PURE and clean in texture, tender yet tough with great resistance to creasing, corrosion, moths and mold, Xuan paper has been used for hundreds of years by calligraphers and painters.
Xuan paper dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) and is used for brush writing and painting. It reached its heyday in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when it was presented as a tribute to emperors and other members of the royal family.
The paper earned its name from the city where it was invented, Xuancheng in east China’s Anhui Province.
“Only paper that is handmade in Jingxian County with the ancient skills passed down since the Tang Dynasty can be called Xuan paper,” says Liu Baoping, 62, the retired general manager of China Xuan Paper Group.
It is said that in 121 AD, Kong Dan, a student of Cai Lun — inventor of the world’s first piece of paper — made a living by producing paper in Anhui.
In order to remember his teacher, Kong wanted to make the best paper to paint a portrait of his master. One day he happened to see an ancient Qingtan tree, a common species of elm in the area, that had fallen near a river.
Due to years of erosion from the water and exposure to the sun, the tree bark had turned white with some long and clean fibers. Kong removed the bark and after some trial and error, he invented Xuan paper, which is white, smooth and has a fine texture.
This is similar to how Liu defines Xuan paper — handmade from the county’s Qingtan trees and Shatian straw, then soaked in mountain spring water. The production process includes more than 100 steps in some cases as paper-makers have invented steps that have been kept secret from others. The process includes steaming and bleaching the bark, as well as the addition of a variety of juices.
“Everything is done by hand and every material used is grown in Jingxian County, all of which makes Xuan paper stand out,” says Xing Chunrong, 61, who has been making the paper for more than four decades.
“Each worker only knows one or two steps of the process because each step takes several years to master,” he says.
Normally it takes about 18 months from start to end to produce a piece of Xuan paper, a national intangible cultural heritage.
How Xuan Paper is Produced
Step1: A woman singles out usable bark peeled off the Qingtan trees in Jingxian County，Anhui Province.
Step2:A man manipulates a machine to turn the selected bark strips into sheets.
Step3:The sheets are then cut into pieces.
Step4:The pieces are later trodden.
Step5:The trodden bulk is then washed
Step6:The washed pieces are dried and finally turned into Xuan paper, a national intangible cultural heritage.
Heavier and more tensile
Qingtan trees are cut down after they reach three or four years of age. The trunk of the tree is steamed first and then the bark is peeled off and dried. Stalks of straw, often collected in autumn, are then soaked in the water and fermented with lime. After the bark and straw are converted into juices, the combination work begins.
If the bark juice content reaches more than 60 percent, the paper will be heavier and more tensile, which better expresses different layers and shades of ink, making it more suitable for painting. Calligraphy looks better on Xuan paper containing more straw juice.
The paper is categorized according to size, texture, thickness and the ability to absorb ink.
Bleaching takes at least half a year as it depends on the weather. After being steamed several times, the paper needs to be bleached naturally, sun-scorched and rain-drenched.
“A piece of good Xuan paper is required to reflect the ink brush’s five features — dry, unsmooth, coal black, thick black and light black,” Liu says.
Next comes the drying step, which Xing has been doing for more than 40 years.
“Each worker is equipped with two brushes, one with soft, long hair and the other with short and firm hair,” Xing says.
The paper soaked in mountain spring water is stuck and brushed onto a giant wall and warmed with steam. In the past they used firewood and later coal.
“Today we use steam, which is better for workers’ health and also for the environment,” he says.
After being double checked, packaged, cut to size and sealed, the paper is finally done.
China Xuan Paper Group is the country’s largest producer. It makes 700 to 800 tons of Xuan paper every year, accounting for about 85 percent of the total. There are another 20 smaller factories making Xuan paper in Jingxian County.
The retired general manager Liu says machine-made paper costs no more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,634) per ton, while Xuan paper costs between 150,000 yuan and 200,000 yuan per ton.
Several years ago, fake Xuan paper posed a great threat to the industry, but after a crackdown on fakes and anti-counterfeit labeling on authentic paper, the situation has improved.
Xing now teaches the paper-making skills to dozens of young workers and is invited regularly as a consultant by the paper group. “My students now have their own students,” he says with a smile.
A museum displaying the history of Xuan paper is being built in Jingxian, and Liu says it may open next year.