The Battle That Made Paper Global and Revolutionized the Spread of Knowledge


Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest known printed book using woodblock printing on paper. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons.

图:《金刚经》 ,世界上已知最早的印刷书籍,使用雕版印刷术印刷 图片来源和授权: 维基共享资源

“Paper is more patient than man.” — Anne Frank
Is it possible to imagine a world without books?
I’m afraid I can’t. I’m sure you share my sentiments.
BBooks changed the way knowledge spread and helped us evolve as humans. Knowledge destroys ignorance, and without easy access to information, the world would be a different place today.
But books were a costly affair. That changed with the invention of paper. Paper made it easy to spread knowledge. Recording information was hard until papermaking became global.

“纸比人更有耐心。”——安妮 · 弗兰克

Once upon a time, the method of making paper was kept a closely guarded secret. The Chinese invented paper and it was inaccessible in Eurasia. The globalization of paper happened a thousand years after its invention.
A bloody conflict in the mid-8th century CE was the event that established paper making as a global technology. For centuries, the battle changed how knowledge spread around the world. It paved the way for the popularity of the mechanized printing press.
The conflict was between the era’s two superpowers, the Chinese Tang dynasty, and the Arabic Abbasid Caliphate. In 752 CE, a clash at the Talas River in the modern-day Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border opened up access to papermaking.


Prior to this conflict, the production of paper was primarily limited to China. Still, there are examples of paper manufacturing at this time in parts of Korea, Tibet, Nepal, and India.
Let us investigate why this conflict occurred and how it spread the secret of making paper.


The Battle of Talas River (752 CE)
A mural from Mogao caves commemorating Tang victory over Tibet, Mogao caves ,China. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia commons
Why did the Chinese and Arabs clash in Central Asia?
To understand this, we must examine the evolution of the two dynasties as well as the complex politics of the time.
The Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) ruled China from Chang’an (now known as Xi’an). During Emperor Taizong’s reign (626–649 CE), the Tang dynasty subjugated the powerful G?ktürks. Taizong was the first Chinese ruler to be crowned the Khan of Heaven.

# 塔拉斯河之战 ( 公元752年 )

Tang dynasty in 669 CE after absorbing the powerful Turkic Khaganate. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons


The G?ktürks controlled the lucrative Silk Road trading routes and its wealthy city-states, which now passed into the hands of the Tang dynasty.
Meanwhile, the Arabs rallied under the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661 CE) and defeated the Persian Sassanian Empire. The Umayyads (661–750 CE) succeeded the Rashidun Caliphate and had an eye on the lucrative trading towns along the Silk Road.
The Umayyads found an ally in the rising Tibetan Empire. With the help of their Tibetan allies, the Arabs conquered the Silk Road towns of Samarkand and Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan in 705 CE.

同时,阿拉伯人在四大正统哈里发 ( Rashidun Caliphate )(公元632-661年)的带领下团结起来,打败了波斯萨珊帝国,倭马亚王朝(公元661-750年)继承了四大正统哈里发的统治,并盯上了丝绸之路上利润丰厚的贸易城镇。

The Tang decided to check the new rising power’s influence in their territory. Tang forces defeated the Arab-Tibetan alliance at Aksu in the modern-day Xinjiang province of China in 717 CE.
Following their victory at Aksu, the Tang and their Turkic allies launched successful campaigns retaking control of Central Asia, Tarim Basin, and the Hindu Kush region.
The Umayyads’s influence waned, and the Abbasids emerged as the new Middle Eastern superpower.


Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid receives a gift from Charlamagne by German painter Julius K?ckert, dated 1864. The first paper mill in the Arab world was established during al-Rashid’s reign. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons


The Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE) continued the policy of expansion into Central Asia. But the outcome was the same. The Tang defeated the Arabs once more in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. Gao Xianzhi, a Korean general, was Tashkent’s hero for the Tang. The Tang army was multi-ethnic and it recruited the best brains from the empire irrespective of their nationality.


The Arab general Ziyad, who had lost in Tashkent, was given the opportunity to avenge his defeat. Ziyad withdrew to Samarkand and raised an army. Meanwhile, Gao was reinforced by his Turkic allies, the Karluks.
The Arab army came face to face with the Tang-Karluk coalition on the banks of the Talas River.


