Cai Lun

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 23:46, 12 January 2023 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Cai Lun (Traditional Chinese: 蔡倫; Simplified Chinese: 蔡伦; Hanyu Pinyin: Cài Lún; Wade-Giles: Ts'ai Lun) (ca. 50–121 C.E.), courtesy name Jingzhong (敬仲), is conventionally regarded as the Chinese inventor of paper and the papermaking process, in forms recognizable in modern times as paper (as opposed to Egyptian papyrus). Although paper existed in China before Cai Lun (since the second century B.C.E.),[1] he was responsible for the first significant improvement and standardization of papermaking by adding essential new materials into its composition.[2] Cai Lun entered service as a court eunuch in 75, and was given several promotions under the rule of Emperor He. In 105 he submitted a process for manufacturing paper to the emperor, and was rewarded with an aristocratic title and great wealth. In 221, he was forced to commit suicide as a result of involvement in a palace intrigue.

By the third century, the manufacture and use of paper was widespread in China and had spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In 751, some Chinese paper makers were captured by Arabs, and the first Arab paper was created in Samarkand. Production of paper spread to Spain in 1150, and soon displaced the use of hides and parchment as writing materials in Europe. The introduction of paper was a catalyst that brought about the rapid spread of literacy and intellectual development in China, the Middle East and Europe. Cai Lun is regarded as a Chinese national hero, admired for his ingenuity and his forthright nature, and a memorial hall is kept in his honor in his hometown of Leiyang.


Cai Lun was born c. 50 C.E. in Guiyang (Leiyang) during the Eastern Han Dynasty, into a poor family which made a living by home industry. In 75 C.E. he entered service as a court eunuch, and was given several promotions under the rule of Emperor He. In 89 C.E. he was promoted with the title of Shang Fang Si (an office in charge of manufacturing instruments and weapons), and he also became a paperwork secretary (中常侍).[3]

Palace Intrigue

In 79, Prince Zhao was born to Emperor Zhang and his concubine Consort Liang. Emperor Zhang's favorite, Empress Dou, had no sons of her own, so she adopted Prince Zhao as her own son. An older son of Emperor Zhang, Liu Qing (劉慶), born of another concubine, Consort Song, had already been created crown prince, but Empress Dou deeply desired to make her adopted son crown prince and to eliminate Consort Song and her younger sister, also an imperial consort, as her rivals for Emperor Zhang's affection.

In 82, Consort Song, the mother of Crown Prince Qing, became ill, and in her illness, she craved raw cuscuta, an herbal medicine, and requested that her family bring her some. Empress Dou seized the cuscuta and falsely accused Consort Song of using it for witchcraft. An enraged Emperor Zhang expelled Crown Prince Qing from the palace, and had the Consorts Song arrested and interrogated by Cai Lun. The Consorts Song saw that they were in deep trouble, and committed suicide by poison. Crown Prince Qing was deposed and created the Prince of Qinghe instead; he was replaced by Prince Zhao as crown prince. Prince Zhao, however, was friendly to his brother, and they often spent time together.

In 86, Emperor Zhang died, and Crown Prince Zhao succeeded to the throne at age seven as Emperor He. Empress Dou, acting as regent, used her three brothers, Dou Xian, Dou Du (竇篤), Dou Jing (竇景), and Dou Gui (竇瑰) to maintain her political power. In 92, however, Emperor He eliminated two of the Dou brothers, thwarting the Dowager Empress Dou’s control over the throne. After the death of Dowager Empress Dou in 97, Cai Lun associated himself with Consort Deng Sui, who was made Empress in 102. When Emperor He died in 106, Deng Sui pardoned those who had been punished for collaborating with Empress Dou. Emperor He had two surviving sons, the elder of which was considered to be in poor health, and the younger of which was only one hundred days old. The infant was made Emperor Shang, but he died later that year. Concerned that the older son might resent being overlooked, Empress Deng selected the 12-year-old son of Crown Prince Quing to ascend the throne as Emperor An. Empress Deng continued to wield power over Emperor An until her death in 121 C.E.. As soon as she died, Emperor An sought to punish those responsible for the suffering and death of his grandmother, Consort Song, and his father, Prince Qing. Cai Lun was ordered to report to prison. Before he was to report, he committed suicide by drinking poison after taking a bath and dressing in fine robes.

