The Dard Hunter Paper Museum has recently received some
inquiries regarding the conservation practices for what is
commonly called pith or rice paper. A search of the literature
indicates that very little has been written on the topic.
Fortunately, the museum had a sufficient number of undecorated
sheets of this material to allocate some specimens for
examination and experimentation. Stephanie Watkins, an intern
working at the museum as part of her graduate program in art
conservation at Buffalo State College, agreed to test the
effects of standard conservation practices on a few of these
sheets. Ken Grabowski of the Field Museum assisted us through
his work on a bibliographic project tracing the misnomer "rice
paper" in the botanical and popular literature.
||Neither rice nor,
strictly speaking, paper, the sheets are actually
shaved from the pith of the plant Tetrapanax
papyrifera which is indigenous to Taiwan.
Examples in museum collections date largely from the
end of the nineteenth century when illustrations of
Chinese daily life and flora and fauna became popular
tourist items among the sailors and merchants on ships
As a consequence of the popularity of pith paper
illustrations, one finds numerous descriptions of the method
of manufacture (Swinhoe 1865: 52-53, Rice 1878: Ferris 1888:
297-298, Hosie 1890: 23-24, Williams 1899: 113-114, Matthews
1930: 89-90, Hooker 1953: 79-84, Bell 1985: 103-119 Koretsky
1988: n.p., Harvard on-line), that by Swinhoe in 1865 being
particularly clear and concise. The common Chinese names for
the plant are bok-shung
and, more commonly, tung-tsao
(Matthews 1930: 89).
to the mountainous regions of northwestern and eastern
Formosa, the plant resembles the castor bean or sycamore.
The plant will usually reach twelve to fifteen feet (3.6 to
4.5 m) in height by its fourth or fifth year. Only the pith of
the younger plants, however, is lustrous and white. These the
natives harvest every two or three years, usually in winter.
New shoots grow from the root stock after the cutting much
like bamboo. They then soak the stems in running water for
several days and cut them into one to two foot (30.5 to 61 cm)
lengths. The pith is removed by driving a dowel against the
ground while the stem is aligned above. The pith becomes
spotted or looses its luster unless the resulting segment of
pith is dried immediately. This drying process may occur in
hollowed bamboo to straighten longer sections or to adhere
small sections to one another.
Pith paper manufacturers or their agents visit the aboriginal
mountain villages near where the plants are collected or
cultivated, offering Chinese trade goods for the bundled
segments of pith (Matthews 1930: 90). Prior to the Second
World War a number of small factories each producing ten to
fifteen thousand pounds of paper per year were operating in
the Shinshiku Province. Currently only a single factory seems
to be operating (Koretsky 1988: n.p.).
Workers in the factories cut the pith into uniform pieces,
usually about 3 3/8 inches (8.6 cm) long, although purchase of
larger sheets can be arranged. From these segments, workers,
usually women working at night in ill-lit rooms (Hosie 1890:
23, Koretsky 1988: n.p.), shave ribbons of pith paper. Their
tools include a knife with a twelve inch (30.5 cm) long three
inch (7.6 cm) wide blade having an extremely sharp edge and a
one-half inch (1.3 cm) thick back. This tool is honed on a
block of hardwood. The cutting surface is a smooth brick,
stone, or tile measuring about fifteen inches (38 cm) long,
six inches (15.2 cm) wide, and one inch (2.5 cm) thick.
Horizontal brass strips along the length of this block act as
a thickness gauge.
Proceeding quickly to insure uniform thickness (Hooker 1853:
80), the worker uses the left hand to roll the pith and the
right hand to guide the knife. At the end of each pass, she
returns the pith and knife to the far right of the block until
the section of pith is reduced to about an inch (2.5 cm) in
diameter. A ribbon of four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8 m) is
obtained from each section of pith. These ribbons are stacked
and pressed in lots of seven hundred fifty to one thousand.
The workers trim these stacks into 3 1/4 inch (8.25 cm) to 3
1/2 inch (8.9 cm) squares, although one can arrange to buy
larger squares for painting. Simple as this process sounds,
considerable dexterity is required to produce the sheets. The
workers are apprenticed for three years, during which time
they receive room and board from 3 their masters (Swinhoe
The sheets are sorted into three grades. The first grade is
pure white, without perforations. This grade is for export,
primarily to China or Japan for painting or making into
artificial flowers. The second grade may contain minor
perforations, and may be off-color or show some spotting. This
grade is usually used locally for making artificial flowers.
