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August 20, 2019

Tetrapanax Papyriferus Intro | Irene Wei BFA Furniture Design ’19

by ilwei

I wanted to start off my first blog post by thanking the Maharam STEAM Fellowship for the chance to be able to pursue an opportunity I have dreamt of for years.  Taiwanese Pith Papermaking was first introduced to me while I was working for Carriage House Paper (a paper educational institution and supplying company). While I was there, I saw that we had a short 10 minute documentary in stock on the topic of Taiwanese Pith Papermaking. As a practicing papermaker of over 5 years, it immediately piqued my interest because I had never heard of such a method. After reaching out to many people from the hand papermaking community, I realized not many people had experience with Pith Paper other than Elaine Koretsky (founder of Carriage House Paper) and Jane Ingram Allen. Unfortunately, I could not ask Ms. Koretsky about what she knew of the subject because her health was declining at the time I knew her. I am grateful for the information she brought back, because if not for her, I would not have even known to seek this rare form of hand papermaking. I was fortunate enough to be able to reach out to Jane Ingram Allen who was able to provide a short article on Pith Paper that she had written.  In the United States, Allen and Koretsky are the only two known papermakers who have had direct experience researching paper made from Tetrapanax Papyrifer. Neither have had experience making pith paper. Their previous work gives a great introduction into the art of making pith paper. I want to continue their work and expand upon it in greater detail so that many more can enjoy the rich story of Pith Paper and Flower making. I am grateful to my project partner, Eden Tai, who will help make documenting this story possible. 

On August 2nd, I began work right away with the members of the Taiwan TongCao Association: Kuei Mei Liang (Environmental Educator), Jerry Chen (Pith Flower Expert) and Professor Lin ( from PingTung University). We met at the prestigious National Taiwan University to discuss our schedule for the next 4.5 months. Jerry graciously gave me a book that he published on how to make Pith Flowers. All of it is written in Chinese and I have been slowly trying to translate the directions as I practice each flower. Afterward, we explored the herbarium which contained two Tetrapanax plants planted by Professor Kuei Mei (Not Kuei Mei Liang. They happened to have the same name). The plant leaves can get to be about 2ft wide.

The stems of the plant have this powdery substance that supposedly protects the plant from drying out in the heat. Jerry said that once he tried to dry out the stems for a personal project, but could not figure out why it would not dry for several weeks in his drier system. Finally, he removed the plant’s powder from the stems and the next day he achieved the results he wanted. Jerry told me that back in ancient times, people used to take the powder from the plant and pack them in their wounds to prevent further bleeding. 



Powder on stem


 Professor Kuei Mei later showed me how to properly bind plants to paper for scientific documentation. There are very specific rules to sewing these plants in place that I would have never thought of. We tried to fold a Tetrapanax leaf for drying so we could sew it for documentation. The leaves can get to be 2 ft wide so there was no easy way to fold the leaf in a nice arrangement. The stock in which you sew onto is approximately 13″x18″. It won’t be dry until a few months from now. 


Professor Kuei Mei let me practice on a random plant


The smallest leaf we could find from the herbarium was 1.5ft wide


Professor Kuei Mei folding the leaf before putting in the drier system.



I also got to see the earliest documentation of Tetrapanax in their archives before the institution was even called National Taiwan University. The University was founded in 1928 during the Japanese ruling and was called Taihoku Imperial University.



Plant Archive Room


They seemed to have trouble folding the plant back then too…


Seems like they pulled out the plant when it was only a few months old! No wonder it fits…



What is Pith Paper? 


Pith paper is made from the plant: Tetrapanax Papyrifer or Tong Cao 通草 in Chinese. The genus, Tetrapanax is in the family Araliaceae in the major group Angiosperms.  The leaves of Tetrapanax have been used in herbal remedies to promote lactation in women and the pith has been also been used as a diuretic. The pith of Tetrapanax was also used to cushion the deceased in coffins. It would absorb the fluids from the body as it was decaying to prevent the bones from rotting. Usually only rich people received this treatment. Apparently, whiter bones symbolizes good luck for the deceased person’s offspring in early Chinese folk tradition.

