Ancient China: Han Dynasty & the Invention of Paper

This week we studied the Han dynasty and looked at the invention of Paper.  As there is definitely a feeling of winding down, and because I want to make sure we get through the work so it doesn’t drag into the summer, we did a verbal comprehension exercise based on this story of Wang the Peddler, instead of our usual writing.  The website challenged us to look for 13 hints from the story about life in Han times.  We found many more and it was a great preliminary exercise before heading to our Han picture study

A couple of weeks ago the children and I learnt about the ancient Chinese forms of writing, the pictographs and how they evolved slowly over time to resemble the calligraphy we now associate with the Chinese.  Obviously they needed something to write upon, but without paper what did they use?  We had already made our own ‘oracle’ bones and that was a clue for the children.  They discovered that the writing was written or carved on bones and tortoise shells:

Our homemade bones with writing
Our homemade bones with writing (made during our Shang studies)

And the Chinese also wrote on bamboo strips held together with leather strips and rolled to make a sort of book.  Here are the ones we made in our last Ancient China study:


These mediums were both found to be cumbersome to carry about and unravel to read so it became commonplace for the rich to write on silk.  This was of course lighter and much easier to transport around:

Writing on silk
Writing on silk

However, it was hideously expensive and therefore not very practical for everyday use.  The earliest form of paper began to emerge with the invention of a rather crude version of hemp paper.  A discovery of hemp paper dates from Western Han (206 BC- 24AD).  Hemp paper was made by soaking hemp fibres in water and pounding them with a wooden mallet.  The resulting slurry was then poured over a bamboo frame covered with a loosely woven cloth stretched over it.  The water was thus allowed to drain and the remaining fibres dry to create ‘hemp paper’.  The children thought this might be fun to try.  Anticipating them, I had been soaking some cut up hemp bag, which I had kept from a bag of peanuts for the birds.  We took it in turns to pound.  This theoretically was meant to break down the fibres to make a type of pulp.  We never reached pulp stage.  I had read in some sources that the ancient Chinese would have boiled up their ‘paper’ mixture.  So we gave that a go.  It stayed the same.  Maybe if we had used a proper hemp plant rather than a bag we might have had more luck.  As it was our resulting paper didn’t really look like much:

Our hairy hemp paper
Our hairy hemp paper

Using the Chinese chops we had made  a few weeks ago we printed some Chinese characters to show how well (or badly) it would take ink:

Our hairy paper took the ink with no real problems, although I'm certain it could not have been painted on, the paper would have fallen to bits
Our hairy paper took the ink with no real problems, although I’m certain it could not have been painted on, the paper would have fallen to bits

The invention of a paper which looked a little more like the hand made paper we know and love today was attributed to Ts’ai Lun (Cai Lun).  His presentation of it to the reigning Emporor Hedi of the Eastern Han dynasty was recorded in History.  He was said to have invented a paper made from hemp with bark, mulberries and rags added.  This paper was dyed yellow, the imperial colour of China.  The children decided to try their hand at that as well using the method described above.  This time I managed to capture it on film:

Soaking with the bark
Soaking hemp, rags and bark

It was incredible the effect the bark had on the hemp.  Just by soaking, it became much softer than the hemp alone was.

We took it in turns to pound away at the bark and hemp
We took it in turns to pound away at the bark and hemp

Again the bark had obviously softened it and we were able to hold a piece of the mixture post hammering:

Our soon to be paper
Our soon to be paper

T11 had made a home made frame for the paper to lie and dry out on:

T11's paper frame was made out of four pieces of wood tied with string at the corners and covered in hemp. The hemp could have done with being a bit tighter but it did the job.
T11’s paper frame was made out of four pieces of wood tied with string at the corners and covered in hemp. The hemp could have done with being a bit tighter but it did the job.

We let it dry out thoroughly, and whilst we only made a small amount, you can see that it is a little bit closer to being like hand made paper today.  It was bulkier, and we would have needed a lot of the raw materials to make a substantial amount, but it gave the children an idea of how paper gradually came to be the paper we know today.

