Cai Lun


Cai Lun (traditional Chinese: 蔡倫, simplified Chinese: 蔡伦, pinyin: Cài Lún, Wade-Giles: Ts’ai Lun) was a Chinese imperial eunuch advisor to Emperor He of Han, who lived at the court of the Han dynasty (between the years 77 and 110 or, according to other sources, between 50 and 121). In China he is traditionally regarded as the inventor of paper, since under his administration the technique of manufacturing the material used for writing documents was perfected, which came to have properties similar to those of today’s paper, quite different from the papyrus and parchment used in earlier times. Although early forms of paper existed in China as early as the 2nd century BC, he was responsible for the first significant improvement and standardization of papermaking by adding new materials essential to its composition. According to Chinese historical chronicles, the invention of paper is said to have occurred in 105 AD.

Cai Lun was born in present-day Guiyang Province (Guizhou, People’s Republic of China) during the Eastern Han Dynasty (in 48 AD) to a poor family. He entered the service of the imperial court as a eunuch in 75, and rose through the ranks under the rule of Emperor He. In 89 he was promoted to the imperial workshop, in charge of the manufacture of instruments and weapons with the title of Shang Fang Si, also becoming secretary (中常侍).

In 105 he presented to the emperor a process for the manufacture of paper. The emperor was extremely pleased with his invention. Cai paper”, as his invention was initially known, was light, flexible, strong, economical and could be mass-produced. The emperor awarded him the aristocratic title of marquis and great wealth in 114 AD in recognition of his invention. However, the court intrigues in which he had participated turned against him. Upon the death of Empress Deng Sui, the new wife (Empress Song), ordered Cai Lun to be imprisoned. To avoid his fate, Cai Lun committed suicide in the city of Luoyang by taking poison in 121 AD.

He is famous for having been the creator of a new kind of paper similar to the current one, developed at the request of the imperial court, which demanded a material more convenient to use and suitable for writing. Although more primitive types of paper already existed, Cai Lun proceeded to perfect the processing technique by waterproofing the sizing with starch, rice and mucilaginous juice of tororo aoi, so that the sheets would be well glazed and protected from mildew and parasites.

By the third century, the manufacture and use of paper was widespread in China, and had spread to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. In 751, some Chinese papermakers were captured by the Arabs, and so the first Arab paper was created in Samarkand. Paper production spread to Spain in 1150, and soon displaced the use of hides and parchment as a writing material in Europe. The introduction of paper was a catalyst that led to the rapid spread of literacy and intellectual development in China, the Middle East and Europe. Cai Lun is regarded as a Chinese national hero, admired for his wit and outspoken nature. A memorial hall is maintained in his honor in his hometown of Leiyang. Although the papermaking industry has developed considerably in modern times, the basic process invented by Cai Lun is still employed.

In 95 A.D., Cai Lun presented to the emperor a process for making paper from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, bamboo and hemp; plus the remains of cloth rags and fishing nets. He mixed them with water, pounded them with a wooden tool, and then poured this mixture onto a flat piece of coarse woven cloth, facilitating the outflow of water, and leaving only a thin tangled sheet of fibers on the cloth. Emperor He of Han was pleased with the invention and granted Cai Lun an aristocratic title and great wealth.

Part of his official biography was later written in China (Wade-Giles spelling):

In ancient times writings and inscriptions were usually made on bamboo boards or on pieces of silk called Chih. But bamboo silk being expensive and heavy was not useful for this use. Tshai Lun then initiated the idea of making paper from tree bark, hemp scraps, cloth rags and fishing nets. He submitted the process to the emperor in the first year of Yuan Hsing and received praise for his skill. From this time on, the paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called “Marquis Tshai paper”.

A folk tale tells that when Cai Lun showed the paper to the Chinese people, he was mocked. In order to impress the people with the magical power of paper, he faked his death and buried himself with a bamboo tube so that he could breathe. Following his instructions, his friends burned paper over the coffin, and brought him out of the ground, alive again. Burning paper over graves is still a tradition in China.

The immediate popularity of the invention is attributed to Cai Lun; dated less than 50 years to Cai Lun’s death in the city of Luoyang (who also resided in Sinkiang, in the inhospitable arid deserts of China’s Turkestan). Guizhou province became famous for its papermaking workshops. By the 3rd century, paper was already widely used as a writing medium in China and then spread to Korea, Vietnam and Japan. It enabled China to develop its culture through widespread literature and literacy much faster than it had developed with previous writing materials (mainly bamboo tablets and silk scrolls). In 751, some Chinese papermakers were captured by the Arabs and later the Tang troops were defeated at the battle of the Talas River. The first Arab document written on paper was created in Samarkand and paper production quickly replaced papyrus production in the Middle East, Near East and North Africa. The first paper in Europe was created in Spain in 1150, and then spread to the other European nations, where the use of parchment was displaced. Contact between Arabs and Europeans during the Crusades, and the essential recovery of the classical writings of the ancient Greeks, contributed to the widespread use of paper and separated it from scholasticism in Europe. The invention of the printing press further increased the use of paper, and greatly facilitated the advancement of technology and scholarly thought in European societies.

The use of mulberry for the creation of paper, which was used in China from the Han dynasty onwards, was unknown in Europe until the 18th century. It was described with much curiosity by Jesuit missionaries in China, who suggested that mulberry should be cultivated in France.

Although Cai Lun is credited with the invention of paper, there is some doubt as to whether he actually invented paper himself, or whether he simply systematized its manufacture and promoted its use at the imperial court. The oldest Chinese paper fragments were discovered in 2006, which belonged to a letter on linen dating back to 8 BC, almost a hundred years before Cai Lun’s birth.


  1. Cai Lun
  2. Cai Lun
  4. Needham, 1985, pp. 38–40
  5. Needham, 1985, p. 41
  6. Integrált katalógustár. (Hozzáférés: 2015. október 17.)
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica (angol nyelven). (Hozzáférés: 2017. október 9.)
  8. ^ Nell’onomastica cinese il cognome precede il nome. “Cai” è il cognome.
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. Michael H. Hart s. 44 – 45
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