Pith Paper is frequently misnomered as “rice paper”– a term given by Westerners for any type of Asian styled paper. Some papermakers and farmers in East Asia deem this term quite derogatory and disrespectful to their profession as the paper has nothing to do with rice. It generalizes many unique and highly specialized styles of papermaking. Furthermore, paper must be made from cellulose and rice is a grain, so the terminology is incorrect. 

Technically speaking, Pith Paper is not quite a paper either. Paper must be made of randomly woven plant fibers, but Pith is made from a complex cell structure. However, because it functions the same way as paper does, it is still called “paper” for convenience. It is a “Paper unlike Paper”.


Paper Fibers under Microscope


Pith Paper Cellulose Structure under Microscope

 In Taiwan currently, there is only one remaining Pith Paper craftsman (Tseng Su-hsiang) and one Pith Flower making expert (Jerry Chen). The time has never been more urgent to research the near defunct craft of Taiwanese pith paper making. Pith paper plays an important role in the cultural history of Taiwan. The usage of pith paper dates back to the Qing Dynasty. It was used for prints, paintings and most notably for making beautifully crafted artificial flowers used in ceremonies, cultural celebrations and fashionable hair accessories. Because Pith paper was so abundant during that time, artisans who painted on it often used it for practice before painting on more expensive papers or canvases (more on this in a later blog post, I am still translating the textbook that elaborates on this matter). The local pith industry was encouraged by Japanese commercial interest and reached its peak around 1910 during the Japanese occupation. During this time, pith paper was exported in large quantities from Taiwan and was an important source of national revenue. The production of pith paper thrived in Taiwan until the 1980s when plastic was being more commonly used as a cheap, durable and disposable material. After plastic’s rise to material predominance, these traditional flowers were no longer made from pith paper. Thus, in 1993, the use of plastic forced remaining pith paper factories in Taiwan to migrate to mainland China where there was a better chance for economic survival. Since then, even many of the factories that have moved have closed down. As the demand for Tetrapanax diminished, farmers switched their crops to grow produce instead. Kuei Mei Liang took me to Yang Ming Shan (Yang Ming Mountain) where Tetrapanax was once abundant. Now, most of it has been chopped down to make room for other crops. We found a couple Tetrapanax plants in the back of a restaurant we went to at the bottom of the mountain. Kuei Mei told me that she remembered this whole valley being full of Tetrapanax over 30 years ago. There were still some rice patties in the mountains during that time but they did not interfere with the Tetrapanax crops. After the government turned Yang Ming Shan into a national park in the 1980s, most of the rice patties eventually turned into Calla Lily Farms for tourists.





Tetrapanax growing in the wild. You cannot chop it down without government permission.


Area where Tetrapanax was found


 In Kuei Mei’s own attempts to bring back more Tetrapanax to the mountain, she planted seven plants along a trail during a residency in 2017 sponsored by the government. Currently, there are only two left from what she first planted. She suspects that perhaps she didn’t plant them properly or that tourists may have accidentally damaged them. We still went to go see the Tetrapanax plants that remained however. I really admired Kuei Mei’s dedication to the plant. Kuei Mei is retired now, but now she volunteers a lot of her time to promoting the education of pith paper. When she was 65, she went back to graduate school to write her dissertation on Tetrapanax. 



Kuei Mei’s Tetrapanax plant


I made a new friend on the trail named Ido (Kuei Mei’s friend)! I had him stand next to the Tetrapanax for scale.




Kuei Mei’s Tetrapanax Plant



How is Pith Paper made? 

Pith paper is produced by chopping the stalk of the plant into pieces, then pushing out the pith of the Tetrapanax. The pith is then pared spirally to form long narrow sheets. The end result is a thin, delicate, and translucent paper.