Modern day view of the Talas river, the site of the historic battle. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons


There are two versions of what happened next.
According to the first version, the Arabs charged and faced heavy projectile fire from the Chinese. Because the Chinese had crossbow and longbow technology, their shooting was precise. The Tang heavy infantry pushed the Arab infantrymen back. The cavalries of both armies matched each other toe to toe. This continued for three days.
But the tide of the battle turned on the fourth day.


This was not due to a brilliant strategy, but rather to betrayal. The Karluk Turks defected to the Arabs and attacked the Chinese. Arabs killed many Chinese soldiers as a result of the chaos. The Tang army was annihilated. Gao escaped with his bodyguards. Only 2,000 Tang warriors out of 10,000 survived.


According to the second version of the battle, Arabs and Chinese were at a stalemate for three days. The Arab general Ziyad bribed the Karluk Turks on the fourth day. During the battle, they attacked the Tang army. The Chinese were caught off guard and easily defeated.


Regardless of which version you believe, it is undeniable that the Chinese were defeated because of the Karluk Turks’ betrayal. Arabs kidnapped many Chinese soldiers and officers. This changed the dynamics of knowledge transmission in the future. The prisoners of war knew the art of papermaking and would help set up paper mills in the Middle East.


Papermaking goes global
Oldest paper book, 256 CE, China. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons
Invention of Paper
According to the Chinese tradition, a eunuch named Cai Lun invented paper in 105 CE. Observing paper wasps build their nests inspired him. Bamboo and silk were writing mediums in China prior to the invention of paper. Bamboo was brittle, and silk was expensive.

# 造纸术走向世界

· 纸的发明

Cai Lun pulverized fishnets, hemp, and mulberry tree bark. The pulp was then beaten with wooden sticks, mashed, and the excess water was sieved out. After that, the mixture was dried, yielding paper.
Though traditional accounts credit Cai Lun with discovering paper, archaeological evidence suggests it may have existed for a few centuries before his birth.


The earliest known paper sample dated 179 BCE: A map found in Fangmatan, Gansu, China. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons


Advances in paper manufacturing technology transformed reading and writing. According to Timothy Hugh Barrett, the culture of reading flourished in China after the invention of paper. Paper overcame the limitations placed by bamboo and silk.

造纸技术的进步改变了人们的阅读和写作,根据据蒂莫西 · 休 · 巴雷特的说法,在纸张发明之后,阅读文化在中国蓬勃发展,纸克服了竹子和丝绸的局限性。

Papermaking spreads in Asia
Weber manuscxts dated 5–6th century CE. A total of 9 manuscxts written in Sanskrit and Pali were discovered in Tarim Basin. Four manuscxts were from paper made in Nepal. Image source and credits: Wikimedia commons
The Chinese did everything they could to keep the knowledge of paper making a secret. However, parts of Korea, Tibet, and India soon began to manufacture paper.
The Chinese Buddhist monk Tijing (Romanized I-ching) mentions that Indians used paper to draw and worship images of Buddha. A Sanskrit Dharani (Buddhist recitation) discovered in a Tang tomb in China suggests that Indians were familiar with papermaking.

· 造纸术在亚洲的传播

中国佛教高僧 Tijing提到,印度人用纸来绘制和崇拜佛陀的形象,在中国一座唐代古墓中发现的梵文密语 (佛教经文)表明印度人已经熟悉了造纸术。

The spread of knowledge was not a one-way street.
From India, the Chinese learned the art of binding. In India, palm leaf manuscxts known as talapatra were bound; in China, the same technique was used to bind books and documents.
By 751 CE, the art of making paper had spread to Central Asia. But it was the Battle of Talas River that changed everything. Chinese prisoners of war quickly began making paper in the Abbasid Caliphate, and by 793 CE Baghdad had its first paper mill.

中国人从印度学到了装订的艺术,在印度,被称为Talapatra 的棕榈叶手稿被装订成册 ; 在中国,同样的技术也被用于装订书籍和文件。

Depiction of papermaking in Middle East. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons.


