An­cient craft nearly went ex­tinct with ad­vent of mass-pro­duced pa­per last cen­tury

China Daily (USA) - - TIBET - By PALDEN NYIMA and DAQIONG in Lhasa Con­tact the writ­ers at palden_ nyima@chi­nadaily.com.cn

As part of the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage, tra­di­tional Tibetan pa­per mak­ing dates back cen­turies — and it still sur­vives to this day, thanks to the re­gion’s boom­ing tourism in­dus­try.

Sa­cred texts in Tibetan Bud­dhism such as the Kagyur and Tengyur scrip­tures are well known, but few know of the pa­per that has helped an­cient Tibetan lit­er­a­ture and his­tory be passed on for more than 1,000 years.

In the past, dif­fer­ent ar­eas of Ti­bet would pro­duce their own pa­per, with that made in Nyemo county fa­vored by those in re­mote ar­eas, while the pa­per made in the cities of Ny­ingchi and Qamdo was his­tor­i­cally used for of­fi­cial doc­u­ments and cur­rency pro­duc­tion, ac­cord­ing to Nor­sang, a 32-year-old staff mem­ber at the Ti­bet Ar­chives Bureau.

Tibetan pa­per is renowned for be­ing in­sect proof and long last­ing, which led to it be­ing used to write con­tracts tra­di­tion­ally, as any­thing writ­ten on it would take a long time to fade — even af­ter be­ing soaked in wa­ter.

Much of the re­gion’s pa­per pro­duc­tion ceased half a cen­tury ago. But Nyemo county’s Darong town­ship, about 150 km from Lhasa, is one of the few places keep­ing the craft alive.

“Pro­duc­ing Tibetan pa­per is a tra­di­tion for my fam­ily, I have striven to carry it on, and my sons have be­come the next gen­er­a­tion for the craft,” said Tser­ing Tob­gyal, the owner of a Tibetan pa­per work­shop and a third-gen­er­a­tion pa­per maker.

Ac­cord­ing to the 66-yearold, when he was a boy there were 16 fam­i­lies of more than 30 mem­bers en­gaged in the pa­per mak­ing busi­ness. To­day, his fam­ily is the only one still in busi­ness in the area.

Al­to­gether, five peo­ple work in the vil­lage’s pa­per­mak­ing work­shop — two are Tser­ing Tob­gyal’s sons and the rest are their staff and ap­pren­tices.

The pro­duc­tion of Tibetan pa­per mainly uses one ma­te­rial — the root of a lo­cal poi­sonous plant known as re­jak.

The plant is col­lected from the moun­tain and its roots smashed to re­move the in­ner core.

Af­ter this, the root is peeled and boiled for three hours to re­move the im­pu­ri­ties, be­fore be­ing ground on flat rock for 30 min­utes.

The pulp that re­sults is churned in a big basin, passed through a fil­ter and dried.

Tser­ing Tob­gyal said in the past, the pa­per was used to prac­tice hand­writ­ing, while monks would use it to write scrip­tures.

But to­day many Tibetan schools and monas­ter­ies use mass-pro­duced pa­per, and “the pop­u­lar­ity of the pa­per pro­duced in fac­to­ries has had a great im­pact on the use of Tibetan pa­per, as the fac­to­rypro­duced stuff is cheaper”, said Tser­ing Tob­gyal.

The ad­vent of mass-pro­duced pa­per did hurt the in­dus­try, but in the 1980s, the gov­ern­ment called on vil­lagers to carry on the an­cient tra­di­tion and Tibetan pa­per was shown in ex­hi­bi­tions, while the re­gional ar­chives bureau started to use it for ar­chive preser­va­tion.

“The bureau has been sign­ing con­tracts with my work­shop for two decades, which greatly en­cour­aged me to con­tinue the tra­di­tion,” Tser­ing Tob­gyal said.

Since the 2000s, Tibetan pa­per has gained pop­u­lar­ity in tourist spots, and the re­gional tourism bureau has en­cour­aged Tser­ing Tob­gyal to pro­duce more tourism prod­ucts us­ing Tibetan pa­per.

“Thanks to tourism, we have ex­panded the num­ber of our prod­ucts from just pa­per to more than ten tourism prod­ucts,” said Kalzang Ten­zin, 45, the el­dest son of Tser­ing Tob­gyal.

“Tourists come to us with dif­fer­ent needs and or­ders, and we pro­duce the prod­ucts ac­cord­ing to their wishes.”

Kalzang Ten­zin said he wanted to pass on the craft to his own sons, and he hopes to ex­pand the work­shop in fu­ture by en­rolling more stu­dents.

Apart from tourism, or­ders also come in from some Tibetan monas­ter­ies, which have be­come the work­shop’s main source of in­come.

Two years ago, Ti­bet’s Tashil­hunpo Monastery signed a con­tract call­ing for 600 pages of blue-col­ored scrip­ture pa­per per month, which is pro­duced us­ing dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures and ma­te­ri­als to or­di­nary Tibetan pa­per.

Kalzang Ten­zin said the blue color is made us­ing a min­eral pig­ment, which comes from a kind of lo­cal plant mixed with sheep’s brain.

Xiao Yin, a Chi­nese poet, said he had vis­ited the work­shop in 2013.

“My friends told me it was the best Tibetan pa­per, and I was im­pressed by the pro­duc­ing pro­ce­dures,” said the 47-year-old.

“It is dif­fer­ent from other kinds of pa­per pro­duc­tion in other parts of the coun­try, putting the stress on the se­lec­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als and the skills used in pro­duc­tion.”

Xiao said at first he had wanted to write his po­ems on the Tibetan pa­per, but an artist friend sug­gested to paint Chi­nese wa­ter­col­ors on it in­stead.

“It has stronger wa­t­er­ab­sorb­ing abil­i­ties, and it is en­riched with dec­o­ra­tive ef­fec­tive­ness,” said Meng Fan­hua, an artist known for paint­ing wild yaks in Ti­bet. He has been us­ing the pa­per to write cal­lig­ra­phy for many years.

Col­lect­ing the raw ma­te­rial for Tibetan pa­per is risky work, as the plants grow high up on moun­tains and cliffs.

To lessen their im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment, Tser­ing Tob­gyal’s fam­ily has been try­ing to cul­ti­vate the plant in a field for two years.

“Since an­cient times, Ti­betans have be­lieved ex­ces­sive col­lec­tion of the plant would bring bad weather such as hail­stones,” Tser­ing Tob­gyal said.

“I am not sure if this project will be suc­cess­ful, I hope re­searchers and sci­en­tists will sup­port us one day with a sci­en­tific way of cul­ti­va­tion.”


Ri­jak, the root of a poi­sonous plant, is used as the raw ma­te­rial of the Tibetan pa­per.

Tser­ing Tob­gyal and his two sons dis­play a spe­cial Tibetan scrip­ture pa­per, which was or­dered by Tashil­hunpo Monastery at their work­shop in Nyemo county, Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Af­ter knead­ing the Tibetan pa­per as a ball and put into wa­ter, the pa­per does not fall apart, and the scripts still re­mains clear,

The Ri­jak root is smashed into paste af­ter boil­ing for hours.

The pulp is put into a fil­ter af­ter stir­ring evenly.

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