Sometime next month, we will be meeting with the Pith Paper master who will demonstrate Pith Papermaking for us. While we are there, we will provide photo and video documentation. 


(photo of Pith Papermaking process from Carriage House’s Pith Paper documentary)


Lack of Tools Becomes Major Issue 

What we recently discovered is that one main reason it has been difficult to carry on the tradition of Pith Papermaking is that there has been an extreme lack of tools since factories closed down in the 1990s. I was informed that some factories just threw all their tools away once there was no more need for production. There are no knife makers left in Taiwan who can make the exact tool needed. As a result, the remaining Pith Paper maker in Taiwan will not teach anyone who does not have their own tools for fear of having a student accidentally break theirs. Jerry Chen, Pith Flower expert, has tried to recreate the knife several times but has been unsuccessful so far. He informed me that the papermaker would not let him measure her knife (maybe for fear that the measuring tools would knick her knife). Jerry informed me that the only craftsman who knows how to handle her knife lives in the Guang Dong area in China. Therefore, it is extremely inconvenient to get the knife repaired. 

Pith Flower Making

I attended my first Pith Flower making class on August 5th. It has been an incredible experience to work with Jerry. He was very welcoming and happy to share his knowledge. I felt so honored to be in his presence. On first impression, I could tell he was genuinely passionate about what he was doing. It was funny because Jerry was a Furniture Designer turned Pith Flower maker. Which is honestly what I think I might become (for those of you reading who don’t know already, I just graduated RISD from the Furniture Department).

Here are some examples of his work on display at NTU:


Full Display in cabinet



Display of pith being pushed out of Tetrapanax trunk


Examples of Dyed Pith Paper


On the first day, we learned the most simple type of flowers: Morning Glories and Gardenias.

The pith of Tetrapanax is an incredible material. You must dampen the paper in order to manipulate it, otherwise it is quite brittle when dry and will easily break. It swells and come alive when you spray water on it. When I was first making the Morning Glories, I pinched and squeezed the paper until it looked like the flower was closed. Then I sprayed it with water and slowly grew to open. I was really amazed. I might make it again and ask Eden to help me film this phenomenon

We used molds to make the leaves. Unfortunately the person who made Jerry’s mold no longer makes them anymore, but fortunately I have the skills to learn how to remake them (my senior thesis required a lot of mold making and bronze casting)! That may be an endeavor for later during this project.


Jerry (second in from left) and Kuei Mei Liang at far right. The other lady and I attended Jerry’s class.


Making the pistons of the flower





Ta-da! Morning Glory!


We used these fun molds to make leafs.



Gadenia on left!


The next day, I wanted to make sure that I could remember everything I learned so I tried both flowers again. These were the results:






My set up!


On August 12th, I took a class with Eden after she arrived! We learned how to make Jasmine Flowers and Cherry Blossoms. Eden wanted to try making some flowers before she started filming to get a better sense of the craft.


Eden and Kirthank observing Jerry’s demonstration!


On August 19th, I learned how to make roses and Cosmos. Eden did her first day of filming. The shots looked great! I was glad she could take over photo documentation because my phone camera is very blurry! Now that she is here, our photos will look more professional. Yay!

Although the Cosmos looked the most simple, I actually thought they were the hardest to make. For some of the previous flowers, if you made a mistake, it was a bit easier to hide them underneath other petals. However, with the Cosmo, your mistakes were in plain site.

Here is some of Eden’s beautiful photos of my flowers from yesterday:

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Oh! Also, I invited Ido (from YangMingShan to come learn how to make some flowers! He seemed to enjoy it a lot!


What’s Next

Tomorrow, Eden and I will be heading to Taoyuan City to go to Jerry’s office. We will be learning how to properly dye Pith paper and how to arrange the flowers we have made in vases. Eden will also film Jerry’s process and we will interview him for the documentary. Next Monday, we will spend the entire day learning how to make Peonies (my favorite flower!!) Stay tuned!




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