Xuan Paper (simplified Chinese: 宣纸; traditional Chinese: 宣紙; pinyin: xuānzhǐ), also known as Xuan Paper or Xuanzhi, is a type of paper originating from ancient China used for writing and painting. Xuan Paper is renowned for its soft and delicate texture, making it suitable for conveying the artistic expression of Chinese calligraphy and painting.
Papermaking is one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China, and Xuan Paper stands out as a distinguished representative of traditional handmade paper. The traditional craftsmanship of Xuan Paper involves the processing of raw materials, pulping, sheet forming, sun drying, cutting, and other steps, with a focus on knowledge and practices in the region of Jing County, Anhui Province.
The main production area of Xuan Paper is Jing County, where the traditional craft utilizes the bark of the Qingtan tree and straw from the Sandian fields, mainly grown locally and in surrounding areas. Through over a hundred processes, Xuan Paper is processed to possess excellent ink absorption and durability, making it an excellent medium for traditional arts such as calligraphy, mounting, and watermarking.
Geographically, Jing County enjoys a subtropical monsoon climate with moderate temperatures, abundant rainfall, and distinct seasons. The diverse flora, including over 1000 species of herbaceous plants, provides suitable materials for Xuan Paper production. The term “Xuan Paper” was first documented in the Tang Dynasty, signifying its early existence.
Xuan Paper exhibits excellent ink absorption, durability, and resistance to aging and discoloration. It is tough yet absorbent, smooth without being slippery, white and dense, with a clean texture. Xuan Paper has a unique penetration and lubrication performance, allowing for clear and distinct brushwork with various ink tones. It is resistant to insect damage, ensuring a long lifespan. Xuan Paper has been referred to as the “king of paper” and “thousand-year longevity paper.”
History of Xuan Paper
During the Tang Dynasty, contributions of paper and brushes from Xuan Cheng commandery to the capital Chang’an were recorded, indicating the production of paper in Xuan Cheng commandery. In the Song and Yuan dynasties, the Cao family, after migrating to Xiaoling in Jing County, initiated the systematic production of Xuan Paper using Qingtan bark as the primary material. In the Ming Dynasty during the Xuande era (1426-1435), “Xuan Paper” produced under imperial supervision became prevalent.
Xuancheng, formerly known as Xuanzhou, had documented paper production during the Tang Dynasty. The earliest mention of “Xuan Paper” in literature is found in the Tang Dynasty scholar Zhang Yanyuan’s “Records of Famous Paintings Through the Ages,” where it recommends having a hundred sheets of Xuan Paper for painting and copying. Other historical records, such as the “Old Tang History,” “New Tang History,” and “Tang Code,” also documented the offering of Xuanzhou tribute paper and brushes.
The Song Dynasty witnessed a significant development in Xuan Paper, with the government issuing a decree for its production. Xuan Paper was restricted for official use, and other types of paper were not allowed to imitate its production. This highlights the preciousness of Xuan Paper during that period.
In the Song and Yuan periods, the emergence of large-scale freehand painting styles in Chinese painting influenced the requirements for paper in terms of expressing ink layers and artistic charm. This development was interrelated with the advancement of Xuan Paper and its crafting techniques. By the Ming and Qing periods, the traditional crafting techniques of Xuan Paper had matured, forming a continuous relationship with the present-day living heritage.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Xuan Paper production expanded. Apart from meeting the imperial demand, Xuan Paper became involved in free trade, and Xuan Paper merchant associations emerged in Beijing, Shanghai, Hankou, and other places. Within the transmission of Xuan Paper techniques, the Wang family in the eastern part of Jing County established itself as a prominent family in Xuan Paper production during the Northern Song period. The Cao family, which migrated to the western part of Jing County during the Yuan Dynasty, gradually engaged in producing Xuan Paper, forming another significant Xuan Paper family. Other families such as the Zhao, Zhu, Wu, and Zhuge also contributed to large-scale production. During the Xianfeng and Tongzhi periods, influenced by war, Jing County faced a decline in Xuan Paper production. After the Tongzhi period, Xuan Paper industry started to revive, but it experienced a contraction again during the Anti-Japanese War.
