Rice paper is the paper most commonly used for painting or calligraphy in China. Many other kinds of paper are popular throughout China, such as bamboo paper, mulberry paper, and hemp paper. Perhaps rice paper’s most valuable quality is that it is absolutely mothproof and rot-proof. Therefore, thousand years of paintings and artwork remain as fresh as when first crafted, so much so that one may fold and crumble them without marring the originals. The secret to the longevity of rice paper is a result of its uncanny production process. Its ingredients can be identified as long as one has a sample. Rice paper can also be copied easily, which is why most ink-painting artists would prefer it.
Rice paper is made from the straw of rice plants. In early rice paper production, that became the main ingredient. Later, in addition to rice straw, the Chinese tried bamboo, mulberry, and wingceltis as the basic components in papers. Until the 10th century, they used bamboo as raw material for paper production. The use of rice paper had even spread as far as Japan and Korea during the 7th century. Similar to rice paper, Japanese and Koreans had used Korean paper and washi.
Based on absorbency, rice paper is qualified into two categories: unsized paper, which is porous paper, and sized paper, which is less absorbent paper. The degree of absorbency depends upon the fiber of the plant used. For instance, mulberry is less absorbent, whereas bamboo paper is very absorbent. Aging is also a contributing factor in absorbency. The shorter the duration between the production of paper and its use, the more absorbent it will be.
Historically, rice paper has been said to have originated from straw from the rice plants of the village of Xuan in Anhui province. That is why the paper is also called xuan paper, though better known as rice paper to the rest of the world. Later, for some unknown reason, the production of rice paper was ceased until the reign of Song and Yuan Dynasties, that is, up to the 14th century. Today, the name ‘rice paper’ applies to many varieties of papers of this type.