Xuan Paper Making - a UNESCO intangible heritage
Xuan paper making matured over 1,000 years ago in the Tang dynasty, following original invention of paper by Cai Lun (7-121) and is regarded as one of the “Four Treasures of the Study“. Today, Xuan paper is still made by master craftsmen using traditional techniques, recognised by Unesco and inscribed into the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.
This article is about the making of the paper, click here to read more about the different types of paper and their usages and Xuan Paper Buyer’s Guide.
Why is it called Xuan Paper?
Xuan paper – Xuan Zhi 宣纸 – takes its name from XuanZhou, the river port from where this paper was originally sold, and transported by rivers and canals to the main towns of ancient China. XuanZhou is now a district of XuanCheng 宣城 which literally means Xuan City.
In the West Xuan paper is sometimes misleadingly described as rice paper. It does contain rice straw, however the distinctive ingredient is tree bark: the highest quality papers contain 70-85% bark and only a small proportion of rice straw. Xuan paper is therefore made in the villages of 泾县 Jīng Xiàn (Jing County), a mountainous area home to the key ingredients: pure fresh mountain water streams and the 青檀 qing tan – Pteroceltis tatarinowii or Blue Sandalwood tree.
The whole tree can be put to good use: the bark is used for paper, the wood makes good timber, and the berries and oil are used in the making of ink.
Normally a non-destructive harvesting process is used where 2-year old branches are harvested for bark, after which the tree continues to grow new branches.
The production process is also now highly regulated and controlled to ensure that standards are maintained – including environmental standards – the clean water is one of the key ingredients!
How is Xuan paper made?
Our photos below from the paper workshops give you an idea of how the Xuan Paper is made.
First the bark and raw materials are prepared:
A slurry is mixed of the spring water and fibres, and a sheet of paper is collected on a screen. (There are also two-person screens for the largest sheet sizes).
The sheet of paper can then be lifted off the screen and placed onto a stack of wet papers.
The papers are individually dried on these large heated metal plates, then they are trimmed and packed into packs of 100 sheets.
温州皮纸 Wenzhou Pi Paper (1)温州皮纸 (Wēnzhōu pízhǐ) WenZhou Pi paper is a famous handmade paper for sumi-e, Chinese painting and calligraphy, also know as Mulberry Paper or Washi. This paper is made from the bark of Paper Mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) and produces a stronger thicker paper than Xuan paper which is made from the bark of the Peteroceltis tatarinowii tree (青檀 Qīng tán).…
温州皮纸 Wenzhou Pi Paper (1)
夹宣 Double Xuan (3)Double Xuan is double layer Xuan paper, it is literally twice the thickness and weight of standard single Xuan. This means it can hold more moisture and is popular among artists with a watercolour background and also often recommended for students as more forgiving than single Xuan when learning to control the flow of ink.
夹宣 Double Xuan (3)
生宣 Sheng Xuan unsized raw Xuan paper (32)This is traditional handmade Xuan paper which is an ‘unsized’ paper made from Qing Tan tree bark which has very high water absorption rate. Professionals like it since they can create a lot of beautiful and surprising effects with quick brush strokes. Raw Xuan is also known as a "truth" paper because the paper records the detail of every brush stroke…
生宣 Sheng Xuan unsized raw Xuan paper (32)
半熟宣 BanShuXuan half-sized xuan paper (23)The half-sized or half-cooked Xuan paper is deliberately less absorbent than raw unsized Xuan paper, while remaining more absorbent that the cooked Xuan, so it is flexible for different styles of painting. This category includes Shikishi card papers which are also half sized.
半熟宣 BanShuXuan half-sized xuan paper (23)
38x38cm Shikishi card mounted Xuan paper (18)A range of Xuan papers mounted on card - called Shikishi in Japanese - as featured in "How to paint Gongbi style: Lotus Out of Water". These include papers with gold, red white and other colours and designs, cut into square, circle or other traditional shapes and mounted onto 38x38cm (15inch) square card mounting boards.
38x38cm Shikishi card mounted Xuan paper (18)
熟宣 Shu Xuan sized or cooked Xuan paper (3)The sized papers are suitable for painting styles such as Gongbi detail painting which require less absorbent paper. These handmade Xuan papers are made with Eulaliopsis binata called in Chinese 龙须草 “Dragon beard grass” also known as Chinese alpine rush. They are deliberately not as absorbent as the tree bark paper to facilitate different styles of painting.
熟宣 Shu Xuan sized or cooked Xuan paper (3)
红星宣纸 Red Star Xuan Paper (4)红星 Red Star is China's premium paper brand and uses only the finest grade materials and strict quality control process. This is reflected in the price and quality of the output.
红星宣纸 Red Star Xuan Paper (4)
Fans for decorating with your own painting/calligraphy/embroidery (3)These are silk and fabric alternatives to paper pre-mounted onto fan ready for decoration with painting and/or calligraphy. Silk/fabric fans can also be used to do embroidery.
Fans for decorating with your own painting/calligraphy/embroidery (3)
Decorated Xuan Paper (27)A range of unmounted Xuan papers in traditional shapes and designs and a variety of sizes.
Decorated Xuan Paper (27)
138x70cm Plus Size xuan paper (25)This is traditional handmade Xuan paper is made by two people working together on a large frame. One 138*70cm (54.33×27.56inches) “Plus” size sheet is 0.966㎡, equivalent to 15 sheets A4 paper. [Red Star versions are labelled 138x69cm.]
138x70cm Plus Size xuan paper (25)
日本纸 Japanese Paper (1)Fine papers made in Xuancheng area to Japanese standards in a similar process to the Xuan papers but formulated for Japanese requirements, includes Mulberry bark.
日本纸 Japanese Paper (1)
Practice Xuan Paper (3)Machine-made Xuan Paper for Practice which is sold in sets of 20 complete 35cm * 138cm sheets. This is effectively the same as 10 sheets Plus size paper cut lengthways to two long strips, suitable for calligraphy practice.
Practice Xuan Paper (3)
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