Production Region of Xuan Paper
Xuan Paper was first documented in ancient Chinese books such as “Records of Famous Paintings Through the Ages” and the “New Tang History.” Xuan Paper originated in Jing County, which was under the jurisdiction of Xuanzhou during the Tang Dynasty, hence the name Xuan Paper. In the Tang Dynasty, paper was often a mixture of hemp (the earliest fiber used for papermaking in China) and mulberry fiber. By the Song Dynasty, papermaking activities in Huizhou and Chizhou gradually shifted to Jing County.
Jing County, currently part of Xuancheng City in Anhui Province, is situated in the southern mountainous area of Anhui, belonging to the North Subtropical and Subtropical Monsoon Climate. The climate is mild throughout the year, with abundant rainfall. The region’s distinct seasons and ample sunlight provide ideal climate conditions for outdoor operations in Xuan Paper production.
The topography of Jing County is mainly characterized by hills and low mountains, showing a “two rises and one fall” pattern. From ancient times, it has been referred to as having “seven mountains, one water, one division of fields, one division of roads, and manors.” The eastern and western parts consist of hilly terrain, while there is a river valley plain in the middle. This plain is an ideal growth area for the raw materials used in Xuan Paper production – Qingtan trees and Sandian straw. The Qingtan tree bark has a tender texture, and the Sandian straw stems are flexible, both having uniform and rich fibers that are easy to refine, resulting in a high pulp yield.
Moreover, the high-quality water source is another crucial factor contributing to the development of Xuan Paper in Jing County. With over a hundred rivers and streams in the county, there is an abundant water supply with clear and cool water, suitable for Xuan Paper production. Historical records in the Qing Dynasty described the water sources in Jing County as ideal for Xuan Paper. For instance, in 1753, the “Records of Jing County” mentioned the significance of the waters of “Gan Creek” and “Mi Creek” for Xuan Paper production.
The natural geographical advantages of Jing County provide a unique environment for the development of the Xuan Paper industry, ensuring the practice and inheritance of traditional Xuan Paper crafting techniques.
Distribution Area of Xuan Paper
The traditional crafting techniques of Xuan Paper are concentrated in the entire county of Jing, including its origin in Jing County. Additionally, some counties, urban areas, and surrounding regions of Xuancheng City, anciently involved in Xuan Paper production, but the highest recognition goes to the Xuan Paper produced in Jing County. The “Records of Ningguo Prefecture” notes that “Xuan Paper made by people from Jing is especially skilled.”
Jing County is situated between 30°21′ to 30°50′ N latitude and 117°57′ to 118°41′ E longitude in the southeastern part of Anhui Province, along the upper reaches of the Qingyi River. It is located at the junction of the southern bank of the Yangtze River and the mountainous region of southern Anhui. Jing County shares borders with Xuancheng District and Ningguo City to the east, Huangshan City and Jingde County to the south, Qingyang County to the west, and Nanling County to the north. The Qingyi River, historically known as the Jing River, flows from southwest to northeast through the county. With a total area of 2054.5 square kilometers and a population of 353,000, Jing County is administratively divided into 9 towns, 2 townships, 132 village committees, and 15 resident committees, with the county government located in Jingchuan Town.
Jing County has a rich cultural heritage, numerous historical sites, and a history of being renowned for both agriculture and scholarship. Xuan Paper produced in Jing County is widely recognized domestically and internationally. In 1995, 2006, and 2009, it was officially recognized as the “Hometown of Xuan Paper” by the China Agricultural Association, China Arts and Crafts Association, and China Writing Implements Association.
According to a 2002 announcement by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of the People’s Republic of China, Xuan Paper is protected as a geographical indication product, and the geographical scope covers the administrative area of Jing County in Xuancheng City, Anhui Province. In 2005, the term “originally protected products” was renamed “geographical indication protected products.”
Classification of Xuan Paper（types of xuan paper）
Xuan Paper can be classified into three categories based on the production method: raw Xuan, book Xuan, and semi-book Xuan. Raw Xuan, without special processing, has extremely strong water absorption, leading to blurred ink on its surface. On the other hand, mature Xuan, processed with alum during production, has a harder texture, reduced water absorption, and lower resistance to shear stress, making it more suitable for detailed painting rather than freehand painting. Semi-mature Xuan, as the name suggests, has moderate absorption capabilities, falling between raw Xuan and mature Xuan.
