Skip to main content

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing 纸张之外:汉字书写3000年 – Silk

By Vic Swift 3 September 2015

8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016

Free Entry

This exhibit at the British Library consists of four cases of material to show the different media used for Chinese writing and the different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively.

The inside of a cave, with Buddhist statues at the back. Half of this historical sepia photograph is taken up with a wall in which a hatch or door can be seen.

The manuscripts displayed here were all discovered in a Library Cave at the Buddhist cave temple site at Mogao, near Dunhuang. The entrance to the Library Cave can be seen on the right of the corridor of Cave 16, shown here. Photo 392/59(1)


Silk, which has been cultivated in China for over 5,000 years, was used as a writing material in the first millennium BC. Like wood, its use continued even after the invention of paper. Because it was expensive, it was used for special texts, such as the fragment of the Buddhist sutra shown here. While paper became the most common writing material, silk continued to be used in book production, for scroll ties, scroll wrappers, and book covers.



Brown piece of silk with Chinese writing on it in columns, mounted on a paler brown background.

Buddhist Sutra on Silk. Ink on silk, 6th century.


Silk has been used as a medium for writing from the first millennium BC in China, but it was largely replaced by paper from the first few centuries AD as paper was cheaper. However, silk continued to be used for some special and expensive texts: a second century book is described as written on white silk ruled with red columns and wrapped in blue silk with the title in red. The piece shown here is fragment of a Buddhist sutra and was originally part of a longer scroll, like the ones on paper.


Three paper scrolls with Chinese writing on the outside, bound closed with silk ribbons of different colours.

Buddhist sutra scrolls with silk ties. Ink on paper with silk and wood, 7th to 9th centuries


Silk continued to be used in book production in China even after the invention of paper, most especially for the braids used to tie the scrolls. These scrolls would have been expensive to produce. The paper was probably made in Central China, dyed with a yellow dye called huangbo containing berberine, which has insecticidal and water-repellant properties. A professional scribe would have copied the text, Buddhist sacred texts or sutras. The person sponsoring the production often had a note added to the end giving the date and the recipient of the merit gained from replicating the words of the Buddha.


Conserved paper fragment with cursive Chinese writing on it.

Calligraphic Model after Wang Xizhi. Ink on paper, 7th to 9th centuries



In addition to its practical use, writing in Chinese was considered as art with the most famous calligraphers valued more highly than other artists. This piece is a model or copy based on the cursive calligraphy of one such master, Wang Xizhi (303-361): none of his original work survives. Good copies were believed to capture the ‘spirit resonance’ of the master’s work and were highly valued in themselves. It is written on pink dyed paper.


Thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation.


The Chinese character used on the panels at the exhibit at the British Library is the character for silk . It is taken from a medical manuscript from Dunhuang, probably dating to the 10th century. The British Library, Or.8210/S.76.


If you have feedback or ideas about this post, contact us, sign in or register an account to leave a comment below