Paper Traveling on the Silk Road

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Paper is all around us even now, used for writing, artwork, packaging, cleaning, and more. In Europe paper has been available for over 800 years, but it has actually existed for much longer. In fact, paper travelling on the Silk Road took almost 1000 years after it’s creation to reach Europe. The reasons behind this are complex and often intertwining.

There are many popular perceptions regarding the Silk road, several of which are in fact misconceptions. It is well believed that the Silk Road is only one long road, traversing from Chang’an (today’s Xian) in China, “across Central Asia and the Middle East, terminating in Constantinople or Rome”. It was however a network of trade routes, going both east and west, including the often-forgotten maritime routes. Often the Silk Road is associated with direct trade between China and Europe, but there were many countries trading on the Silk Road, particularly in Asia, with China and Europe very rarely interacting directly. In the case of paper, initially Europe received paper from Islamic ports, made in countries in the Abbasid Empire, rather than Chinese paper.

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Although it is frequently said that the caravans on the Silk Road were often made of hundreds, if not thousands of people; other researchers dispute this – suggesting that only small groups of caravans travelled, as there was not much trade of products going on. Valerie Hansen suggests that the Silk Road ‘routes were among the least travelled in human history’, only being so well known due to its ‘rich cultural legacy’. She argued as well, that rather than traders, it was mostly refugees, missionaries, and artists travelling on the road. These types of people would be more likely to buy local products, rather than trade foreign goods.

Many people also presume that only silk was traded, but there were actually many products being bought and sold; both from the east to the west, and vice versa. These included paper, fruit and vegetables, spices, chemicals, art, and more. There was also huge trade of cultures and technology taking place. Some researchers believe this trade was what made the Silk Road so famous, rather than a physical trade of products. This allowed for a great mix of languages, religions, and skills to be spread on the Silk Road; such as, water irrigation systems from the west (Syria), and paper and silk making from the east (China). These misconceptions perhaps arose due to the name ‘Silk Road’, inferring the movement of silk on a singular road. This name was recently given to it by Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century; previously there was no name for these routes.

It is recorded that paper making began in the Eastern Han dynasty in 105AD by a court official, Cai Lun. However, older paper has been found dating back to 200BC, so it is difficult to say when it was truly created. By the 3rd century paper and papermaking spread east along the silk road to become widespread in China. Paper was far better for writing on than previous writing equipment in the east: wooden strips and silk – this helped it spread fast in China. After spreading throughout China, paper, as well as paper making, tended to only move from east to west as the skill of papermaking usually spread soon after the paper itself. Chinese paper however was often still exported as it was deemed valuable, especially by Persian calligraphers.

The movement of paper was greatly aided by missionaries spreading their faith. Buddhist monks brought scriptures, (and so paper), to Korea in the 6th century; and then to Japan, Tibet, and India in the 7th century. As different plants grow in different countries, this allowed diverse types of paper to be developed from the new plant fibres available.

In the 8th century papermaking spread to the Islamic world after the Battle of Talas River in 751AD between the Tang dynasty and the Arab Abbasid Empire. After winning the battle, giving the Abbasids control over trading on that part of the Silk Road, the Abbasids captured some of the Chinese soldiers, including paper artisans. The paper and paper making techniques soon spread across the Abbasid Empire. It reached Egypt in the 10th century, and finally Spain in the 11th century – brought by Arabic prisoners. The first European paper mill appeared in 1150AD in Valencia, over 1200 years after paper was initially created. Soon paper making spread across Europe through imitation.

There are several reasons as to why the paper took so long to travel along the Silk Road. Firstly, both China and the Abbasid Empire attempted to keep the art of paper making a secret after learning it themselves. This would allow them to make more money trading, as the paper could be sold at a high price due to limited availability in other countries. China succeeded in keeping it a secret from other nations for almost 700 years. The Abbasid Empire, who only gained the secret to paper making themselves through defeating China in a battle, rather than through trade, only kept it a secret for almost 200 years. This secrecy meant that it was difficult for paper to be widely spread in countries that only had access to trading paper, rather than creating it themselves – slowing paper’s movement.

The scarcity of paper in these countries that were unable to manufacture it themselves, led to paper being reused due to its high value. In some areas, even local rulers would use paper that already had writing on one side. Paper was also re-used to make clothes for the dead, or paper models to be put in graves. This meant that there was less paper available to be traded.

The paper that was traded could only be moved in small quantities as it weighed a lot. As well as that, most travellers would trade at each trade point they reached, rather than further away cities. This behaviour was a safety measure to reduce danger and loss of profit if they were attacked while travelling. Due to its usefulness, and constant reuse, unused paper would be unlikely to be resold by countries where there were no means of producing paper.

In the west, there were already a variety of writing materials used such as papyrus and parchment. In fact, many of the bibles available were written on parchment, this was however quite expensive. Also, in most western countries there was a low literacy rate, with only the upper class able to read. Additionally, Christians, Jews, and Muslims took some time to accept paper as a writing material acceptable for holy scriptures. This meant that there was not such a need for paper in these countries – reducing trade. It was only when ‘a commercial class’ rose that the need for cheaper material led to buying more paper: as an increasing amount of accounts and contracts had to be recorded. Similarly, religious groups eventually changed to paper as they grew in size, and so needed low-priced material.

Perhaps if the popular view of more traders were true (rather than Hansen’s view of few traders), the paper will have travelled faster; nevertheless, this idea does not take into account the many other aspects that slowed the spread of paper. For example: even with more merchants, the scarcity of paper in nations that cannot produce it themselves would leave less paper available to trade and move to other countries - the short distance travelled before selling could lead to this furthermore. Unfortunately, an increase in traders would not affect the secrecy of papermakers or the reduced need of paper in Europe. Due to this, it is difficult to be sure of the difference in impact an increased number of traders would have had.

Overall, the role played by the number of traders on the Silk Road in the slow movement of paper does not seem as much of an issue as the secrecy of the nations, China and the Abbasid Empire – which together halted the knowledge of papermaking for a total of 900 years. This leaves only 100 years for a less restricted movement of paper on the Silk Road. With journeys just within China taking up to a year between trading hubs, and travellers selling their wares at each city they reach, it is no surprise that paper took so long to travel out of East Asia. Added to the original rejection of paper by more western religions, and the reduced need due to availability of other writing products and low literacy, the reasons behind the millennium of no paper in Europe become clear. However, it would be interesting to see more research done in the area of the popular perception of the Silk Road in regard to how much trade was going on. This would allow for a more detailed analysis of how it impacted the movement of paper.

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Paper Traveling on the Silk Road. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
“Paper Traveling on the Silk Road.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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