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Chinese textual culture: the invention of paper

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Chinese textual culture predates the introduction of Buddhism by more than a millennium. Early texts include a rich array of works in areas including philosophy, politics, divination, and calendrical science, and stretching back to the Zhou dynasty(). Recently, the discovery of a vast trove of works dating from the Warring States(), Qin(), and Han () periods has attracted considerable attention. In terms of their material form, these texts consist of thin bamboo slips bound together with thread. Each slip contains a single line of text arranged vertically, and the slips are strung together from right to left. The paper texts which are so familiar to us today only appeared after the Han.
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Here we have a replica of a bamboo slip text known as kanpen in Japanese. It is a modern replica, but it gives us an idea of what these texts look like. Paper was already used in China in pre-Christian times for wrapping things. The use of paper as a medium for writing is usually attributed to a man called Cai Lun (J. Sairin) who lived during the Later Han (). Although paper would not be commonly used until later, an early paper text dating from the 3rd century, in the Jin dynasty (), has been found in western China. It is a scroll made of narrow strips of hemp paper joined horizontally, which can be considered a paper equivalent of interconnected bamboo-slip texts.
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Paper scrolls probably became a common presence during Northern and Southern Dynasties (*) but at this stage their use was limited to the court and the intellectual elite. The appearance of paper texts in China coincides exactly with the so-called “Eastward expansion of Buddhism.” When they were translated into Chinese, texts that in India and central Asia had been written on palm leaves and birch bark, were written on paper scrolls. By this point, the Buddha’s teachings were no longer available only to the members of the court, but to all educated people, and, later, to the entire population. While playing a vital role in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism, paper texts also profoundly penetrated Chinese society as a whole.
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Stimulated by the rivalry with Buddhism, Daoism also undertook a major overhaul of its textual tradition, and commentaries on the Confucian classics also appeared in great quantities. A virtuous cycle was created between doctrine and texts, with one serving as stimulus for the thriving of the other. Eventually, paper texts came to be used for texts in all fields, including history, literature, dictionaries, encyclopedias, thus ushering in a new phase in East Asian pre-print textual culture.
Let’s take a look at books in ancient China. Before the invention of paper, books were made by stringing together bamboo slips.

Periods of Chinese history that appear in the video:

The asterisk (*) in the English subtitles indicates the name of a historical period. Please refer to the following list of Chinese period names as well as to Step1.3 “East Asian History at a Glance”.

Keywords introduced in the video

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