Artisanal Bamboo Paper

Bamboo paper has excellent ink absorption and good toughness. Last year, I visited a modern pulp and paper factory in Guizhou, which was a high-tech industrial plant, but bamboo paper is also being produced by local artisans. Nancy Norton Tomasko has written an interesting article in 2010 about hand-made bamboo paper production, and she mentions that Fuyang in Hangzhou district in Zhejiang province, China, is the most famous place for traditional bamboo paper production in China.

INBAR produced a Transfer of Technology Model for manufacturing hand-made bamboo paper in 2001. This describes the process, and makes the case that producing bamboo paper is a relatively low-investment use of bamboo fibres. It could be done anywhere where there is healthy bamboo, and I could be an opportunity for local industry development in many INBAR Member States, as you need minimal infrastructure and capital investment.

I was in Hangzhou recently to participate in the award ceremony for the Most Beautiful Bamboo Village in Hangzhou. During the trip, I also paid a visit to the Hangzhou Fuyang Greater Yuan Zhu Paper company where they make paper by hand from bamboo fibres.

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I was told that bamboo paper manufacturing began in Fyyang during the Southern Song Dynasty, and has been passed down from generation to generation for more than a thousand years. The key is to use young bamboo culms, so the stems are still relatively soft. They are cut into pieces and soaked in a bath of lime water. I was told that the company used the culms of the current growing season – only a few months after they have reached maturity. These have not yet become hard and contain relatively small amounts of lignin.

The bundles of bamboo pieces are stacked side by side under water, and lime is added to accelerate the decomposing process. This particular company prides itself on the fact that no chemicals are used, and natural lime is added to reduce the PH in the bath, and to allow for the decomposing of the bamboo fibres.   If chemicals are used, the process may be faster, but the waste water is polluted. In the case of the Greater Yuan Zhu Paper company there is no chemical pollution, and the waste water is released into the nearby stream.

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Once the fibres are softened, the bundles are taken out of the water and drained. You can still see the individual bamboo culms, but the strength has been leached out of the culms, and the fibres are soft enough to be pulped. The bundles are washed, boiled and further broken down to produce raw bamboo fibres, which can then be processed further

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The breakdown of the fibres into mulch is done of the traditional way, by using a large mills stone. In historical times this must have been the work of donkeys, but now a simple machine operates the mill stone. I can imagine that in another other geographical context animal power could still be the way to move the mill stone for grinding the fibres into pulp.

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Once the fibres are pulped, and soaked further into smaller pieces, the solution is thick enough to make paper. This is done by pulling a screen through the water, which collects a thin film of bamboo fibres. Tomasko describes different ways of doing this, but the company that I visited dips the screen only once.   The thin films are stacked to form a pile of thin, fragile sheets, which are the basis for the traditional paper.

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The actual paper sheets are produced by drying the thin films of fibres on a heated sheet. This is professional work – Several members of our team tried their hand at it, and everyone ripped the sheets of fibres. You need to be trained and experienced to paste the thin sheets onto the heated panel and pull off the dried sheet of paper.

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The dried sheets are stacked and packaged to be put on the market.  I was told that this type of hand-made paper is sold to artists, museums and vocational training centres, mainly for use in calligraphy and professional drawing. This factory does not produce paper for thecomputer printer or for normal daily use: it provides a source of high-quality professional material. It may be a small high-value niche market, but what a wonderful use of bamboo fibres.

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A Stone Forest in a Bamboo Village

I was in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province recently. Hangzhou District covers not only the central city but also a number of districts and many villages. I was told by our friends in the Hangzhou Forest Academy that this is the area with most of the Moso bamboo in China – 164,000 hectares!

My main reason for my visit was to help award certificates to the ten “Most Beautiful Bamboo Villages” in Hangzhou. The competition had been organised by the Hangzhou Forest and Water Affairs Bureau, Hangzhou Culture, Radio and Television Group and Hangzhou Daily Group, in partnership with the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan -INBAR. The ceremony took place in the offices of the local TV station, and I was asked to say a few words on behalf of INBAR.

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It was touching to hear the emotional thank you speeches from some of the winners, and I was very happy to learn that the awards were not just decided by a panel of judges. The local people in Hangzhou had the opportunity to vote through social media, and they have been active supporters. Therefore, the lucky winners were recognized by their own peers, and this made it even more meaningful.

One of the villages that received an award was Shi Lin, which is the smallest town in China, with only some 5000 participants. The town has large bamboo resources, and we visited one of the plantations to see the big Moso culms. The village leader told us that nearly half the population depends on bamboo for its livelihood, while eco-tourism is another main form of economic development.

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Interestingly, there were a number of bent bamboo culms in the Moso plantation that we visited and when I enquired how this happened, I was told that this was a result of heavy snow fall last winter. It is difficult to imagine snow when the temperature is around 35o Celcius, but the 2015/2016 winter has been severe in this part of China. Judging from the number of damaged bamboo culms, the weight of the snow must have been considerable.

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The added excitement of my trip to Shi Lin was a visit to the local Stone Forest. Many years ago, I visited Shilin Stone Forest in Yunnan, and I was part of the committee that worked on the World Heritage nomination for this natural monument in southern China. I recall the discussions about the fact that this formation was rather unique, and I supported the registration of the Yunnan Stone Forest as a natural World Heritage Area. With reason:

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Therefore, I was intrigued to learn that there is a stone forest in Hangzhou, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to visit the site, which is called the Qiandao Lake Stone Forest. It is a most interesting geological and morphological phenomena, although much smaller than its namesake in Yunnan. There appears to be a relatively small limestone lens between other rocks, and the surface outcrop of this limestone bed has weathered into deep karst fissures. It is still relatively unknown to the public, and we were almost the only visitors.

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The limestone is eroded down to ten metres in some cases, creating narrow, deep trenches, and solution patters are obvious throughout. There rocks are badly weathered, and form all kinds of shapes, with the usual innovative names. There is a path that enables you to walk around, and this is tastefully constructed, without damage to any of the rocks, and without obvious concrete or other construction features.

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There is a cave in the area, which is a classic vadose stream passage of some ten, twelve metres high. You can traverse from the lower entrance where a stream emerges to the upper entrance, and a steep staircase allows you to climb out. I saw a good number of bats roosting on the ceiling, and there are a few Buddha statues in the lower entrance. I wonder if there are more such cave passages further along the cliff wall.

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Shilin village does not only qualify for one of the “Most Beautiful Bamboo Villages”, but it would also be a candidate for a beautiful karst village.