The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention

Paper created a world in which free thinking could flourish, and brought disciplines from science to music into a new age.

Excerpted from The Paper Trail (footnotes omitted) by Alexander Monro. Copyright © 2016 by Alexander Monro. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

1 Tracing Paper

The city of Cambaluc has such a multitude of houses, and such a vast population inside the walls and outside, that it seems quite past all possibility.

— Marco Polo, The Travels (trans. Sir Henry Yule)

In 1275 Marco Polo arrived at the capital city of the most expansive and unlikely empire the world had yet seen. In the stories he dictated on his homecoming, Marco called it Khanbaliq (or Cambaluc, as in the translation above), the city of the khans, but sixty years earlier it had been a Chinese city with a Chinese name, before the Mongols besieged the city and razed it to the ground. When the Mongols rebuilt it as Khanbaliq, it was just one city among several in the expanding kingdom of Greater Mongolia. But by the time the Polos arrived it had become the capital of an empire that spanned much of Eurasia, from Korea to Eastern Europe. Today it is called Beijing.

For several pages, Marco’s travelogue professes his amazement at the scale and splendour of Khanbaliq. He wrote that the four innermost walls of the palace complex were each a mile long, and the four outer walls each ran to eight miles. Eight palaces placed around the inner walls served as arsenals, while a further eight sat between the inner and middle walls. Among them was the khan’s own palace, fenced in by a marble wall. The rooms of the palace were covered with gold and silver, and decorated with gilt images of dragons and birds. Six thousand men could sit for dinner in its main hall.

Marco, as a merchant and a Venetian, was well acquainted with desirable objects, and yet even he was astonished by the luxury and grandeur of Khanbaliq. Numbers pepper his description of the Mongol capital, from the twenty-four-mile circumference of the city wall to its sixteen palaces and twelve gates, each gate manned by a thousand guards. Khanbaliq, he recorded, buzzed with commerce and was ‘laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterful precision that words cannot do it justice’. Marco wrote that the city had 20,000 prostitutes and that more than 1,000 cartloads of silk entered it each day. On New Year’s Day, the khan received gifts of more than 100,000 white horses and held a procession of 5,000 elephants. Polo’s numbers are the stuff of travellers’ tales, but the mark Khanbaliq made on him is unmistakable.

Yet something far less magnificent than the city’s palaces also caught his attention: the Royal Mint. His diary records what he discovered:

… you might say he [the emperor] has mastered the art of alchemy … You must know that he has money made for him by the following process, out of the bark of trees — to be precise, from mulberry trees (the same whose leaves furnish food for silk-worms). The fine bast between the bark and the wood of the tree is stripped off. Then it is crumbled and pounded and flattened out with the aid of glue into sheets like sheets of cotton paper, which are all black. When made, they are cut up into rectangles of various sizes, longer than they are broad … all these papers are sealed with the seal of the Great Khan. The procedure of issues is as formal and as authoritative as if they were made of pure gold or silver …
Of this money the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world … with these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything.

It is an imperfect and inexact description of Chinese papermaking and Chinese printing on paper, but it quickly became the best-known account across pre-Renaissance Europe. Within the first twenty years of the book’s publication, fresh editions appeared in at least five different languages. All this took place within Polo’s lifetime, a remarkable success in a Europe not yet familiar with printed books; each fresh edition of The Travels was copied out by hand.

Here was Europe’s most famous visitor to Beijing marvelling at the Chinese papers of the Mongol empire. Just as paper was pioneered in China, so too was paper money. By the end of the tenth century, several centuries before his visit, China’s paper money in circulation had already reached the equivalent of 1.13 million tiao — a tiao was a string of 1,000 coins; thus China’s currency in circulation could be counted in the millions before papermaking had even reached Christian Europe. Under the Yuan dynasty, in power when Marco made his visit, that number increased substantially. The result of this glut of paper would be hyperinflation.

Yet the earliest mention of significant papermaking even taking place on the Italian peninsula was made in 1276, a year or so after Marco’s arrival in Beijing. Before that, Europe’s only paper mills were in Muslim-ruled Iberia. Even to a prosperous Venetian merchant, thirteenth-century Beijing and its wares were uniquely ingenious and glamorous.

The paper money of China’s Yuan dynasty, produced by its Board of Revenue and Rights, was used as far afield as Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam (as we now call them). It crossed social and economic barriers too: notes came in twelve denominations, from ten to two thousand. One surviving Great Yuan Treasure Note, as it calls itself on its obverse side, warns that anyone caught counterfeiting the note will be decapitated while the informer will receive a reward of 200 taels of silver, equal to perhaps 171⁄2 pounds.

