Cai Lun

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Cai Lun (50-121) was a eunuch at the imperial court who is traditionally credited with the invention of paper. He was a secretary to the He emperor and was born in Guiyang during the Eastern Han dynasty. Cai Lun experimented with different materials like bark, hemp, silk, and, strangely, even a fishing net. The formula for paper that he finally came up with has been lost to history.

Cai Lun
Traditional Chinese 蔡倫
Simplified Chinese 蔡伦


In the fifth century, the historian Fan Ye wrote:

[Before Cai Lun], writings and inscriptions were generally traced upon pieces of bamboo, or upon strips of silk… silk being costly and bamboo heavy these two materials could not be used conveniently. It was Cai Lun who conceived of the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, hemp waste, old rags and fish nets.

Cai Lun's invention is dated AD 105. The emperor was pleased by this invention and granted Cai Lun an aristocratic title which contained great wealth. But in the end his great wealth and position led to his downfall when Cai Lun drank poison and committed suicide after he had taken a bath and had been dressed in fine robes.

By the tenth century, paper production was widespread enough to spawn a printing industry in China. Chinese papermakers pulped the bark of the mulberry tree, a process which could not readily be duplicated elsewhere. In the fourteenth century, Europeans developed mills that used water power to pulp rags. The inexpensive paper produced by these mills was the basis of the printing revolution of the fifteenth century.

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