Origami and Paper Folding in China

Child holding origami crane
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The history of paper folding is fascinating because there appears to be a significant overlap between countries. Japan is typically credited with the origin of origami, but Chinese culture shows examples of paper folding that run parallel to the Japanese traditions. Even before it was possible for people to travel from country to country easily, creative minds in both countries were experimenting with various ways to fold paper artistically. 

The Invention of Paper

China's place in the history of paper crafts starts early. The invention of paper by Cai Lun around 105 AD in China is well recognized by historians. An Imperial court official during the Han Dynasty, he created sheets of paper from mulberry, bast fibers, old rags, fishnets, and hemp waste. Early forms of paper had existed in China since the 2nd century BC, but his standardization of the process and improvements to the general composition helped make paper able to be widely used as a writing medium.

To honor his accomplishment, Cai was named a marquess in 114 AD and given great wealth by Emperor He. A temple was erected in his honor in Chengdu after his death in 121 AD. Papermakers traveled great distances to pay their respects.

Paper Folding in Chinese Culture

The name origami is a Japanese term from the words oru (to fold) and kami (paper). In China, the art of folding paper is referred to by the Chinese name zhezhi.

Paper folding was first used in China for ceremonial purposes. At funerals, people would burn folded paper representations of the golden nuggets used as currency until the 20th century. People would also fold tiny replicas of items that were meaningful to the deceased to include in the tomb.

Fun Fact

Chinese paper folders tend to focus more on making inanimate objects, such as boats or small dishes. Japanese paper folders tend to favor examples of living things, such as the origami crane or a pretty paper flower.

The Chinese are also credited with developing many types of paper toys for children. People in China are traditionally very frugal and do not like to see useful material go to waste. Folding toys for their children from scrap paper became a way to give old materials a new life. The most famous of the Chinese paper toys is an inflatable paper balloon, traditionally known as the waterbomb. Children fold the balloons, blow them up, fill them with water, and throw them on the ground to make a loud "splat." The base of this model was the inspiration for naming the waterbomb or balloon base form.

Early Publications

In 1948, Maying Soong published The Art of Chinese Paper Folding. This book was important because it helped popularized paper folding in the 20th century while distinguishing Chinese paper folders from their Japanese counterparts.

Maying Soong was part of a distinguished pre-communist Chinese banking family and received a British education in Shanghai before continuing her studies in England, France, and Switzerland. Aside from studying paper folding, she was also very interested in music.

You can download a PDF version of The Art of Chinese Paper Folding on the Artella Words and Art website. Some of the featured models include a love knot, paper cup, Dutch hat, dustpan, and pinwheel. Models are arranged in order of difficulty, with the easiest projects in the front and the most difficult versions in the back. The projects are a mixture of designs Maying Soong created and traditional models that have no known single creator.

Golden Venture Folding

Golden Venture folding, also known as 3D origami, is a special type of modular origami invented by a group of Chinese refugees in the early 1990s. The refugees were held in an American prison after illegally trying to enter the country on a cargo ship named Golden Venture.

They invented a style of paper folding that involves joining together hundreds of identically folded triangular units to make swans, pineapples, and other shapes. The refugees would spend many hours folding these models, which were given as gifts those who worked to obtain their freedom or sold at charity fundraisers to help pay their legal expenses as they applied for the right of asylum.