An 18th century Qing Dynasty print depicting Cai Lun as the patron saint of paper making
Cai Lun ( simplified Chinese: 蔡伦; traditional Chinese: 蔡倫; pinyin: Cài Lún; Wade–Giles: Ts'ai Lun) (ca. 50 AD– 121), courtesy name Jingzhong (敬仲), was a Chinese eunuch, who is conventionally regarded as the inventor of paper and the papermaking process, in forms recognizable in modern times as paper (as opposed to Egyptian papyrus). Although paper existed in China before Cai Lun (since the 2nd century BC), he was responsible for the first significant improvement and standardization of papermaking by adding essential new materials into its composition.
Cai Lun was born in Guiyang during the Eastern Han Dynasty. After serving as a court eunuch since 75 AD, he was given several promotions under the rule of Emperor He. In 89 AD he was promoted with the title of Shang Fang Si (an office in charge of manufacturing instruments and weapons) and he also became a paperwork secretary (中常侍). Later, he became involved in intrigue, as a supporter of Empress Dou. He was involved in the death of her romantic rival, Consort Song. Afterwards, he became an associate of Empress Deng Sui. In 121, after Consort Song's grandson Emperor An assumed power after Empress Deng's death, Cai was ordered to report to prison. Before he was to report, he committed suicide by drinking poison after taking a bath and dressing in fine silk robes.
In 105 AD, Cai Lun (along with help from an imperial consort Deng) invented the composition for paper along with the papermaking process (although he may have been credited with an invention of somebody from a lower class). Although tools and machinery of papermaking in modern times may be more complex, they still employ the ancient technique of felted sheets of fibre suspended in water, draining of the water, and then drying into a thin matted sheet. For this invention Cai would be world-renowned posthumously, and even in his own time he was given recognition for his invention. A part of his official biography written later in China read thus (Wade-Giles spelling):
In ancient times writings and inscriptions were generally made on tablets of bamboo or on pieces of silk called chih. But silk being costly and bamboo heavy, they were not convenient to use. Tshai Lun Cai Lun then initiated the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, remnants of hemp, rags of cloth, and fishing nets. He submitted the process to the emperor in the first year of Yuan-Hsing [+105] and received praise for his ability. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called 'the paper of Marquis Tshai'.
As listed above, the papermaking process included the use of materials like bark, hemp, silk, and fishing net, but his exact formula has been lost to history. Emperor He of Han was pleased with the invention and granted Cai an aristocratic title and great wealth. Cai Lun was also later revered in Chinese ancestor worship. Fei Zhu of the later Song Dynasty (960-1279) wrote that a temple in honour of Cai Lun had been erected in Chengdu, where several hundred families involved in the papermaking industry traveled five miles from the south to come and pay respects.
While paper is widely used worldwide today, the creator of this extremely important invention is only somewhat known outside East Asia. After Cai invented the papermaking process in 105, it became widely used as a writing medium in China by the 3rd century. It enabled China to develop its civilization (through widespread literature and literacy) much faster than it had with earlier writing materials (primarily bamboo and silk).
By the 7th century, China's papermaking technique had spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In 751, some Chinese paper makers were captured by Arabs after Tang troops were defeated in the Battle of Talas River. The techniques of papermaking then spread to the West. When paper was first introduced to Europe in the 12th century, it gradually revolutionized the manner in which written communication could be spread from region to region. Along with contact between Arabs and Europeans during the Crusades (with the essential recovery of ancient Greek written classics), the widespread use of paper aided the foundation of the Scholastic Age in Europe.
Cai Lun was ranked #7 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.