Chinese Paper Umbrellas

The Origin of Paper Umbrella

The colorfully decorated, almost gauze-like Chinese paper umbrella is as quintessentially Chinese as chop sticks. The collapsible Chinese paper umbrella is believed to have existed in China since before the beginning of the Christian era, though the first historical reference to the Chinese paper umbrella stems from the 21 CE mention of a paper umbrella made for the 4-wheeled "chariot" of Emperor Wang Mang (Wang Mang was a royal official who usurped the throne for a short period – generally referred to as the Wang Mang interregnum – creating the short-lived Xin (CE 9-24) Dynasty).

According to written references by a high-ranking military officer, Fu Qian, who served during the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, the paper umbrella of Emperor Wang Mang had articulated joints which allowed the umbrella to be extended and retracted, though the description does not lead one to assume that the umbrella was collapsible in the sense that we know it. However, there is every reason to believe that the "technology" for a collapsible umbrella existed during the lifetime of Wang Mang, for a collapsible umbrella has since been excavated from the burial site of Wang Mang's son, Wang Guang, in what is present-day Korea, and archeological finds carbon dated to the 6th century BCE suggest the existence of special, articulated joints made of brass with a locking device that could be used in a host of applications, including in the construction of a collapsible umbrella.

Emperor Qin's Tomb, the site of the famous Terracotta Army (Emperor Qin, the first Chinese ruler to delcare himself an emperor, founded the Qin (BC 221-207) Dynasty) reveals a terracotta army chariot with an umbrella that fits in a tube attached to the side of the chariot, but this umbrella is not collapsible, nor can we be certain that the original, terracotta being a form of fired clay, was made of paper, silk, or some other material).

The Making of Paper Umbrella

The quintessentially Chinese umbrella is made of one of two types of material: silk or paper. Silk umbrellas are the most expensive and the most exquisite, but also the most difficult to fashion and to maintain. Paper umbrellas are easier to fashion, they can be treated with oil to make them impermeable, or water resistant, and they lend themselves admirably to artistic decoration. Most paper umbrellas produced today are made impermeable with glutinous tung oil (aka Chinawood oil, from the euphorbiaceous tree, Aleurites fordii, found throughout central Asia). The main areas of production of impermeable Chinese paper umbrellas are Fujian and Hunan Provinces.

The construction process of the fixed umbrella involves 5 parts: the head, the handle, the ribs, the paper shade and the artistic embellishment (a collapsible umbrella naturally involves a 6th part: articulated joints). The production of each part requires great skill, since all 5 parts must assemble to a perfectly formed umbrella. Though each part of the 5-part umbrella is important, the three most demanding parts to produce are the ribs, the paper shade and its artistic embellishment. The ribs must be made of a material that is both strong and pliable. The most common material for the ribs is bamboo that is at least 5 years old, otherwise the resins in the bamboo that permit strength combined with flexibility will not have been developed. The alternative material used in the construction of umbrella ribs is the bark of the mulberry tree. Although it consists of only 5 (alternatively 6) parts, the creation of a Chinese paper umbrella involves 80 work processes in order to achieve the finished product.

The paper shade itself is made of a special, tissue-thin fibrous paper that is very strong and tear-resistant, which is then impregnated in a bath of tung oil, rendering the paper highly translucent – almost transparent, in fact. Once impregnated with the glutinous tung oil and allowed to dry, the paper shade is decorated. The decorations vary from solid colors to drawings of flowers, birds, blossoms, landscapes, etc., as well as calligraphic characters. Much work is invested in the artistic embellishment of the paper shade, it being one of the highlights of the Chinese paper umbrella. Besides being water resistant, the paper shade will withstand the ravages of wind and rain, just as its decorations will resist the tendency to fade over time. In this sense, the craftsmanship behind the production of the Chinese paper umbrella tolerates comparison to Japanese lacquer art.