Xuan Paper possesses characteristics such as high tensile strength, a smooth surface, pure texture, clean brushstrokes, wrinkle resistance, corrosion resistance, anti-moth, and anti-mold properties. The majority of surviving ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy are well-preserved on Xuan Paper. In 1915, Xuan Paper won a gold award at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Xuan Paper is commonly used for making scrolls.
Materials Used in Xuan Paper Production(made of)
The materials used in Xuan Paper are closely related to the geographical environment of Jing County. The bark of the common Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana simplex), known as Qingtan in the region, is the primary material for making Xuan Paper. Rice and several other materials were later added to the recipe during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Bamboo and mulberry trees also began to be used in Xuan Paper production.
Jing County experiences distinct seasons, with a late spring, early autumn, and relatively longer winter and summer. The frost-free period lasts about 250 days per year, and the region has abundant sunlight, ensuring that the raw materials for Xuan Paper do not undergo weathering, decay, or deterioration in extreme conditions of exposure, rain, and freezing. Jing County has noticeable vertical temperature variations and regional differences, providing excellent climate conditions for Xuan Paper production.
The Chinese parasol tree has strong sprouting ability, with bark rich in fibers. The bark is tender, and the fibers are uniform and abundant, making it easy to refine and having a high pulp yield. The Qingtan trees in Jing County, particularly those growing around 30 degrees north latitude, are considered superior. The unique geographical conditions of Jing County contribute to the excellent ink absorption properties of Xuan Paper. Numerous studies have shown that the Qingtan bark used in Xuan Paper production, especially from Qingtan trees in Jing County and surrounding areas, is of the highest quality.
Straw refers to the stems of rice after threshing. The ideal soils for the fragrant rice, used to produce straw for Xuan Paper, are yellow-brown soil, lime soil, coarse bone soil, and paddy soil. Jing County, Jingde, and Xuancheng predominantly have these types of soil, making their straw high-quality raw materials for Xuan Paper. The central part of Jing County is an alluvial plain with high sand content, suitable for growing long-stemmed rice. The straw from this rice is flexible, with uniform fibers, high pulp yield, and a low degree of lignification, making it easy to refine.
The process of making Xuan Paper involves approximately eighteen steps, with over a hundred detailed procedures. Some papermakers have invented steps kept secret from others. The process includes steaming and bleaching the bark of the Chinese parasol tree and adding various fruit juices.
Xuan Paper Making Tools
Pounding and Grinding Devices:
Pounder (碓) and Grinder (碾): Traditional beating and refining equipment used in the pulping process to break down steamed and washed raw fiber bundles into individual fibers. The pounder, an early device in Xuan Paper pulping, consists of parts like the pounder head, pounder base, and pounder rod. Depending on the processed material, there are two types: bark pounder and straw pounder. Bark pounders have wooden flat heads and bases with regular teeth carved on a whole stone; straw pounders have iron-cast protruding heads and bases carved manually into larger concave stones, also known as “pound mortars.”
Types of Pounders: Human-powered pounders are called “step pounders,” while water-rich areas use water-driven ones called “water pounders.” After 1949, diesel engines temporarily replaced water and human power. With the advent of electricity, electric motors took over, referred to as “electric pounders.”
Auxiliary Equipment and Tools Associated with Pounding and Grinding:
Whip grass sticks, whip grass tables, washing grass sieves, washing bark sticks, wooden presses, selection and inspection tables, bamboo knives, sieves, shovels, watering cans, planes, wooden mallets, earplugs, grass curtains, pry bars, skinning knives, skinning stools, skinning buckets, skinning ropes, material-making tanks, bags, material-making pools, bag material rakes, material pools, etc.
Purpose: A necessary tool during paper lifting, consisting of curtains, curtain beds, and curtain rulers. The curtain bed supports the curtain and is made of tender pine wood with a surface woven with straw stalks. The curtain and curtain bed can be easily assembled or disassembled. The curtain ruler is used to tighten the curtain to keep it straight.
