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Paper-Making


From the book Arts and Handicrafts of VietNam.

Historical sources reveal that paper was invented as early as the 3rd century A.D. The first reference to the existence of a paper-making village occurs in the 13th century – Dich Vong village, in the vicinity of the royal capital.

Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s first university) was built in 1070, and national examinations to select those for public office were held from 1075 on-wards, giving rise to a widespread desire for learning, and a huge demand for paper.

Yen Thai village (known today as Buio), located on the West Lake near the capital city, rapidly became a centre for paper-making, to the point where Nguyen Trai in the 15th century devoted a substantial part of his Book of Geography to the subject. The 18th century annalist Le Quy Don gives a lengthy description of paper-making, a process which was used up until quite recently, and only ended with the introduction of machines.

Paper was originally made using the bark of a certain creeper (Rhamo neuron balansae) grown in the upland provinces of Yen Bai and Phu Tho. Barge convoys laden with this raw material would float down the Red River, unloading their cargo at paper-making villages. The bark was then soaked for several days in liquid lime then heated in a double boiler made of cast iron set over a brick kiln up to two metres in diameter. The process lasted several days and nights, during which time the whole village was in festive mood, with young boys and girls working and enjoying themselves far in to the night in the bright light given out by the kilns. After boiling, the bark was again immersed in liquid lime, then pounded in a stone mortar. A white paste mixed with a size of glue or gelatine was spread over a sieve made of metal or woven bamboo, then the women would dip the sieves into barrels of water, lifting them up at just the right moment to ensure uniform thickness after dyeing. The substance was then placed in a press operated by means of a simple lever. The paper, still wet, was then dried leaf by leaf over a charcoal fire. The women then laid them out flat and smoothed them over by hand.

On the smooth surface of this absorbent paper, scholar teachers would write or paint Chinese characters with great care as they were impossible to delete. Each character represented a real picture through which the man using the brush expressed his personality, so the result had the same artistic value as a painting. People would journey long distances to request the characters written by renowned scholars to decorate the fronts of the houses, or inscribed panels and parallel scrolls for placing near the ancestral altar. A man who inscribed the title of a book on its cover was honoured equally with the author of the book.

Since learning and research usually centred around moral and philosophical issues drawn form the writings of the saints and sages, an inscribed page was regarded as sacred. No one dared use a sheet of paper inscribed or painted with Chinese characters for more pedestrian purposes. Wood-block printing of books flourished, as every village had its own school and pagoda.

Regrettably, intermittent wars and a tropical climate contributed to large-scale destruction of libraries and book collections. In particular, throughout 20 years of foreign occupation in the early 15th century, armies were ordered by the emperors to burn to the ground all Vietnamese libraries, to the point where not a single book in existence prior to that time has survived.

Imperial decrees or diplomas conferred by emperors or mandarins and village guardian genies were written on special paper bearing a dragon image, symbol of imperial power. There were also higher grades of paper used for the printing of books for the nobility.

A huge volume of paper was used to make votive objects to be burned during ancestral rituals and religious festivals or for lanterns and firecrackers.

From the book Arts and Handicrafts of VietNam.

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