In the middle of the second century, a tomb was constructed for Cai Lun at his estate, Dragon Pavilion Village, in the city of Leiyang in Hunan Province. Fei Zhu of the later Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) wrote that a temple in honor of Cai Lun had been erected in Chengdu, where several hundred families involved in the papermaking industry traveled five miles from the south to come and pay respects.[4] His tomb is now under state protection as a historic site, and there is a memorial hall dedicated to Cai Lun, surrounded by a garden. In the front entryway, there is a stone tablet engraved with Cai's life story, describing his merits and achievements. In the back hall, there is a stone mortar, said to be the one that Cai Lun used to pound the pulp from which he made the first paper. Leiyang also has an “Invention Square” named in his honor.

Invention of Paper

In 105 C.E., Cai Lun submitted to the emperor a process for making paper out of the inner bark of mulberry trees, bamboo, and remnants of hemp, rags of cloth, and fishing nets. He mixed them with water, pounded them with a wooden tool, and then poured this mixture onto a flat piece of coarsely woven cloth, letting the water drain through, and leaving only a thin, matted sheet of fibers on the cloth. Emperor He of Han was pleased with the invention and granted Cai Lun an aristocratic title and great wealth.

A part of his official biography written later in China read as thus (Wade-Giles spelling):

In ancient times writings and inscriptions were generally made on tablets of bamboo or on pieces of silk called chih. But silk being costly and bamboo heavy, they were not convenient to use. Tshai Lun [Cai Lun] then initiated the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, remnants of hemp, rags of cloth, and fishing nets. He submitted the process to the emperor in the first year of Yuan-Hsing [105] and received praise for his ability. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called "the paper of Marquis Tshai."[5]

A folktale recounts that, when Cai Lun originally demonstrated paper to the Chinese people, he was mocked. In order to impress people with the magical power of paper, 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. Burning paper over graves is still a tradition in China. [6]

Global Influence

The immediate popularity of the invention attributed to Cai Lun 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. The province of Guizhou became renowned for its paper-making workshops. By the third century, paper was widely used as a writing medium in China [7] and had spread to Korea, Vietnam and Japan. It enabled China to develop its culture through widespread literature and literacy, much faster than it had developed with earlier writing materials (primarily bamboo slats and silk). In 751, some Chinese paper makers were captured by Arabs after Tang troops were defeated in the Battle of Talas River. The first Arab paper was created in Samarkand and production of paper quickly replace the production of papyrus in the Middle East and North Africa. The first European paper was created in Spain in 1150, and it spread quickly to other nations, where it displaced the use of parchment and hides. Along with contact between Arabs and Europeans during the Crusades, and the essential recovery of ancient Greek written classics, the widespread use of paper contributed to he spread of Scholasticism in Europe. The invention of the printing press further increased the use of paper, and greatly facilitated the advancement of technology and academic thought in European societies.

Mulberry paper, which was used in China beginning in the Han Dynasty, was unknown in Europe until the eighteenth century. It was described with much curiosity by Jesuit missionaries to China, who suggested that mulberry paper should be cultivated in France).[8]

Although Cai Lun is credited with the invention of paper, there is some question as to whether he actually invented paper himself, or simply systematized its manufacture and promoted its use by the imperial court. Older Chinese paper fragments have recently been discovered. Cai Lun himself is regarded as a Chinese national hero, praised for his ingenuity and respected because he had little concern for rank and was not afraid to approach the emperor directly with his suggestions.


  1. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 1. (Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd., 1986), 38-40
  2. Ibid., 41
  3. Ibid., 40.
  4. Ibid., 47
  5. Ibid., 40
  6. Cai Lun´s grave,, 07/07/31. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  7. Needham, 1
  8. Ibid., 4.
  9. Michael H. Hart. list of the most influential figures in history. Retrieved September 17, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hunter, Dard. 1932. Old papermaking in China and Japan. Chillicothe, OH: Mountain House Press.
  • Narita, Kiyofusa. 1980. A life of Tsʼai Lung and Japanese paper-making. Tokyo: Paper Museum.
  • Narita, Kiyofusa. 1966. A life of Ts'ai Luing and Japanese paper-making. Tokyo: Dainihon Press.
  • Needham, Joseph, and Ling Wang. 1954. Science and civilisation in China. Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press. ISBN 9780521327275
  • Shou, Qi. 1996. Cai Lun. Zhong wai ming ren zhuan ji gu shi cong shu, [76]. Beijing Shi: Zhongguo he ping chu ban she. ISBN 780037470X ISBN 9787800374708 (In Chinese)


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.