During a recent visit to Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan Province we stopped by the small but industrious village of Manzhao, which is known throughout the region for its traditional papermaking.
The people of Manzhao are uncommonly friendly and were invariably willing to let us come in and take a look at their homes and watch them make paper. In a short half hour, we were able to walk through the village and catch each step of the traditional papermaking process.
The paper is made from the bark of mulberry trees which grow in southern Yunnan and northern Myanmar and Laos. A pile of 100 kilograms of mulberry bark – which grows back after being harvested from the trees – can yield 2,000 large sheets of a rough but attractive paper that is often used to package tea. Not surprisingly, many Manzhao residents also grow and process tea.
The traditional papermaking process practiced in Manzhao is fairly straightforward:
Cook the bark until soft
Manzhao residents cook strips of mulberry bark in large vats, stirring frequently to ensure even cooking. The vats are heated by wood-burning fireplaces, which make the hot ’Banna sun even hotter. When ready, the bark strips will resemble slightly overcooked spaghetti.
Clean and Shred
After being cooked until reaching the desired softness, the bark strips are then removed from the vats, washed clean and then shredded. Shredding was once done by hand with knives, resulting in extremely tired arms, according to the Manzhao residents we interviewed. Today, most people use gas-powered shredding machines to get the job done quickly. Enterprising families who own their own shredders typically provide the service to other neighbors for a fee.
Spread onto Screens
Once the bark has been reduced to a pulp, it is spread on screens, which not coincidentally are also made in Manzhao. Every bit of pulp is used – the runoff from the screens is filtered for any remaining pulp, which invariably finds its way onto a screen.
On sunny days, which are most days in Manzhao, it only takes one afternoon in the sunshine for a screen to dry and the finished sheet of paper to be ready for peeling off before going into storage.
A big “Yingliga!” (“Thanks a lot!”) to the friendly people of Manzhao Village for letting us into their homes to view the traditional papermaking process.