The Mongols had learnt to govern by paper. Illiterate until just a few decades before Marco arrived, the invaders had chosen Khanbaliq as their capital and quickly established an enormous bureaucracy across what is now Tiananmen Square, one that filled three square miles and employed some 10,000 (largely Chinese) artisans. They produced seals, scrolls, brushes, ink, stones and paper — the machinery of the second largest empire in history. (Only the British empire, seven centuries later, was larger.) The medium of this empire was paper, from money to diplomatic letters, from official histories to property records and from palace accounts to imperial decrees.

This is the story of how that soft and supple substance became the vehicle of history and the conduit for landmark innovations and mass movements across the world. For two millennia, paper has allowed policies, ideas, religions, propaganda and philosophies to spread as nothing else. It was the currency of ideas in the most important civilizations of the day, enabling not merely their easy dissemination within their own cultures, but also their absorption by foreign cultures. This role was key to paper’s future; just as money, which had been made of clay or metal for millennia, allowed the transfer and exchange of goods and services, so it was that paper fuelled the trade in ideas and beliefs.

What began in Han China 2,000 years ago reached new heights in the Tang dynasty during the eighth century, just as it was spreading into the Islamic Caliphate with its imperial capital at Baghdad, a hub of scientific research and artistic outpourings, before eventually passing into Europe, where it became the tool of the continent’s own Renaissance and Reformation. From its East Asian beginnings, this smooth surface rose to become the writing and printing medium of the modern world.

Paper enabled writers to reach an unprecedented number and diversity of readers. Among those writers were the philosophers who, prior to the age of paper, addressed the political vacuum China suffered in the centuries leading up the founding of the Han dynasty in 206 BC. Also among them were the Buddhist translators eager to carry their religion from India and Central Asia into China in the second and third centuries AD, not just to princes and scholars but to merchants, the poor and even women. Among them were the bureaucrats of the Abbasid Caliphate, Islam’s second empire, which stretched from Central Asia to the Maghrib, the theologians who used the Koran to help forge an imperial identity, and the scientists and artists which the Caliphate spawned after the newly built city of Baghdad was appointed imperial capital in the late eighth century. Among them, too, were Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther and all the scholars and translators who delivered the Renaissance and Reformation from their desks, taking advantage of cheap Italian paper in their quest to recover, reproduce and translate the great texts of Hebrew, Greek and Roman antiquity. Among their number were the censored French revolutionary thinkers of the eighteenth century, for whom Dutch Protestant printers provided such a useful textual outlet. Among them, too, were the few transcendent personalities of the paper age, figures like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, whose complete works run to 156 and 100 volumes, respectively. Among them, also, was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, sitting in his tiny study on Clerkenwell Green in London in 1902 and editing Iskra (Spark), the newspaper of the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party, before it was smuggled into Russia to help foster a Communist revolution.

In China itself, paper’s birthplace, it was a crucial element in the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, as students pasted dozens of ‘big character’ wall posters to the Peking University notice board, criticizing the university director for his conservatism. Sixty-five thousand posters followed at neighbouring Qinghua University, a number the students could only afford with paper as their means. Tens of thousands followed in cities across the country. Within weeks, a little red book of aphorisms, produced to power the revolutionary wave, had swamped China, such that at least 700 million copies were sold or distributed — and the total number of printed copies has since passed a billion. Mao’s Little Red Book, as it was known, is one of the four or five most-printed books in history.

In the pre-digital age, paper aided the rise of both universal education and universal suffrage. The emergence of thought communities worldwide, whose members read the same books and articles, was enabled by paper too, whether communities of scientists or of composers, of novelists or philosophers, of engineers or of political activists. Paper delivered the Republic of Letters, which transcended national divisions, helping to forge a brotherhood (and it was predominantly men) which held their ideas and reading as a common heritage and bond of kinship. Paper was a writing surface cheap, portable and printable enough that books and pamphlets began to be mass-produced and to travel more widely than ever, released from the expense of parchment and vellum, the rarity of papyrus, and the bulkiness of bones, stones and wood. In its spread of knowledge and of ideas, the emergence of paper fomented a revolution.

Alexander Monro studied Chinese at the University of Cambridge and in Beijing before working for The Times in London and for Reuters in Shanghai. He has contributed chapters to The Dragon Throne (a history of China’s dynasties) and The Seventy Great Journeys in History, and edited two travel poetry anthologies, including China: City and Exile. In 2011, he won the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction for The Paper Trail, his first book. He lives with his wife in the Cotswolds, and writes on contemporary China.