The Chinese used mortar and pestle to mash the paper pulp. However, the Arabs introduced trip hammers drawn by animals or humans. This made the paper manufacturing process faster. Rice, wheat, sorghum starch formed the base of the pulp. Middle eastern paper was known for its shiny finish and the books manufactured were lighter.
China’s paper-making hegemony, which had lasted several centuries, was about to end. By the end of the ninth century, the Arab world had caught up to China in the production of paper.


During the Tang dynasty, China had the world’s largest libraries. However, over the next 300 years, libraries in Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo surpassed their Chinese counterparts in terms of book volume.
The knowledge of woodblock printing transformed the world of book publishing. As early as 1000 CE, woodblock printing was seen in the Byzantine Empire. However, it was not until the 13th century that it became widely used in Europe.


Paper arrives in Europe
Roman fresco depicting a young man holding a papyrus scroll, 1st century CE. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons.
Prior to the invention of paper, the official writing medium in Europe was papyrus scrolls and stone tablets.
Papyrus was invented in Egypt and is made from the reeds of the papyrus plant, which grows in the Nile delta. Because papyrus cracked when folded, large scrolls were rolled to store information. Papyrus was phased out in favor of vellum and parchment made from animal skins.
Vellum was more resistant to moisture and did not crack like papyrus. However, clergy continued to use papyrus until the 11th century. The most recent papal decree on papyrus was issued in 1057 CE, after which paper became popular in Europe.

· 纸张传入欧洲


The Missal of Silos made by the Mozarabs, dated 1080 CE, is the earliest known record of paper in Europe. Mozarabs were Christian subjects of Al-Andalus, Spain’s Islamic caliphate. This may sound familiar from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in which he refers to this historic document. The Missal was created in Spain during the Arab rule, indicating that the Arabs were responsible for the transmission of papermaking technology to Europe.
By 1085 CE, Toledo, Spain, had a well-established paper mill. In 1190 CE, papermaking arrived in France. Germany began producing paper in 1390 CE, when Ulman Stromer set up a paper mill in Nuremberg. Papermaking took a little longer to arrive in England, with John Tate starting the first paper mill near Hertford in 1490 CE. Austria, Poland, Russia, and Denmark were producing paper by the 15th and 16th centuries.

造纸术用了较长的时间才传到达英格兰,约翰 · 泰特于公元1490年在赫特福德附近创办了第一家造纸厂,奥地利、波兰、俄罗斯和丹麦15和16世纪开始生产纸张。

Printing press at Nuremburg, bottom right. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons
Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany, is credited with the invention of the metallic movable printing press. But historians have challenged the narrative, mentioning the existence of metal movable printing presses in China during the 11th century Song dynasty, and in 13th century Korea. Despite its invention in China and usage in Korea, it would not become popular in the next 300 years. Woodblock printing remained the de facto printing method.
The movable printing press was faster than the Chinese woodblock printing technique and became popular in Europe. German printers set up printing shops in Italy, France, and England. This increased book output over the next few centuries, as shown in the graph below.

原创翻译:龙腾网 转载请注明出处

European book production during Medi Ages. Data from “Charting the Rise of the West” by Buringh et al. Image source and licensing: Wikimedia Commons

图:中世纪时期的欧洲图书产量,数据来自布林等人的 "西方崛起绘"

As a result, knowledge spread faster than before across Europe, with the new rising middle class demanding more books. This was a watershed moment in learning, ushering in a new era of enlightenment. Progress in science, technology, philosophy, fine arts, and literature heralded the beginning of a new era in European history.


The story of paper and its role in changing the course of human civilization is fascinating.
But would it have been possible without the Tang dynasty’s defeat at Talas River? Many historians have questioned the narrative indicating the presence of paper manufacturing in Central Asia at the time of the battle. However, the spread of the technology would have been excruciatingly slow. The advancements we have today may have been delayed by several centuries.
Trade secrets were closely guarded, and there was a tendency to monopolize knowledge. The Battle of Talas River led to the end of China’s seven-century paper monopoly. There is no doubt that this conflict was a watershed moment in human history.