Production Steps: Making a paper curtain involves two major processes: weaving and assembling.
Weaving: Materials used for weaving Xuan Paper curtains are locally produced bitter bamboo. After splitting and drawing fibers, the bamboo is woven into curtains using horsehair or mud lacquer. As silk threads became common, horsehair weaving gradually phased out.
Lacquering: After weaving, the bamboo curtain is coated with mud lacquer. The lacquered curtain must air-dry in a cool place for about a month and should not be exposed to direct sunlight.
Embossing Curtain Patterns: Common patterns include single-thread routes, double-thread routes, brocade patterns, turtle patterns, and embossed flowers. Traditional special patterns include the Red Phoenix Facing the Sun, white deer, dragon patterns, etc.
Paper Lifting Bed:
Purpose: Essential for papermaking workers, used to lift wet paper onto the bed for drying. Made from bricks and lime, the bed has a hollow wall with a surface coated with lime and ink. Wet paper is lifted onto the bed one sheet at a time for air-drying.
Types of Paper Lifting Beds: Various forms of paper lifting beds have appeared in the evolution of Xuan Paper craftsmanship. The earliest type used wood for fuel, and later, with coal entering the industry, paper lifting beds were modified to use coal-burning air-drawing stoves. In the 1990s, large-scale Xuan Paper production lines replaced traditional brick beds with steel plate beds, concentrating heat sources, and using boilers for temperature control. Single-chamber workshops for household production use steel plate beds with an intermediate water storage, heated by burning wood or coal. The introduction of steel plate beds reduced the risk of thermal radiation to workers, extending the bed’s lifespan from less than a year to around six years.
Auxiliary Tools and Equipment for Paper Lifting Bed:
Purpose: A necessary tool for paper drying, serving as a fundamental step to test the comprehensive skills of paper drying workers. Brush making involves two steps: selecting pine needles and making the brush. In autumn, mature long pine needles are chosen from the mountains and air-dried in an attic. When in use, the pine needles are separated from the needle support, gathered to a certain length, and then tied into a specified circular bundle. The handle is made of paulownia wood, with grooves on both ends leaving about 1 cm unopened. The bundle of pine needles is placed in the groove of the paulownia wood handle, clamped with bamboo strips on both sides, and secured with spaced-through strings.
Xuan Paper Cutter:
Purpose: Primarily used for trimming and shaping Xuan Paper after passing inspection. It differs significantly from regular scissors, being 36 cm long, with a blade length of 26 cm and a handle length of 10 cm. The blade is 9 cm wide, and each paper cutter weighs 0.8-0.85 kg. Made of high-quality flat iron and tool steel, the Xuan Paper cutter undergoes a series of processes such as cutting, rough shaping, carving, adding steel, embedding steel, pressing steel, forging the blade, hole punching, forming the handle, annealing, opening, filing the blade, marking, quenching, shaping, grinding, making the edge, forging the hinge, oiling, and final shaping. Due to its large size, sharpness, and specific purpose, it is also known as the “best paper cutter in the world.”
Auxiliary Tools and Equipment for Xuan Paper Cutter:
Paper-cutting table, oil brush, dustpan, finger sleeve, wooden ruler, tape measure, seal, product card, excess cutting board, etc.
- County Annals. Jing County Annals. [Accessed on May 12, 2018]
- Announcement No. 75 of 2002. General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of the People’s Republic of China. [Accessed on May 12, 2018]
- Xuan Paper: Breaking the Embarrassment of “Big Brands, Small Industries.” China Xuan Cheng Network. [Accessed on May 12, 2018]
- Xuan Paper. China Geographical Indication Website. [Accessed on May 12, 2018]
- The “Past and Present” of Xuan Paper. Guangming Net. [Accessed on May 12, 2018]
- Exploring the Traditional Craft of Xuan Paper Manufacturing. Anhui Economic Network. [Accessed on May 12, 2018]
- The Second Batch of 175 Chinese Geographical Indications Will Be Protected by the EU within Four Years | The Third List of China-EU Landmark Agreement, Ningxia Goji Berries on the List! Zhongning County Radio and Television Station. [Accessed on July 31, 2020]