changed in modern society too. Papermaking is no longer an art but rather an impersonal, industrialized process. Rather than craftsmen selecting their resources locally, paper can come from almost anywhere in the world. Instead of being considered efficient as it once was, using paper as opposed to electronic devices can also be considered wasteful because of concerns about deforestation and pollution. People used to exchange letters regularly, but now giving a handwritten card or letter to family and friends is usually only done for emotionally significant events such as birthdays and funerals. These cards and letters are usually are decorated and dyed, as simple, plain paper is no longer deemed as valuable in everyday life as it once was.


The role of paper in everyday life today has forever changed. With the advent of the digital age, paper is unlikely to regain the centrality it once had in people’s lives in premodern times. Nevertheless, there have been attempts by cultural organizations and government agencies around the world to preserve traditional methods of papermaking. This development thus raises the prospect that handmade paper will continue to be treasured in human society. A key to such preservation efforts is to raise public awareness and educate young people about the significance of paper before the digital age. This short essay was intended to contribute to this broader mission.

-Kaylene Goldberg

Works Cited

Bloom, Jonathan M. “Silk Road or Paper Road?” The Silk Road Foundation Newsletter 3 (2005).

Hansen, Valerie. “The Legacy of the Silk Road.” The Legacy of the Silk Road | YaleGlobal Online, 25 Jan. 2013,

Lafrance, Jessica. “Papermaking, Its Introduction and Manufacture in the Medieval Middle East: An Overview.”

Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions. Second Edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Zeronian, S. Haig, and Howard L. Needles. Historic Textile and Paper Materials II: Conservation and Characterization. American Chemical Society, 1989.

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