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.
nor, strictly speaking, paper, the sheets are actually shaved from the
pith of the plant Tetrapanax papyrifera
which is indigenous to Formosa. 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 visiting Canton.
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
particularly clear and concise. The common Chinese names for the plant
and, more commonly, tung-tsao
(Matthews 1930: 89).
Indigenous 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.
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.
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.
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
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
A. Papyrus, Tapa, Amate, and Rice Paper: Papermaking in Africa, the
Pacific, Latin America and Southeast Asia. McMinnville, Oregon:
Liliaceae Press, 1985.
E. "Rice-paper Paintings: 'Trivialities' of China Trade." Antiques,
March 1956, p. 246-247.
L. The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver, and Other
Objects. Princeton: Pyne Press, 1972.
"Observations on the Pith of Fatsia Papyrifera
." South African
Journal of Natural History, April 1928, p. 19-203.
Pith." Harper's Weekly, March 25, 1911, p. 23.
Chinese Botanical Paintings: Tetrapanax
, Harvard University Herbaria,
William Jackson, ed. "The Rice-Paper Plant." Hooker's Journal of Botany
and Kew Garden Miscellany, vol. 5, 1853, p. 79-84.
George. The World of Wonders. New York: Appleton, 1886.
Alexander. Three Years in Western China. London: George Philip and Son,
Elaine. "During a visit..." Correspondence, 1988.
S. "The Pith-paper Industry of Japan." Commerce Reports: A Weekly
Survey of Foreign Trade, July 14, 1930, p. 89-90.
"Rice Paper of
China." Scientific American, November 23, 1878.
Robert. "Rice-paper of Formosa." Pharmaceutical Journal and
Transactions, 1865, p. 52-53.
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.
of India: A Dictionary of Indian Raw Materials and Industrial Products.
New Delhi: Publications and Information Directorate, 1976.
Illustrations from Harvard