TIBETAN PAPER MAKING ENJOYS A REVIVAL
Ancient craft nearly went extinct with advent of mass-produced paper last century
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.