Credited with inventing a papermaking process that used plant fibres, his innovative idea would go on to impact global development for almost 1,900 years.
The history of paper and its Chinese origins, however, date back to the Shang Dynasty (1766-1066 BCE) when the shells of tortoises were used to record historical events. Later, probably to the relief of shelled reptiles everywhere, bamboo strips bound together to form a type of a scroll were used for official documentation.
Silk fabric was also used for note-keeping, but as a material it was far too expensive and only the emperor and aristocrats could afford it.
Cai Lun, who lived around 50-121 CE during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), was probably very familiar with the unpractical and cumbersome notebooks made from bamboo strips. Before paper came into being, ancient Chinese needed to chop down a bamboo forest to write a book.
According to one legend, after Cai was appointed as a high ranking official he had the opportunity to visit workshops around the country. During these visits he found that there was a layer of leftover silk wadding after the silk had been scraped and he observed that this material could be used for writing.
Inspired, the resourceful clerk carried out several experiments with different types of plant fibres and finally succeeded in developing a cheap technique involving a process of soaking, pressing and drying fibres to make durable paper sheets. The year was 105 CE.
He wrote a report of the papermaking process and methods in his memoirs and he sent these reports to the emperor alongside samples of the plant fibre paper. After receiving the emperor’s praise, papermaking spread quickly across China and originally the paper was called “Caihou paper” – named after its inventor.
Unfortunately, Cai Lun’s recipe for making paper did not survive for future generations, but the invention won him plenty of fame and glory, as well as making him a member of Chinese nobility and forever known as the eunuch who became the father of paper. His work has influenced some of the ways paper is made.