The lowest grade, between ten and fifteen percent of the pith
(Matthews 1930: 90), consists of trimmings and core. This
material is used for packaging, absorbent dressings, folk
medicines, and small buoys.
The paintings one finds on these papers range from 3 1/4 inch
(8.25 cm) squares to four by six (10.2 by 15.2 cm) or even ten
by fifteen inch sheets. (25.4 by 38.1 cm). They are prepared
in an Oriental style of a figure without background. Museum
collections most frequently contain images from natural
history and depictions of daily life, especially Chinese
professions and trades. To protect the extremely brittle
edges, the sheets are often trimmed with ribbon and may be
backed with paper. These paintings were made in workshops and
sold in sets (Cobb 1956: 246-7). The only mention of an artist
responsible for the paintings comes in 1849 from La Volee who
identified Lam Qua's Cantonese workshop and studio as a source
for paintings on pith and paper. Accounts by La Volee and
other travelers make it quite clear, however, that pith paper
watercolors were items of manufacture rather than artistic
ventures (Crossman 1972: 117). Since the turn of the century,
these workshops have produced Western-style embossed Christmas
cards as well. Shops making artificial flowers to adorn
women's hair and for export to the west, in fact, use the bulk
of the pith produced (Flowers 1911: 23). Most of these flowers
were made in Canton, Hong Kong, and Japan. The method
manufacture involves dyeing for color, cutting the sheets into
petal shapes, dampening, and shaping the sheets with the aid
of metal tools (Swinhoe 1865: 53). Roses and violets were
particularly life-like in appearance and scented. A small
amount of the pith paper was attached to bamboo on a rattan
frame to make strong, light, water-proof hats, that is pith
helmets (Pith 1879).
In addition to the pith growing either wild or under
cultivation in Formosa, some plants are cultivated in southern
China, India, and Ceylon. The plant as cultivated in India and
Ceylon is called taccado
and its pith is processed
mainly in Malay and Indo-China. The most frequent products are
artificial flowers, small figures and toys, festival
decorations, and lens paper (Wealth 1976: 199-200). The Indian
plant called a shola
, actually a legume, is produced
in Singapore as floats, buoys, and light sun hats much like Tetrapanax
(World 1888: 297-298).
Bell, Lilian A. Papyrus, Tapa, Amate, and Rice Paper:
Papermaking in Africa, the Pacific, Latin America and
Southeast Asia. McMinnville, Oregon: Liliaceae Press, 1985.
Cobb, Margaret E. "Rice-paper Paintings: 'Trivialities' of
China Trade." Antiques, March 1956, p. 246-247.
Crossman, Carl L. The China Trade: Export Paintings,
Furniture, Silver, and Other Objects. Princeton: Pyne Press,
Hahne, Bruno. "Observations on the Pith of Fatsia
." South African Journal of Natural History,
April 1928, p. 19-203.
"Flowers from Pith." Harper's Weekly, March 25, 1911, p. 23.
Chinese Botanical Paintings: Tetrapanax papyriferum (Hook.) Koch
Hooker, William Jackson, ed. "The Rice-Paper Plant." Hooker's
Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany, vol. 5, 1853, p.
Ferris, George. The World of Wonders. New York: Appleton,
Hosie, Alexander. Three Years in Western China. London: George
Philip and Son, 1890.
Koretsky, Elaine. "During a visit..." Correspondence, 1988.
Reed, Charles S. "The Pith-paper Industry of Japan." Commerce
Reports: A Weekly Survey of Foreign Trade, July 14, 1930, p.
"Rice Paper of China." Scientific American, November 23, 1878.
Swinhoe, Robert. "Rice-paper of Formosa." Pharmaceutical
Journal and Transactions, 1865, p. 52-53.
Wells, William S. The Middle Kingdom: A Survey of the
Geography, Government, 5 Literature, Social Life, Arts, and
History of the Chinese Empire and its Inhabitants. New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899.
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