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15 July 2015

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Cai Lun

Cai Lun (61AD-121AD), courtesy name Jingzhong, is conventionally regarded as the inventor of paper and the paper making process, and 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 paper making by adding essential new materials into its composition.


Cai Lun was born in Guiyang (today's Leiyang, Hunan Province) during the Eastern Han Dynasty. After serving as a court eunuch from 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 officer in charge of manufacturing instruments and weapons) and he also became a paperwork secretary.  In 105 AD, Cai Lun (together with help from an imperial consort Deng) invented the composition for paper along with the paper making process.  Although tools and the machinery for paper making in modern times may be more complex, the original technique of folding sheets of fiber suspended in water, draining the water, and then drying them into a thin matted sheet is the same. For this invention Cai would be world-renowned posthumously, although even in his lifetime he was given recognition for his invention.


While paper is widely used worldwide today, the creator of this extremely important invention is rather obscure outside East Asia. After Cai invented the paper making process in 105, it was 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 using earlier writing materials (primarily bamboo and silk).


By the 7th century, China's paper making 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 paper making then spread to the West. When paper was first introduced to Europe in the 12th century, it  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 7th on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.