Unfolding the Golden Nuggets of Early Chinese Paper Folding and the Art of Origami
Paper folding is a form of art that most people today associate with Japan. Indeed, Japanese origami is arguably the most well-known type of paper folding today. What is perhaps less well-known is that as an art, paper folding was also developed in China, Korea, and even Europe.
Some have even speculated that the Chinese (whose civilization has commonly been attributed with the invention of paper) were responsible for introducing the art of paper folding into Japan. Still, the history of paper folding is murky, and at present, there is no consensus as to how this art form began and developed over time.
Gold Nuggets of Chinese Paper Folding
According to one speculation, it was the Chinese who invented the art of paper folding. Today, this form of art is known as 折纸 (pronounced as ‘zhe zhi’), a term which may be literally translated as ‘folding paper’.
One argument supporting the claim that paper folding is a Chinese invention is that the material required for this art, paper, was invented by the Chinese. The invention of paper is traditionally attributed to Cai Lun, a Chinese eunuch and official who lived during the Han Dynasty. It follows that paper folding was invented shortly after this.
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One of the ways that paper folding was, and still is, used in Chinese society is for ceremonial purposes. Pieces of paper are folded to look like gold nuggets, and are known in Chinese as 元宝 (pronounced as ‘yuan bao’). These folded papers are often burned during funerals, as they are believed to have served as currency for the deceased during his / her journey in the Underworld. It has been speculated that this tradition dates to the Song Dynasty, and is still practiced by the Chinese even today.
An example of a Chinese paper fold yuan bao (Public Domain) and folded paper gold nuggets being burned with imitation paper money at ancestors' graves around the time of the Ghost Festival. (CC BY SA 3.0)
From Oritaka to Origami
From China, it has been suggested that the art of paper folding travelled to Japan. This art was introduced to the Japanese by Buddhist monks. Sometimes, one specific monk by the name of Dokyo is said to have brought this art to the archipelago. It has been claimed that this form of art was originally known as ‘oritaka’, which means ‘folded shapes’. Additionally, it was only in 1880 that the term ‘origami’, a combination of the words ‘ori’ (to fold) and ‘kami’ (paper), began to be used.
The folding of two origami cranes linked together from the first known book on origami Hiden senbazuru oritaka published in Japan in 1797. (Public Domain)
Like the Chinese ‘zhe zhi’, paper folding in Japan was first used for ceremonial purposes. Japanese monks first folded paper for religious purposes. Certain models, such as the ‘shide’ (zig-zag shaped paper used in purification rituals) were incorporated into Shinto ceremonies.
Tamagushi and food offerings at Shinto ceremonies. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
As paper was an expensive commodity, paper folding was a craft reserved for the Japanese elite. When paper became more affordable, however, this art was spread to the masses. It was during the 20th century that ‘origami’ became known throughout the world, thanks to the efforts of Akira Yoshizawa, who is commonly dubbed as the ‘grandmaster of origami’.
Yoshizawa at his home in the early 1980s. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Paper folding Takes off in Korea and Europe
Paper folding is also speculated to have arrived in the Korean peninsula via Buddhist monks from China. Over there, this craft became known as ‘jong-i jeobgi’, and developed into an important part of Korean culture. It has been stated that ‘jong-i jeobgi’ is taught in schools as part of lessons in art, science, math and history. Additionally, a traditional Korean game known as ‘ddakji’ makes use of paper folding. This game involves paper disks that are folded from two sheets of square paper.
As for Europe, it has been suggested that knowledge of paper-making arrived in Spain during the 12th century AD thanks to the Arabs. Another suggestion is that this knowledge travelled across Central Europe before reaching Europe. It has been speculated that paper folding in Europe developed independently of East Asia.
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Some scholars say that a classic ‘origami boat’ can be found in the 1490 printing of a book known as De Sphaera Mundi (‘On the Sphere of the World’) by Johannes de Sacrobosco. A reference in a 17th century play has also been cited as evidence for the development of paper folding in Europe. In John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, one of the characters makes a reference to “paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in;” It has been speculated that these “paper-prisons” refer to the classic ‘water bomb’ model.
Picture from a 1550 edition of De Sphaera. (Public Domain)
It may never be agreed upon where exactly paper folding began, but each culture that has been touched by the art has made it their own and found various uses for the practice.
Featured image: (clockwise) A crane, one of the most recognizable origami models. (CC BY-SA 2.5), A modular origami made from custom papers (CC BY 3.0), Jumping frog (CC BY-SA 3.0), Origami Dragon (Public Domain)
By Wu Mingren
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