Our dried out hemp and bark paper. I can't believe the difference a bit of bark makes!
Our dried out hemp and bark paper. I can’t believe the difference a bit of bark makes!
And again I printed on it, and it took the ink and print very well.
And again I printed on it, and it took the ink and print very well.  I’m not sure it would be sturdy enough to write on, even with delicate brush strokes

Tangrams were also invented during the Han Dynasty.  We had done some work during our last study of ancient China, and the children were very familiar with them. After many exclamations about how easy it all was, I produced this game:

This was such a find (in a charity shop for £1!).  It is a great game.  It’s tricky enough for the adults and yet possible for the children, and I can really see how it teaches you to think mathematically.

It is always great fun playing anything in our family, due to the considerable emphasis we all put on winning!!  We have to be the most competitive family and as the children have got older this has made playing with them even more fun.  They don’t get genuinely upset now if they lose yet there is enough teasing and reciprocal irritation (in fun) to keep everything interesting.  We played many pages of this game and intend to go through the whole book by the time we have finished Ancient China.  The object of the game is to create the picture shown using up all 7 tans, without overlapping:

Much concentration and peeking at mine because I had WON!!
Much concentration and peeking at mine because I had WON!!  So much fun to be had with 7 little bits of wood.

Our food this week was a take away of sweet and sour chicken and rice, taken from our home school budget!

Sweet and sour chicken and vegetables
Sweet and sour chicken and vegetables

I’ll be posting later on in the week about our Han picture study.


  1. I love your experiment with the hemp paper making – and T11’s paper frame! We haven’t done anything hands on in a while, and I’m just itching to get to it – I knew we’d make some paper this year, but now we’ll have to try the hemp fibers and bark as well as a start off point, and really work for it 🙂 It really does make you appreciate how easy we have it!

    1. I thought the amount of raw material we used would have produced lots of paper but because it didn’t pulp up very well it produced this really, really small ‘sheet’! I was planning on making a scroll with the paper but there wasn’t enough for a stamp let alone a scroll!!

  2. Well after reading everyone else’s very thoughtful comments about the fun you had making the paper, would I seem extremely shallow if I commented on just how divine the take-away looked…? My mouth is watering. But the paper-making looked like enormous fun as well! It’s just that the food looks really, really good… shallow… I know. How is the coffee (or rather, lack of) going?

    1. No not shallow. As a fellow foodie I couldn’t agree more!
      Coffee head ache gone. Cravings gone (although funnily enough they haven’t been too bad). Money in pocket. It’s onwards and upwards from here on in!

      1. Oh my goodness I am glad to hear the headaches are gone! I should have a look through my recipe books and send some real South African recipes on to you. Your girls will love them – usually true Afrikaans recipes are very simple and really hearty fare. 🙂 I was thinking you may like our “Melktert” or in English “Milk tart” recipe. Very simple, just takes a fair amount of milk and always nicer with real butter, although margarine will also do. I shall have a scratch around!

      2. Right! I shall make it a blog post on my blog? Then I too can pretend that I am one of those totally organised Mom’s who have menu plans worked out weeks in advance etc etc… *sigh* 😉

  3. Hi Claire,

    You can delete this one but preferably can you let me know the answer too!
    I’m hoping to write a post with links to UK Christian home educators’ blogs. Can I put Angelicscalliwags in?

  4. See? So many people commented on the paper. I’m just sitting here thinking that I wish I could have come over for dinner! 🙂

  5. Hemp…isn’t that also known as marijuana? I read that early Americans grew hemp, and used it for many things like rope and clothing.

  6. Hi Claire, I tried to find the game tangram master but cannot get it to switzerland, would you explain the rules to me so I can make one myself?Thanks a lot

    1. Basically their are four sets of tangrams and a book of tangram patterns or pictures. You attempt one picture at a time, all together and the one that figures it out first is the winner. It is really good fun. HTH!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: